Justin Micatrotto is following a family path that started when his great-grandfather emigrated from Italy, settled in Cleveland and opened a catering business.
“My brother always tells people that we played restaurant in the sandbox as opposed to anything else,” said Micatrotto, whose father also made his career in the dining business.
Today, Micatrotto and his brother, Joe Micatrotto Jr., oversee MRG Marketing and Management Inc., the company that operates Raising Cane’s restaurants in the Southwest. Justin was named president of the company last month, and Joe is the CEO.
The brothers’ involvement in Cane’s traces back to a meeting 20 years ago between their father, Joe Sr., and the founder of the franchise, Todd Graves.
Joe Sr., a founding partner of the Buca di Beppo chain, had won a major industry award, and Graves pulled him aside after his presentation for advice.
“My brother and I both remember when my dad called us up and said, ‘Hey, this guy’s got something,’” Justin said. “He basically called it In-N-Out with chicken. And that struck a chord with us. We were living in California at the time, so we were seeing the crazy lines (at In-N-Out) and the simplicity of their menu and how popular it was.”
About 10 years later, as Louisiana-based Cane’s started to proliferate in the Southeast, Joe Sr. asked Joe Jr. to explore a partnership.
“So we went to Louisiana, ate a bunch of crawfish, drank a bunch of beer, talked about chicken fingers, life and our mamas, and eventually decided at the end of that trip that we were going to shake hands and start bringing chicken fingers to the desert,” Justin said.
Ten years after opening the first Cane’s in Las Vegas — also the first location in the Southwest — MRG has grown to oversee 21 locations in Las Vegas, Reno and Arizona.
Justin Micatrotto spoke to VEGAS INC last week about his family history, MRG’s expansion plans and the inner turmoil he faces when Cane’s customers ask him to expand the restaurant’s menu. His answers are edited for brevity.
VI: Did you consider getting into anything but the family business?
JM: The cool thing was that our dad didn’t push it on us. In fact, my brother made a run in college football, and I was a broadcast journalism major. My senior year in college, I did a documentary on a guy who would become my boss in the marketing department at Buca di Beppo, a guy named Randy Lopez, who was a stage IV cancer survivor. So I got to know him really well. Going to work for dad’s company really wasn’t at the top of my list, but after sending resume tapes out after college and not getting any bites outside of places like Yuma, Ariz., and Kalamazoo, Mich., I was just saying, ‘I don’t know what I’m going to do, but I’m going to do something.’ And so Randy helped me out by getting me involved in the marketing department.
VI: When you started Raising Cane’s in the Southwest, why did you choose Las Vegas for the first location?
JM: My parents had a place in Las Vegas, and there were Bucas there, too. So we were familiar with it. The other piece was that we wanted to see if other people were going to like chicken fingers. And Vegas at that time, with the way it was booming, just seemed like a good place to test it.
VI: You’re opening six new locations in Nevada and Arizona this year. What are the plans for Las Vegas?
JM: We’re getting close to building out Vegas, in all honesty. We open on April 1 in Summerlin at Sahara and Hualapai, we’ve got one opening on Stephanie in Henderson, and we’ll be (opening) in the north part of Vegas, around North Decatur and Interstate 215. We’ve got some quadrants of town, like on the far east side, that we’ve looked at. But a big model of what we like to do, kind of on that In-N-Out model, is we want to have some high-average-unit volumes.
JM: So we’re at 21 right now, and we’ll finish the year right around 26 or 27, and then add probably another five to seven restaurants next year. And then after that, because so much of this comes down to having the right people, we’ll probably throttle down just a little bit. We’ll have to slow down in Vegas a little bit, but there’s still plenty of territory for us to work in Phoenix.
VI: Why is this the right time to expand?
JM: Frankly, our company’s ready for it. The great thing is that a while back when the economy was crashing and we were still figuring out what we were doing, we decided on a model that was going to have us financing ourselves. We weren’t going to be out with our hand out looking for money, because then you become beholden to other people.
The first five years, we were only opening one new restaurant a year. But what that allowed us to do was, A, figure out what we were doing, B, build our bench strength a little bit management-wise and then, C, build some cash reserves so we could always stay a couple of deals ahead and not lose out on a site because we didn’t have enough reserves.
So all the stars lined up. And we decided to hit the accelerator for a couple of years.
But we’re not at the point of thinking, ‘Oh, whatever Cane’s does, we’re going to be successful.’ Not even close.
VI: With Chick-fil-A coming to the Las Vegas Valley and the PDQ chain expanding into the city, as well, the chicken market seems to be getting more crowded. How do you set Cane’s apart?
JM: The fact we are solely focused on chicken fingers and even our chicken sandwich is three chicken fingers inside of a piece of bread, I think that’s one piece right there.
Chick-fil-A is such a staple in this country. You can’t argue with that. But even they have the sandwich, the grilled (chicken), the salad. (They’ve done) a whole bunch of different things over the years, whereas since 1996 we’ve just done chicken fingers, fries, toast, slaw and sauce.
What we’ve found, particularly in Phoenix — where, off the top of my head I know we’ve got at least three locations where we’re literally catty-corner from a Chick-fil-A — we both succeed.
VI: Do you get pressure to expand the Cane’s menu, and how do you respond to it?
JM: There’s about six or seven franchisees in our entire company, and we all said the same thing in the beginning: Where’s our milkshake, where’s our chef’s salad, where’s our dessert?
Now, whether that was part of Todd’s reason to stop franchising, because he didn’t want to hear it from every new group, I don’t know.
But I don’t think you could find any one of us at this point who would look to a new franchisee if they were asking questions like that and just say, ‘Shut up. It works. Just play it out.’ It really boils down to if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
There’s a comfortability to it, that you’re not going to be all things to all people, but then there’s also a challenge to it to make sure that you have that perfect box every single time or people are going to call you on it and then they’re going to leave. And at that point, they’re not coming back because that’s all you’ve got.
VI: But do you get requests from customers to add to the menu?
JM: You mean, ranch dressing? You mean, grilled chicken? You mean, barbecue sauce? (Laughing) Yeah, absolutely. Look, I used to eat barbecue sauce by the gallon before I started eating Cane’s sauce.
And believe me, coming from my background where dad literally taught us that the guest’s always right and if they’re wrong you treat them like they’re right, it’s just something that’s so difficult to ever say no to a guest. But this is just one of those things where after 10 years, I’m still not completely comfortable with it, but that’s the world we live in. And you just have to say, ‘I’m sorry, we don’t have that,’ or ‘That’s all it’s going to be.’
I always say you’re more than welcome to bring your bottle of ranch or barbecue sauce in.