Casual dining is among the most crowded and competitive on-premise segments, and standing out in the sea of mega-players isn’t easy. But Kansas City, Missouri–based operator 54th Street has found a way to distinguish itself from the pack. The 23-unit concept offers high-quality food and beverage options at approachable prices and boasts a vibrant bar. The restaurants thrive by highlighting both family-friendly dining and adult-focused bars—a rare and challenging middle ground.
President and CEO Michael Norsworthy oversees 54th Street—which was founded by his father, Thomas Norsworthy, in 1990—and began expanding the concept when he joined the company after graduating from college in 1994. Today, parent company Kellan Restaurant Management Group oversees 23 venues across two concepts: 18 units of 54th Street Grill & Bar and five locations of the newer 54th Street Restaurant & Drafthouse. Combined annual revenue tops $100 million, and the beverage segment comprises as much as a quarter of total sales at the Drafthouse units, led overwhelmingly by beer.
“We felt the casual dining grill and bar segment was a little stale and no one was differentiating themselves,” Michael Norsworthy says. “Competition is fierce, so operators have to do more. We wanted to blend food and drinks to attract the traditional dining consumers, but also have a bar side that’s fun and exciting. Balancing the two components is difficult. Places with our aesthetic are typically more expensive, but we’ve been able to attract both sets of customers.”
Building A Bar
The beverage segment has been a focus for the company from the start. Early versions of 54th Street Grill & Bar had energetic bars and lengthy beer lists. That same dynamic exists today, though the concept has shifted from highlighting bottled and canned beers to featuring an extensive draft program in newer units. In a nod to the company’s name, 54th Street Restaurant & Drafthouse locations serve 54 brews on tap, with an emphasis on craft labels. The venues use the Blizzard Beer System, which keeps offerings chilled below 30 degrees and displays each beer’s temperature, allowing customers to request their preference. The bar areas also have window-fronted keg rooms that display their kegs and beer lines.
In addition, each location boasts several large televisions and an attached patio with a fire pit, water features and outdoor seating. “We have a lot going on around the bar that you don’t see at traditional casual dining venues,” Norsworthy says. “People are venturing out, exploring craft beer and staying there. We wanted to encourage that discovery.”
The company operates Drafthouse units in Texas’ San Antonio and Dallas–Fort Worth markets. The bars pour everything from Budweiser, Miller Lite and Coors Light to local labels like Shiner Bock, Live Oak Hefeweizen and Real Ale Brewing’s Devil’s Backbone (draft and bottled beers at the Texas locations range from $4 to $9.50). Beer tasting flights of four 4-ounce pours are also available for $8.
“We’re focused on Texas right now,” Norsworthy explains. “San Antonio was underserved, and we’ve had tremendous success there. We’re also growing in the Dallas–Fort Worth region, and we’re looking at Austin and Houston. When we go into new markets, we seek cities that can accommodate at least six restaurants.” All new 54th Street locations will be Drafthouse units going forward. “We’re happy with the concept’s direction, and it’s something we’re not seeing at other casual dining chains,” Norsworthy explains.
On average, the Drafthouse venues have higher weekly sales than the Grill units and sell more alcohol, especially beer. Drinks comprise 25 percent of revenues at the Drafthouse locations, compared to 17 percent at the Grill units. Despite these numbers, Norsworthy says he has no plans to rebrand the Grills into Drafthouses. “We’ve been in Kansas City and St. Louis for a long time, and people know us,” he explains. “We’ve built and maintained a good business there.” The restaurants in those markets usually pour eight to 12 beers on draft and have roughly 30 bottled selections ($3.75 to $6.50).
“Beer is our main drinks focus,” Norsworthy says. “Bud Light, Miller Lite and Coors Light represent the biggest part of the mix, but craft beers are coming out strong. We try to make sure we represent local labels, as well as offerings from the entire country. We have a different beer list in every city. Beer leads our drinks sales by a long shot.”
Mixing It Up
The company features a varied cocktail menu and has seen a recent uptick in wine sales. Signature drinks range from $5.75 to $7.99 in the Texas locations. Top-selling cocktails include Long Island Iced Teas and Margaritas, though Bloody Marys, Mojitos and Piña Coladas also do well. The house Margarita blends Pancho Villa Gold Tequila with DeKuyper Orange Curaçao liqueur and fresh sour mix, served frozen or over ice. The Top Shelf Margarita comprises Tres Agaves Blanco Tequila, Grand Marnier orange liqueur, organic lime juice and agave nectar. There are also frozen Strawberry and Mango Margaritas, a Jalapeño Margarita made with fresh muddled peppers, and El Perfecto Margarita, featuring El Jimador Blanco Tequila, Patrón Citrónge liqueur, Grand Marnier and fresh sour mix, served in a 20-ounce shaker over ice.
“We try to give people variety on our cocktail menu,” Norsworthy says, noting that the company uses fresh-squeezed juices and Monin syrups. “We want to make the best quality drinks we can from a price-to-value perspective.” The Top Shelf Long Island Tea comprises Cruzan Light rum, New Amsterdam gin, Sobieski vodka, Pancho Villa Gold Tequila, Hiram Walker Triple Sec liqueur, fresh sour mix and cola. The venues also offer the Cruzan Citrus rum–based Basil Lemonade and the RumChata Tini, made with RumChata cream liqueur, McCormick Raspberry vodka, Hiram Walker White Crème de Cacao liqueur and chocolate syrup.
Sangria has become an unexpected star at 54th Street. “Sangria is working extremely well for us, and that trend surprises me,” Norsworthy says. “If you had told me three or four years ago that I’d put sangria on the menu and it would sell so well, I’d have said you were crazy. It’s really taken off.”
The company makes its sangria from scratch, mixing wine with liqueurs, juices and fresh fruit. Norsworthy says the addition of sangria has boosted the company’s overall wine revenues and allowed it to offer more wine labels. “We take red and white wines that are opened for glass pours at the bar and use them in our sangria,” Norsworthy explains. “It’s created another avenue for wine and ensures that when someone orders a glass of wine, they’re getting a fresh bottle.” The Red Sangria is usually made with Sycamore Lane wines, Christian Brothers brandy, and pineapple and lime juices, while the White Sangria mixes Sycamore Lane, Sugar Island Coconut rum, Hiram Walker Peach schnapps, mango syrup and lemon juice.
Wine is a small contributor to beverage sales, but the company is committed to having a varied list. The wine program features a range of U.S. labels and varietals, including Mirassou Moscato, Ecco Domani Pinot Grigio, William Hill Chardonnay, MacMurray Pinot Noir and Louis M. Martini Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. In all, the venues offer roughly 12 wines by the glass and 15 by the bottle, with glass pours available in traditional 6-ounce servings and larger 9-ounce pours ($4.29 to $7.99 a 6-ounce glass; $5.79 to $11.49 a 9-ounce glass; $14 to $49 a 750-ml. bottle).
The venues also carry a lengthy selection of sipping spirits. The list includes Jim Beam Bourbon, Jack Daniel’s Tennessee whiskey, Woodford Reserve Bourbon and The Balvenie Caribbean Cask 14-year-old single malt Scotch whisky ($4.50 to $10 a 1¼-ounce pour; $5.50 to $11.50 a 2-ounce pour). “I want customers to be able to get nicer offerings at our restaurants,” Norsworthy says.
All About Quality
That commitment to top-notch products is also evident on 54th Street’s food menu. The restaurants emphasize high-quality meats and fresh produce and make most of their dishes from scratch in-house. The menu includes myriad appetizers ($3.79 to $9.99), such as signature dips, Buffalo wings and quesadillas, as well as sandwiches ($9.29 to $11.69) like the Southwest Tortilla Wrap and the Sirloin Steak Cheese.
For larger entrées, the company features a mix of Mexican and American fare, from fajitas and tacos to burgers, ribs, steaks and pasta dishes ($6.99 to $19.99). Standouts include a 14-ounce rib eye, country fried steak, Cajun spice–marinated chicken, and the Rattlesnake Pasta, which is topped with shrimp, chicken and peppers and tossed in a spicy and smoky Parmesan cream sauce. “We do a lot of scratch cooking,” Norsworthy explains. “We stretch the envelope on buying quality ingredients, and our portion sizes are fair to large. The competition within the restaurant industry has changed dramatically. We try to raise the quality level on everything we do.”
Each venue features an eye-catching interior with artifacts hung on the walls and from the ceilings. Many units display car paraphernalia, from the hood of a Corvette to a drag racing vehicle. “It’s almost like a gallery,” Norsworthy says. “Our restaurants are packed with cool things that you don’t see at other places. It gives people something to look at and talk about.”
Norsworthy plans to grow the 54th Street concept, though he says expansion will be slow and controlled. He doesn’t intend to add franchises or expand to hundreds of units across the country. There are a few locations under construction in Texas and more in the planning stages for next year. The company benefits from having dedicated employees who’ve remained with the brand for many years: Roughly three-quarters of its corporate-level staff started in the restaurants as servers or bartenders.
“We’re very much focused on growing in the suburbs because that’s our wheelhouse,” Norsworthy says. “The market is ever-changing and ultra-competitive, so we’ve had to adapt over the last 25 years. Our goal is to create enough variety to please our customers and to make sure we can execute consistently and well.”