Local restaurant lineup changes

Staff WriterFebruary 3, 2011 

As diners continue to seek value, one of Raleigh's most successful independent restaurant companies is shuttering a white tablecloth seafood restaurant in favor of a more wallet-friendly burger joint.

The move will close Michael Dean's, which was the first restaurant opened by Rocky Top Hospitality back in 1998.

Rocky Top will replace Michael Dean's, at 6004 Falls of Neuse Road, with its second Tribeca Tavern, a gourmet burger restaurant it opened in Cary about a year ago.

Tribeca Tavern is known for its focus on North Carolina ingredients, gourmet burgers with a family-friendly atmosphere and a menu of items that are $15 or less.

"I like to consider it putting Michael Dean's on the shelf for right now," said Rocky Top owner Dean Ogan. "People are looking for value. The place is doing well beyond all imagination in Cary, and we are very confident it fits the Michael Dean's location better than Michael Dean's."

Business for Rocky Top was up in 2010, Ogan said, with sales rising 7 percent to 8 percent, but making money has been harder in the recession.

Lots of discounts

"The bad news is that I discounted more than I ever did in the past," he said. "I ran three months of buy-one-get-one coupons; we did a big gift card promotion. We did a lot of discounting. That's a good thing for your staff, but it's not really a great thing for the bottom line."

Rocky Top is taking a step back to reevaluate its restaurants, which locally include The Twisted Fork, Hi5, The Red Room and Bogart's. Recently the company added an expansive salad bar to the Twisted Fork, and Ogan hinted that additional changes may take place at other Rocky Top restaurants this year.

"My [restaurants] are 7 to 13 years old," he said. "We've gone through the process of evaluating what's going on with the economy. We want to make sure that our current locations are freshened up."

That's a wise move in the ultracompetitive world of restaurants, said Bob Goldin, vice president for Chicago food industry research firm Technomic. Many restaurant chains make it a point to revamp the look of their stores every five to 10 years, he said.

If you don't, he said, "I don't think it's going to put you out of business, but it certainly hurts your competitiveness and appeal."

Research released last month by the NPD Group estimated that more than 5,500 restaurants closed last year. On the brighter side, the National Restaurant Association is predicting a slight uptick in sales for the industry in 2011.

More Tribecas?

Still, Ogan said he expects customers to continue to place high emphasis on getting good value. If the second Tribeca Tavern is a success, it is likely the company will continue to expand the chain. There are already plans to open a third Tribeca Tavern in the Triangle this year, though Ogan declined to say where it will be. And he is looking for a site for a fourth location already.

"It's the better financial decision for our company moving forward," he said. "But I'd be lying if I said it wasn't a little bit emotional for me."

Ogan said he estimates that more than 1 million people have visited Michael Dean's since it opened. The restaurant moved to its current spot on Falls of Neuse Road in 2006, when the company opened the 1705 Prime chophouse in the original Michael Dean's location on Millbrook Road. That restaurant closed and was converted into a catering and special events facility in 2008.

The final day of business for Michael Dean's will be Valentine's Day. Ogan said he hopes to have the new Tribeca Tavern open by mid-March.

The restaurant's 50 employees were offered transfers to other Rocky Top locations for the time that the restaurant will be closed.

And Michael Dean's isn't necessarily gone forever.

"There are a lot of locations that would support Michael Dean's better than Falls of Neuse Road," he said.

sue.stock@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4649

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