Firebird Spreads Its Wings

Mike Karns, president and owner of Firebird Restaurant Group, talks about his company's ambitious growth plan.

by Brianna Kessler

El Fenix Mexican Restaurant celebrates its 97th anniversary this year, and Mike Karns is in major expansion mode at the moment. El Fenix, which was bought by Firebird Restaurant Group in 2008, runs and operates four major restaurants including El Fenix, Snuffer’s Restaurant and Bar, Meso Maya and Taqueria La Ventana. It also operates a supply company, Sunrise Mexican Foods.

Karns started his successful career in commercial real estate in 1987, and in 2008 his interest in property attracted him to the legendary EL Fenix restaurant chain. Since his purchase, Firebird Restaurant Group has expanded El Fenix from 15 restaurants generating $33 million to 22 restaurants generating $50 million and has established a total of 35 locations across four brands throughout Texas and Oklahoma.

Karns recently purchased the historic Kress Building in downtown Fort Worth, where Firebird Restaurant Group will open the city's first location of  their popular Meso Maya restaurant.

Why did you purchase El Fenix? What about it appealed to you as an entrepreneur? As a heritage brand, I wanted El Fenix to maintain its legacy, history and authenticity. The goal with the purchase of El Fenix in 2008, a family-owned company with 15 locations, was to become the steward of the company.

There had not been any changes to the restaurant in 10 years, but I saw a future for the brand. I would describe the relaunch of El Fenix, which had been in existence through five generations of the renowned Martinez family and close to 100 years old, not exactly as a rebranding but as restoring and repackaging of an iconic brand for the next generation of diners. My past experience in restaurant expansion and real estate development provided me with the knowledge to develop an expansion plan for El Fenix, a brand that I have always been personally fond of. I am an entrepreneur and very involved in both real estate and the restaurant side of the business.

Firebird Restaurant Group has 35 locations throughout Texas and Oklahoma and is still expanding. What are your long-term goals for the business and brands? When we acquired El Fenix, there were 15 locations. My team and I carefully reviewed the restaurants and selected a few of the best, being careful not to disrupt the guest experience or the guest base. We then built a restored and repackaged El Fenix at those sites while, at the same time, continuing to refine the “new” restaurant model. Along the way, we also developed a new independent concept, which would complement the El Fenix brand but stand apart.

Meso Maya is a true authentic Mexican restaurant with a menu inspired by natural ingredients from Mexico with scratch moles, adobos, salsas and hand-ground tortillas. Firebird is on a careful but aggressive expansion mode with our four existing brands, along with additional innovative and exciting concepts rapidly taking shape. There is no end number of restaurants in mind, but we are looking at a 25 percent growth rate per year over the next five years, which would take us to 120 restaurants. Growth equals opportunity for everyone involved with our restaurants. Profits result in growth, and growth results in opportunities for our employees and our guests. We are very focused on increasing guest count by 8 percent, year over year.

El Fenix opened a restaurant at WinStar World Casino a few years ago. Do you see the restaurant expanding into any other casinos? WinStar World Casino is one of the largest casinos in the United States based on gaming floor space, and it was a very good fit for us because it was geographically close to our planned expansion area. In addition, the guest demographic was a match as so many Texans drive there. We see growth into other non-traditional sites as expansion opportunities for all our brands, as well as new concepts under development. We look at each opportunity to determine if it’s the right decision for the stage of the brand’s development.

What is the key to your success? I’ve always invested in myself from a growth and learning standpoint and focused on my strengths. I have always been a creative, driven, calculated risk taker. Through the growth of my companies, I’ve been able to build a platform and support team that I can give back to providing opportunities for others to grow individually and professionally, focusing on their strengths. We are a very people-focused company and have built a strong corporation. We are a very creative and opportunistic company.

How will you stay involved in the DFW community as your businesses expand into other states? Firebird Restaurant Group’s legacy brands and our new concepts are all products of North Texas. We may expand beyond Texas, but we are absolutely a “product of Texas.” Passion, pride, and performance profits growth and opportunity, which helps us provide for others in the community. Profits also allow us to support and grow our charity outreach.

Which companies do you admire? Why? I always admired the great combination of creativity and teambuilding that is personified by Phil Romano, Norman Brinker and Sir Richard Branson. No one was better than Norman Brinker at identifying talent and building a team. Phil Romano was and is a visionary. His concept creativity and aesthetics are legendary. He executes the details so flawlessly to give his diners a true sense of place. Sir Richard Branson has taken a brand and successfully and creatively magnified its impact and services exponentially.

What are the annual sales for each segment? We look to break $100 million in sales by the end of 2016.

In March, Triton Commercial Real Estate, an associate of Firebird Restaurant Group, financed the newly purchased Kress Building in downtown Fort Worth for $5.4 million. Can you tell us a little bit more about this purchase? Why did you decide Meso Maya should occupy the space? We felt like it was the best fit for downtown Fort Worth and the historic building. We also have another open space on Houston Street.