Dreams of Cuisine
Hal Smith and the future of dining
Photo by Mark Hancock
Hal Smith Restaurant Group, or HSRG, now has more than 60 restaurants in seven states. Founded in 1992 by Ardmore native Hal Smith, the group spans 14 dining concepts, including Charleston’s, The Garage, Louie’s and Mahogany.
HSRG now employs more than 6,000 people, and has earned a reputation as models of customer service. The company’s in-house training program is highly respected among food service professionals, and is invaluable in the current Oklahoma City food service climate – where trained staff is desperately hard to come by.
We talked to Smith while the company was working through the grand opening of Legacy Grill (formerly Kd’s Southern Cuisine) in Bricktown.
HSRG people are considered priority hires in the metro because of the training they receive. How does that feel, and how did you discover or design the training program?
“I am very proud of what our company has become and the respect we might have gained. Quite honestly, it is a culture that the entire team has bought into. Teamwork unquestionably drives each of our restaurants, and we have many employees who have been with us a decade or more. I couldn’t be happier that they found a home on our team. I always say treat people with respect, have integrity, hire, train, reward accordingly and have fun. These are a few of the ingredients that make a successful team.”
What’s next for the food industry in the state, and what’s next for HSRG?
“We now operate all 14 of our concepts in the state, and we have 3,500 employees in Oklahoma. We are growing at the rate of eight to 10 restaurants per year, and our philosophy is to be consistent on a day-to-day basis, execute the highest of standards, take care of our own efforts and not worry about what others are doing. The trends seem to be take-home meals, fast casual, healthier choices and breakfast/lunch.
“The healthier choices include vegetarian, and while we will never go full vegetarian, we will stay involved in developing menu items that reflect the trend. Charleston’s has always had healthy salads and vegetarian options. The Garage has a great veggie burger, and we’ve introduced a veggie plate at Redrock Canyon.”
What did you understand about Oklahoma and Oklahomans that has made you successful here?
“I was born and raised in Oklahoma. I started a company here after living in seven other states. During that time, I realized what a special place Oklahoma was to me. The Oklahoma pioneer spirit, hospitality, pride and ease of living were very clear to me, so when I had to decide where to live, Oklahoma was an easy choice. We incorporated some of those ideals into Legacy Grill. We wanted to honor the spirit and reflect the legacy of the state and its people, the people who brought pride to the state and helped make it what it is.”
Do you believe the state will hit a growth or development plateau anytime soon, and can we sustain the proliferation of new concepts and locations?
“There have been new concepts come and go through the years. Oklahoma City is experiencing a great renaissance right now, especially when it comes to entertainment and dining options. Our team is very proud to be part of this exciting time. Of course, there is still room for the metro area to continue to grow and develop, and we look forward to participating in this growth. As long as we are in tune with consumers’ wants and needs and we execute to our best ability, I don’t worry about who or how many may be entering the market. When it gets too crowded, the strong survive.”
What are the most important business lessons you’ve learned, and how would you prioritize them to communicate with emerging entrepreneurs?
“In my opinion, in business, one must have a burning passion for whatever endeavor they choose as an entrepreneur. If that isn’t present, the success rate goes down substantially. The most important ingredient for success, especially in the food service industry, is to attract, identify and hire people who can become team players and improve the company’s culture. Once hired, you must train, train, train, and then get out of the way and let them do their job. Compensation and/or ownership for key individuals is also a key for success.
“Finally, part of the ‘people side’ of business is honest, open communication. Know what your goals are, and know who and what are needed to allow success to happen.”