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Monday, Jun 5, 2023

Fired Up for Expansion

Growing up as one of nine children, Mary Harrigan would watch her mother rifle through newspapers, searching the recipe section for meals suitable for their large family. Now a mother of two, it is Harrigan’s turn to create fulfilling meals for the people who matter to her. Only, Harrigan isn’t responsible for sating the appetites of her two children alone but for the thousands of patrons who dine at StoneFire Grill restaurants annually. After working in restaurants for years, Harrigan got the idea to launch StoneFire Grill with her sister Maureen and Maureen’s husband, Kaduri Shemtov, in the1990s. The enterprise was a success from the start. The original site in Valencia generated $1 million in 2000. Now, there are four additional StoneFire restaurants in West Hills, Chatsworth, Fountain Valley and Irvine. Another is in the works in Pasadena. In 2008, StoneFire restaurants collectively generated more than $30 million in revenues. What’s to account for the restaurant chain’s success? “We’re getting exceptional volume,” Harrigan said. “That’s what sets us apart, creating volume, loyalty and repeat business.” Moreover, according to Harrigan, StoneFire’s popularity is due to the owners’ community involvement, employee and customer loyalty, an innovative takeout service and its offering of food for the whole family at bargain prices. In fact, most meals at StoneFire range from about $4 to $15, with meals for families ranging in price from $23 to $37. “Everything comes in portions ranging from big to small,” Harrigan said. Among the most popular items at the restaurant are the lemon garlic chicken, BBQ chopped salad and babyback ribs,the priciest dish on the menu. For dessert, there’s carrot cake, a staple in Harrigan’s home when she was growing up. “Carrot cake was our favorite dessert. We had it for all of our birthdays,” Harrigan remembered. From the menu, to the customer service, to staff morale, her childhood home is the biggest influence on StoneFire, she believes. “My mom as a person instilled values into me,” Harrigan said. “She told me to never compromise my beliefs in how you treat people.” The restaurateur also thinks that the concept of StoneFire has added to its success. The restaurant falls into the fast-casual category, meaning that it’s a step down from a full-service restaurant and a step up from a fast-food establishment. Harrigan decided to open a fast-casual restaurant after working at Rattler’s Bar-B-Cue in Canyon Country, which her brother-in-law owned. Rattler’s is a full-service restaurant but Harrigan thought she could open an eatery that was a step down from that. Before StoneFire opened, Baja Fresh Mexican Grill was one of the only restaurants who fell into the fast-casual realm, according to Harrigan. “I used to think, ‘These guys are geniuses,'” she said of Baja Fresh. But since StoneFire’s been up and running, she said. “I think we do it best. Full-service but a step down.” Question: You were a psychology major. How did you end up in the restaurant business? Answer: I always say I use my degree every day dealing with people. At one point I thought I’d be a psychologist but from 16 on, my job has been in the restaurant business. I’ve used my degree in enriching our culture and developing our team. We have loyalty from so many people who have been here so long. Q: It’s been said that the philosophy of StoneFire is ‘by soccer moms, for soccer moms.’ Explain this. A: We relate to having been soccer moms. We wanted StoneFire to be a place that creates an opportunity for more time with family and less cooking and shopping. Both of us have been working moms. Q: Describe the process of launching a restaurant. A: We spent a long time developing the concept and menu. We settled for a very obscure location in Valencia. We took a risk. We went to our local bank and naively asked for a loan, and they gave us one. We mortgaged our homes — we were willing to risk our homes to get this done. Financing has played a big role. We’re the sole owners. There are no investors. We’ve had some very scary moments having a bank as our partner, but it’s been really to our benefit. We’ve had the best help available from an accounting and financial standpoint. Q: It seems that StoneFire was embraced by patrons from the outset. How did you get the word out about the restaurant in the early days? A: The only formal marketing plan is community involvement. We wanted to be part of the community in partnership. We have partnerships with every fire department and law enforcement agency. They’re great partners to have,schools, community organizations, also. That’s been our method of marketing. Q: What lessons have you learned so far about the restaurant business? A: A lesson I’ve learned is the value of people and the importance of people. We have so many loyal people. In turn, we create a team. We have employees who started in Valencia as 16-year-olds and now are managers. You can grow from busboy to becoming a kitchen manager. Another lesson has been to develop the courage to take a risk. Q: Takeout makes up a large chunk of your business. A: Today our lifestyles are so different. Takeout has become part of it. We have a separate takeout entrance to make it as simple as possible. It worked for our growth and popularity in Valencia. We had to close our takeout section for six weeks because we couldn’t handle the volume. (Because of our takeout business), we’re not seeing the drastic drop-offs that some places are (during the recession). Q: You’re one of nine but you’re in business with just one sister. What do your other siblings do? A: They’re all professionals. All nine of us went to private school. All nine of us have at least a college degree. My sister and I,we’re very good friends. It was a natural transition. Her husband was in the business. Q: Is it ever challenging to work with family? A: My sister and her husband are literally my best friends. We definitely have different perspectives that we discuss, but we go forward together. We’ve never had any major fight or disagreement, even though we do disagree. Q: Your son Kyle is now working for you? What’s that like? A: I know he has the same work ethic. It’s fun to have his perspective. He brings his education in. Q: What’s in the works for StoneFire this year? A: We’re opening in Pasadena midway through the year We’d love to be in our neighborhood, which is the Conejo Valley. We have a five year plan to double the number restaurants, if not more. We love that we’re independent of investors and really have to have slower growth. SPOTLIGHT: Mary Harrigan Title: Co-owner, StoneFire Grill Age: 46 Education: Psychology degree from Loyola Marymount University Most Admired Person: My mom is probably the biggest influence in my life in terms of my work environment and my desire to succeed. She taught me invaluable lessons. Career Turning Point: I would say probably in the late ’90s. I had been in a full-service restaurant environment and thought that we could possibly do it simpler. The idea (for StoneFire) formed in my mind. Personal: Divorced with two sons.

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