5 Secrets for Starting and Running a Successful Restaurant Chain

Mike Mills, “The Legend,” is synonymous with serious barbecue -- and with seven restaurants in his growing empire, with serious and successf
December 06, 2010

Mike Mills, “The Legend,” is synonymous with serious barbecue -- and with seven restaurants in his growing empire, with serious and successful entrepreneurship. Mike owned and managed the increasingly busy 17th Street Bar and Grill for nine years before launching a second spot in Las Vegas in 1994. Now 17th Street has four buzzing stores in Illinois (all called 17th Street Bar and Grill), and three Memphis Championship Barbecue restaurants in Las Vegas.

Bon Apetit called Mike’s ribs the “best in America,” and Restaurants & Institutions magazine named Mike America's “most-revered barbecue restaurateur.” From The Legend himself, here are five tips on how to convert a single restaurant into a succesful empire.

1. Don’t be a Chain

Mike and Amy Mills Tunnicliffe, Mike’s daughter and the PR and marketing whiz behind 17th Street, are clear about one thing: 17th Street is not a chain. “The only people I know who serve the same hamburger day in and day out are McDonalds,” Mike says. Despite the fact that Mike operates seven restaurants that each serve the same(ish) beef brisket, pork shoulder, famous ribs, and onion straws, the restaurants are not chains.

So what makes 17th Street so anti-chain? “We’ve got more heart and soul,” Mike says. Many chain restaurants hire management and transplant them repeatedly to different stores. Mike hires his staff and managers from within the community. While the renowned barbecue sauce might be the same, each restaurant reflects the local color and people who make it theirs. 

Which brings us to number two:

2. Be Part of the Community

Barbecue has a tradition of being the “hub of town, county seat, and gathering place.” 17th Street is exactly that, Amy says. The restaurants are involved with town high schools, colleges, sports teams and booster clubs. Most restaurants need repeat business to flourish. Although barbeque lovers travel far and wide to try Mike’s ribs, most of his success is thanks to loyal regulars. 17th Street is an important part of people’s lives. “People have their first date here, and then we cater their wedding,” Amy says.

Mike says, “We want to get to know you by name, or at least by face,” and he means it. Amy says her dad’s warmth and charm are responsible for creating such a genuinely intimate feeling. Being a guest at one of his restaurants, for most customers, really feels like coming home. So it follows that:

3. Your Staff is the Most Important Thing

Our staff needs to “drink our Kool-Aid,” Mike says. “I can’t be at all the restaurants all the time, so we need the key people in place.” Great staff is the best advertisement and the best PR. “If you enjoy yourself, it makes the job that much better,” says Mike. He looks for people with wonderful personalities, tries to gauge “what they want out of life,” and then invests in training them. “It has to come from the heart and they have to be proud of what they’re doing.”

Mike makes sure his staff has room to grow in the company and acknowledges and supports those who choose to move on. He’s had employees open up their own barbecue joints, and helped them with advice and support. Mike believes “there’s room for all of us in this world.” He believes in his people, and knows they need to be happy and to be challenged.

4. Communication is Key

“Two is easy, three and four start stretching you thin,” Mike says. The more restaurants you have, the less time you have to spend at each one. This makes having wonderful staff all the more important. “In a way, you have to teach them to be a version of you. But also they have to be themselves.”

Mike cites communication between the stores as one of the biggest challenges, though there's also a great personal risk of getting caught up in the day-to-day. He recalls an occasion years ago when a reporter from Martha Stewart had been trying to reach him for an article. Busy with the restaurant, Mike simply took her number on a crumpled piece of paper, shoved it in his pocket, and forgot about it. It wasn't until the article was published without an interview that his daughter Amy took note and decided to take over the PR side of the operation.

“It’s my family, so I have a big vested interest," she says. Now she follows up with every email and every phone call, often arranging for fans' barbeque tours.

5. It’s Not All About Money

Despite what people think, each new restaurant is “twice the work, but not twice the money,” Mike says. “We take it one step at a time.”

One of Mike’s reasons for growing his business was to challenge himself: “this one’s running good, why not try another?” It’s about the challenge, the joy Mike finds in doing what he does so well, not just about the money. For Mike and Amy, it’s all about bringing great barbecue and good times into peoples’ lives. Everything else comes after.