Friday, Nov. 19, 2010 | 3 a.m.
Giving back to the community has always been the motto of the Micatrotto Restaurant Group.
Ever since the Micatrotto family came to Las Vegas and founded the restaurant group in 2005 as the Nevada franchisee of Raising Cane’s Chicken Fingers, the emphasis has been on philanthropy.
“Our community service side is absolutely part of the business model,” said Justin Micatrotto, vice president of marketing and public relations. “In lieu of some advertising, we’ll absolutely dedicate time and money to it.
“I’d estimate that 15 to 20 percent of my workweek demand goes to community service and outside fundraising projects,” added his brother, Joe Micatrotto Jr., whose business card lists him as president, CEO, fry cook and cashier.
So when the recession hit with a vengeance in 2007 and the Micatrottos saw many of their food industry brethren struggle or get knocked out, they held their breath.
That’s when they discovered that giving back works both ways.
“We feel like we’re serving those who take care of us,” Justin said. “We care more about the guest than anything else. We’ve always been a guest-service and sales-driven company. I’m more concerned about the two people with their four children sitting in the back and making sure they have a great time than I am on how much money I’m making on that meal.”
The relationships the family has nurtured have kept the cash register busy enough that the company hasn’t had to lay off workers during the recession. The fast-food chain has grown, but not at the robust pace the family had once envisioned.
“We currently have five (restaurants) in the city and we’re actively seeking to add three to four more in the next 36 months,” Joe said. “These are tough times, but we’ll grow as the city grows. The only thing keeping us from growing right now is finding space in the areas we’re trying to get into.”
The company went from 25 employees in 2006 to nearly 300 by the end of this year.
The group envisions Las Vegas as a market capable of sustaining 12 to 15 units when the growth cycle returns. The Micatrottos also are contemplating branching out into Reno; St. George, Utah; and Phoenix.
The brothers never expected to be in the fast-food business.
Their father, Joe Sr., was one of the founders of the Buca di Beppo Italian food chain and operated a restaurant in Las Vegas. Both sons had positions in Buca restaurants across the country.
In 2004, family members left the Buca chain, and Joe Sr. encouraged Joe Jr. and Justin to get to know Todd Graves, who founded the Raising Cane’s Chicken Fingers franchise with Craig Silvey in Baton Rouge, La., in 1996.
Silvey, who got a C minus in a business class at Louisiana State University in which he developed the fundamentals of a business plan for the Raising Cane’s concept, and Graves opened their first restaurant near the Louisiana State University campus in Baton Rouge.
The concept is a model in simplicity — the restaurant has only four items with platters that include chicken fingers, crinkle-cut french fries, Texas toast and coleslaw.
The Micatrottos were intrigued with the formula — Raising Cane’s is sometimes referred to as the “In and Out of chicken” — and they signed on for a market they knew they’d find success.
“I was living in Hawaii and Todd Graves called me up and a few days later sent me a round-trip plane ticket to Baton Rouge,” Justin said. “I was hooked as soon as I ate the food. When our family talked it over, there was only one city that we unanimously agreed on: Vegas. We figured that it’s a city that, frankly, would get us.”
Knowing that they were coming into Las Vegas as “nobodies,” the Micatrottos approached local charities to develop promotions that could benefit their causes. They also followed Raising Cane’s success formula from other cities by embracing the local university.
“We said, ‘You know what, UNLV, we don’t have that much money, but we’ll give you time and effort. We’ll give you as much time and effort as we can and when the ability comes along to donate or do this and start things, we’ll be there,’” Justin said.
The local Raising Cane’s franchise has become involved with United Way, Opportunity Village and Special Olympics in Southern Nevada as well as UNLV.
Joe has been active in the Las Vegas Executives Association and has served as vice chairman of the Nevada Restaurant Association and chairman of the United Way of Southern Nevada’s Young Philanthropist Society.
Micatrotto Restaurant Group has been recognized by the Nevada Restaurant Association for service to the industry and received the organization’s Restaurateur of the Year Award in 2008.
A member of In Business Las Vegas’ “40 Under 40” honorees, Joe also is the recipient of the Vallen Industry Executive of the Year Award from UNLV’s Hotel Administration College this year.
“We stay involved with the Nevada Restaurant Association because we want to help get the industry back,” Joe said. “People ask, ‘Who’s your competition? Is it KFC? Is it Popeye’s?’ And I say, ‘It’s anybody who’s putting food in someone’s mouth that’s not me, whether it’s your wife, your mother or the frozen pizza you just picked up.’ ”
But one of the biggest changes he’s seen during the recession has been a willingness in the industry to share information.
“I don’t mind sharing what we’ve done,” Joe said. “Restaurant owners are more open now to trading secrets. The way I see it, it does me no good if the five restaurants around me go out of business.”