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VOL. 126 | NO. 216 | Friday, November 04, 2011

Community Driven

Market research drives new Downtown dining concept

By Sarah Baker

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The long anticipated opening of bleu restaurant & lounge in Downtown’s The Westin Memphis Beale Street was shaped from the ground up, starting with community input.

Chef Robert Nam Cirillo is the executive chef for bleu restaurant & lounge. Bleu is the new restaurant that replaces Sole Restaurant & Raw Bar inside Downtown’s The Westin Memphis Beale Street. 
(Photo: Lance Murphey)

The new eatery replaces the former Sole Restaurant & Raw Bar across from FedExForum at 221 S. Third St.

It started when Glenn Malone, chief operating officer of the restaurant’s ownership, Senate Hospitality, sought the aid of Lori Turner, managing partner of Red Rover Co. LLC’s Memphis office. Because other than the idea of filling the space with a new upscale restaurant in the space, what came next was to be determined.

“I think that what we’ve done here is different probably than what most restaurant launches are in that from the name, concept, menu, even from a service level, we’ve gone to the community to find out what they’re looking for,” Malone said. “This is a restaurant that’s really based on research and what the community is looking for in a dining experience.”

Malone said Red Rover brought to the table a “real business focus.”

“I think a lot of marketing agencies can do a grandiose ad campaign that looks great, but at the end of the day what did it really drive in terms of new business?” he said.

So the groups collaborated on the chef’s vision for the menu and possible restaurant names – being across from FedExForum and its proximity to Beale Street – that would align well with the city’s culture.

They came up with eight names and put the list in front of consumers in a Web-based survey. Names included “Moniker,” which implied the Cheers where-everybody-knows-your-name mentality; “The Gin,” reminiscent of Southern hospitality and nostalgia as well as the drink; and even, “Celebrities,” because of the space’s tendency to attract stars before or after their performances at FedExForum.

Much to both Malone and Turner’s surprise, the name, “bleu” was overwhelmingly chosen, with two-thirds of surveyors selecting it among the eight options. The name touches on everything Memphis – the Grizzlies, the Tigers and the blues.

“We got some just quick, inundated reaction,” Turner said. “We said, ‘If you just heard this restaurant name alone, what would your likelihood be to visit this restaurant? And then based on the name, what kind of experience would you expect?’ Some of the language that we got with bleu was, ‘I would expect chic attire, cool environment and music, an educated wait staff, a unique menu.’”

Lori Turner-Wilson, managing partner of Red Rover Co. LLC, discusses concept creation for bleu with Glenn Malone of Senate Hospitality, the ownership group for the restaurant.
(Photo: Lance Murphey)

The feedback was then used to build a menu, which was presented to two different focus groups comprised of locals who dine out more than 50 times a month.

Next came planning for all of the events leading up to the Saturday, Oct. 26, reveal. That entailed setting up shop at the Zoo Rendezvous event as the “mystery restaurant,” where executive chef Robert Nam Cirillo wore a mask behind a draped screen so not to be seen by attendees while he cooked.

And in order to pique the interest of as many people as possible, red roses with a tab for smart phones were used to scan and view a microsite, whatsneuindining.com.

“We wanted to create a fan base, brand Evangelists before the restaurant even launched,” Turner said. “We had hundreds of regular Downtown diners going to this website saying, ‘I’m going to give you my contact information, I want to get clues prior to the restaurant opening.’ So there’s a loyal, interested fan base prior to launch, which is why the launch events were so successful, why (bleu has) seen so much success in my view since the launch.”

Senate and Red Rover also ran advertising in several Downtown print publications and in email blasts, teasing, “what’s neu in dining.”

They then brought in interior design expertise from Hnedak Bobo Group Inc. to “soften” the space. That included new soft seating in the lounge, greenery at the front leading to the hostess stand, and refurbished tile and wall patterns.

From the space itself to the menu to the concept, the entire bleu brand will all tie into “out of the bleu” experiences. The restaurant hopes to awe its guests with “by chance” type services, such as including table-size martini shakes and pours, or even “bleu” mint tins left by chance in patron’s car upon it being presented by the complimentary valet.

And just because the restaurant is open doesn’t mean Senate and Red Rover’s job is complete. They’ve launched an aggressive post-launch ad campaign, a food-focused website, television appearances on local news, and a social media presence on Facebook and Twitter, under the handle @downtownbleu.

“There will always be something new and fresh going on here, this isn’t a static concept that’s done,” Turner said. “The brand is not fully formed. The brand will evolve over time.”

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