Rob Goldberg had a clear vision of what a Tommy Bahama restaurant should look like when he joined the apparel brand to oversee its fledgling food and beverage division in 2010.
So the veteran of the restaurant and resort worlds quickly set the steps in motion to elevate the Tommy Bahama restaurant division into a successful, profitable, upscale operation that would complement the apparel and provide another revenue stream.
It worked. In fiscal 2021, restaurant sales increased 15 percent to $96 million over fiscal 2019. And the momentum continued in the first quarter of this year with sales up 23 percent to $31 million compared to the first quarter of fiscal 2021 as COVID-19 restrictions lifted and people returned to out-of-the-home dining.
Tommy Bahama operates 14 full-line restaurants and eight Marlin Bars, a smaller concept with a limited food and cocktail menu that debuted in 2016.
“We’ve completely transformed the way the restaurants look and feel,” Goldberg said, “but we’ve kept the same spirit alive. Our food is excellent, and it’s honest. We’re more ingredient-driven than we are technique-driven. So whereas some restaurants lean heavier on chefs, we will lean heavier on finding and sourcing the best ingredients and keeping it simple.”
Beyond that, he said, the restaurants are “a really fantastic engagement tool for us. There’s nothing more emotional than breaking bread with somebody. If you think about all the touch points in a restaurant, whether it’s flatware, music, uniforms, décor, artwork on the walls and the food — it really resonates with our guests in terms of who we are and what we stand for.”
While several of the restaurants are in resort communities like Honolulu or Naples, Fla., others are in urban areas like New York City. But regardless of the location, the message is the same: “scratch kitchens, signature cocktails, live music and warm island vibes,” as the website says. “I think one universal thought people have when they come in is, ‘Ah, this feels like I’m on vacation,’” Goldberg said.
But what he has made certain to guard against is becoming a theme restaurant. So while the menu offers a ribeye steak, Tommy Bahama’s is rubbed with Kona coffee to “give it a little bit of flair.”
“Our guest is sophisticated,” he said. “We don’t have to have hula skirts and tiki torches. Some of that is good in small doses, it makes people smile, but you don’t have to hit them over the head with it.”
The restaurants are all located next to, or are connected to, a retail store and they give a big sales boost to the stores, at a rate of two times the sales per square foot. But in some locations where the company has stores, there isn’t enough room for a full-size restaurant. So the company tasked Goldberg to come up with a smaller-size concept where the food and aesthetic are the same, but in a fraction of the space. The first Marlin Bar opened in Coconut Point, Fla., quickly took off and is the primary expansion strategy for the future.
“It’s faster, it’s younger and it’s the kind of place you come to more regularly,” for some of the company’s signature coconut shrimp, blackened mahi mahi tacos or sliders topped off with a Mai Tai or Baja margarita, he said.
“We’re not a huge company as a restaurant company, but we can be pretty nimble. It allows us to make changes on the fly and be pretty entrepreneurial about opportunities that come up.
“So much of this is about trust,” he continued, which he defined as “being competent, trustworthy and having character” — attributes it has developed and continues to refine as the rollout continues.