October 18, 2012

Updates to Carlos O’Kelly’s include menu items, decor

Changes are under way at Carlos O’Kelly’s, the 39-restaurant chain owned and operated by Wichita-based Sasnak Management.

Changes are under way at Carlos O’Kelly’s, the 39-restaurant chain owned and operated by Wichita-based Sasnak Management.

Starting with its restaurant in Manhattan, Carlos O’Kelly’s is updating a lot of things, from the color palette inside the restaurants to the menu items, said the company’s father-and-son managers David Rolph and Jon Rolph, Sasnak chairman and president, respectively.

The makeover in Manhattan included new carpeting, chairs, tables, booths, lighting and logo. The next restaurant to get a makeover will be its 47th Street South and Broadway restaurant. That location will be closed on Saturday and reopen Oct. 26. And before the year’s up, the Carlos O’Kelly’s in north Lincoln, Neb., will be remodeled.

Jon Rolph estimates it will take four to five years to complete the renovation work at the restaurants in nine states. Some, he said, will get partial remodels while others will see more extensive upgrades. But the timetable could be expedited if the national and regional economies improve more swiftly, he said.

Costs of the remodels vary. He said the project in Manhattan was $300,000 while the south Wichita location is expected to be $275,000.

The remodels reflect broader changes within Sasnak, which also is an Applebee’s franchisee.

Jon Rolph said those broader changes included a management restructuring within Sasnak put in place more than a year ago. His move to president was part of that restructuring.

Since then, the restaurant chain has taken a hard look at its future. The competition in the casual dining segment is much greater than when the first Carlos O’Kelly’s opened in 1981, David Rolph said. As a rule, the company has updated its restaurants every five to six years or so, he said, though not all those updates have been as extensive as the one they are now embarking on.

But Jon Rolph said this isn’t merely an update of the restaurant.

“We looked inside ourselves and (asked) what’s the next evolution for us,” Jon Rolph said. “We are defining ourselves for who we are, not who we are not.”

That means staying true to its base of Mexican food, but pushing that concept beyond its traditional fare to blend Mexican with other types of cuisine, such as its Cantina burger, one of 12 new entrees the restaurant is adding to its menu. It also is adding three new sides, four new drinks and a new dessert. The Rolphs call the concept “inspired Mex.”

Under the new concept, the restaurants will have tables with darker finishes and interior lighting will be brighter — “It really helps to pop the food,” Jon Rolph said. The restaurants will be less cluttered and have more colors on the walls and in the seating. “Colors that bring energy,” Jon Rolph said. “They’re cheerful colors.”

He said the restaurants also will do more to emphasize the fact that they spend a lot of time on food preparation and that dishes are made from scratch, and items such as its salsa are made daily.

Jon and David Rolph said the results of the Manhattan remodeling project are encouraging. Jon Rolph said that in the first week that the Manhattan restaurant reopened, it had twice as many patrons as before. David Rolph said he was in the restaurant the first two weekends after it reopened to see how the changes were received by customers.

“It was reaffirming to me to know we’re on the right track,” he said.

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