Randy Price, who co-owns Rocky Mountain Restaurant Group with his wife, Liz, is one happy fella.
Why? Of the three restaurant brands he operates in Colorado Springs, two of them won a total of nine gold awards and a silver award in the recently released Best of the Springs, and the third eatery won a silver and a bronze award.
Salsa Brava, his flagship restaurant, took golds for Mexican food, red chili, casual dining and enchiladas. Over Easy walked away with golds for restaurant service, Sunday brunch, bartender, breakfast and huevos rancheros. Justin Castor, the chef at Over Easy won a silver award in the best chef category. Sonterra Grill won a silver award for best business lunch and a bronze award went to Josh Davis, the eatery's executive chef, for best chef.
It should be noted that several of the gold awards earned this year were won by the same eateries last year, something worthy of a high five.
Price oversees five eateries in Colorado Springs - two Salsa Bravas, two Over Easys and one Sonterra Grill. He also has a Salsa Brava in Highlands Ranch. There's also an Urban Egg in Highlands Ranch, which is a rebranding of his Over Easy eatery for markets outside of Colorado Springs.
So how does Price juggle this broad spectrum of eateries? I sat down for a chat with the passionate, high-energy restaurateur.
"When I was 14, my brother helped me get a job making pizzas," he said. "My family was living in Detroit. My dad was in the auto business."
That was his introduction to the hospitality business. "I just loved it," he said.
He worked his way through high school and college in eateries from Kansas City to Arizona.
While attending Arizona State, he was hungry for more restaurant education and became focused on his career path. He transferred to Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, where he earned a degree in business and hotel and restaurant management in 1989. After that, he sought out the best restaurant training available in the industry and went to work for Houston's Restaurants. He signed on with Houston's, based in Nashville, and served upscale dinners of steaks, burgers and entrée salads in a casual atmosphere. The management at Houston's focused on consistency and quality.
"I was attracted to Houston's because of their top-ranked management training program, their standards of excellence in service and food quality. And the fact they had the highest average unit sales volume of any privately held restaurant group in the country at the time," he said.
Price worked in their Kansas City and Phoenix locations. He stayed with the chain for nearly four years and then joined another highly regarded restaurant organization, Brinker International. Price enjoyed the fast pace and attention to detail that Houston's offered, but wanted to also work for a company that was focused on employees and the bottom line. Price managed two Chili's Grill and Bar locations in the Phoenix area in the early '90s.
"The goal all along was to learn from the best and gain as much knowledge and practical experience as possible before venturing out on my own," he said.
"There's a lot of relocation in the restaurant business and being willing to relocate helped my career advance at a quick pace," he said. "Liz and I have lived in 12 different homes in our 27 years of marriage."
Price left the big chains in 1997 and went on to manage operations for International Restaurant Group, a Dallas-based organization. During this time, his wife was pursuing a master's degree in health education at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.
"After Liz graduated with her master's, we were ready to get to Colorado and raise our children in the mountains that we loved and missed after leaving Flagstaff," he said. "We looked at several locations in Colorado and decided on Colorado Springs for a number of reasons. We loved the setting, the great schools, the people and the proximity to all the things that we enjoyed in life. We also thought it was the perfect-size town for us."
They found a home in Rockrimmon and started looking for work. He founded Rocky Mountain Restaurant Group in 2001 and in April of the next year bought Mayfield's Wine Bar in the Rockrimmon Safeway shopping center. "And Salsa Brava was born," he said.
He started with 25 employees; today his restaurants employ about 300. That number will jump to around 425 by the end of 2016. He will add four new restaurants to Rocky Mountain Restaurant Group this year: two in Fort Collins, opening in May, and two in Colorado Springs at Powers and Dublin boulevards, opening in the fall.
With plans to open three new breakfast restaurants a year starting in 2017, Price has his eyes set on a Briargate location in Colorado Springs and expansion into the Denver market. His son Brennan recently moved back to Colorado from California to take over operations in Highlands Ranch and will help with expansion in the Denver market.
"Liz and I could not be happier for Brennan to be back in Colorado after five years honing his skills in the restaurant industry in San Francisco and San Diego," Price said.
Keys to success
"It's about the people," Price said. "Having a clear vision and executing precisely. This business takes a lot of passion and hard work. I feel blessed to be surrounded by people we care about."
His marketing director, Jami Leahy, who has been employed by Price for six years, credits his success to many factors.
"His enthusiasm inspires the staff to carry his vision through in day-to-day restaurant operation and with our guests," she said.
Another key to his success is how he treats his staff.
"He and Liz treat us like family," Leahy said. "They genuinely care for us. They have taken time to invest in the team with leadership development opportunities, education, training, team building and our employee wellness program to promote healthy living."
Price is hands on when hiring. He looks for bright, talented and motivated individuals who want to make a difference and who share the company's vision. He personally interviews staff candidates for new restaurants. And he makes it hard for employees to leave.
"I take all general managers and culinary managers on educational retreats once a year," he said.
There are three requirements for each trip: an educational component, an adventure component and a fun component.
"It is so enjoyable getting our teams out of the restaurants for a few days," he said. "We are able to share ideas and best practices and everyone gets a chance to recharge and come back invigorated. We understand the importance of recognizing and rewarding performance, maintaining a balance between work and personal lives, and caring about our employees so they can reach their full potential."
Davis, Sonterra Grill executive chef, was one of those hires 10 years ago.
"Randy brings a positive energy with him that is so naturally motivating and uplifting," Davis said. "He once explained to me that when we hire new people we hire for attitude and train for skill. On top of that he is very hands on. He treats all of his restaurants like they are his one and only. Always making his decisions based on what he hears from the guests and from staff members."
Davis is taking a trip thanks to Price.
"For my 10-year anniversary, Randy and Liz are sending my wife and I on a vacation to anywhere in the world that I choose," Davis said. "I've picked Italy. My wife and I are super excited to have this opportunity and so grateful to be able to work for such amazing and caring people."
Jennifer Blanchard, who has been the assistant general manager at Over Easy University Village for two years, sees more keys to Price's success.
"Randy is successful because he is always trying to learn more and is constantly seeking new ideas. He is really big on being innovative and he doesn't mind changing things up to stay fresh."
Price has seen the landscape of the restaurant industry changing over the past decade.
"Yearly wage increases, Affordable Care Act compliance along with pricing increases make it more and more challenging for the operator," he said. "We need everyone's help in our organization in driving sales, controlling costs and moving the company in the right direction."
His approach to managing these changes includes educating employees on the economics of the business.
"We want them to share our goals, failures and successes, which is vital to continue moving forward," he says. "In the end, it is all about the people and the relationships that we make along the way. It always comes down to hiring the right people, giving them the tools to be successful, recognizing and rewarding outstanding performance and having fun. This is a tough business. We need to make it fun and enjoyable for all involved."
The bottom line: "We treat our employees as family and treat our guests as friends," Price says.