Scott Barnett & Associates Blog
Bubba Gump: Creating a Restaurant Concept Based on a Movie

November 16, 2021
In creating the concept of Bubba Gump Shrimp Company Restaurant, we were faced with some tough realities. We had very little money. We were also saddled with an old restaurant in Monterey, California called The Lobster Grotto that we had acquired a few years before. Plus, we were doing something not done before: creating a restaurant concept based on a movie.
The Recipe for Success:
Restaurant Leadership Experience & an Entrepreneurial Spirit
There was no training or manual that would enable us to make the creation of Bubba Gump successful. I intuitively knew, however, that whatever I had experienced in the restaurant business prior to this effort would only aid me in ancillary ways.

I had worked my way through the organization at Rusty Pelican as a young professional. I knew how to wear the suit and speak the right corp-speak. In the vernacular, I "presented" well and for the most part, I towed the line.

But I also had a reputation for being somewhat of a rule breaker. Truth be told, I was never fully comfortable in the skin of an "organization man." I came from a long line of entrepreneurs and, in a real sense, it was how I viewed myself. This entrepreneurial and somewhat contrarian streak came in handy when going down the unpaved road of creating a restaurant concept based on a movie.

As Bubba morphed from innovative concept into likely reality, I was simultaneously serving as the CEO of a well-known restaurant company, Rusty Pelican. I was beginning to understand that traditional approaches to starting up a restaurant would not be appropriate for Bubba Gump. Indeed, adhering to formalities and formulas would likely lead to our failure.
Putting a Winning Team in Place
In January of 1996 I flew to Monterey to oversee the Lobster Grotto's closing. We had six weeks to devise a new restaurant concept, build it, train a group to run it and then open for business. You read that right: six weeks to create a restaurant, from soup to nuts, and begin serving food.

My team was anchored by two Vice-Presidents, Tim Busald and Gail Cederoth. I viewed them as the stronger players in the company and they consistently delivered on their outstanding management skills through the challenges of the Bubba Gump startup, in part because:

  1. I stoked their burning but clean rivalry at every possible turn.

  2. I divided up the responsibilities for the concept's development between them.

Gail handled the "soft" side including what we thought would be a small retail operation. Tim oversaw the "science" including the recipes.

The team worked well together and it was proof of Reagan's old pronouncement, "It's amazing how much can be accomplished when nobody cares who gets the credit."

My team included many others, all of them fiercely ambitious; but as long as I could keep them working together toward a common goal, I was satisfied.
Relying on a Collaborative Process for Restaurant Concept Success
Reduced to the basics, restaurants are essentially a marketing business so subsets of that involve the full spectrum:

  • Positioning
  • Price
  • Product (the overall experience)
  • Promotion

This was my version of what business schools sometimes call the 4 P's of Marketing. I used that framework as a filter for what we did (and did not do) in concept development.
Everyone had ideas and some of them were great, others not so much, but I encouraged a freewheeling process. As long as it stayed true to the integrity and execution of the movie, it got a hearing.

The movie was the first real guide to what the concept should be. So we all screened it again and again.

I had read that when Orson Welles was about to make "Citizen Kane", he screened John Ford's "Stagecoach" 100 times to learn how to make a movie. If I was to learn how to make a restaurant out of a movie, I could at least try to do something similar. We wanted to incorporate as many of the visuals and iconic story elements from the film as possible.

Parts of its appeal were the outrageous plot elements like Forrest drinking 12 Dr. Peppers and telling President Kennedy he "had to pee". Though we had a contract with Pepsi, every Bubba Gump had a display of antique bottles of Dr Pepper and, of course we served it. A "Jenny" boat crashing into a dock, a Mama Gump House, displays of memorabilia from the film- they all become essential elements to the décor package.

The look had to be very rustic and weathered- that said casual and that you could go in your shorts and a T-shirt. The movie elements and energy level said it was going to be fun and interesting. The name included shrimp and that said it all when it came to seafood. Combined, all of the first three elements said we were family-friendly.

I found an exceptionally creative and smart general contractor named Kevin Walker and he became the true designer of Bubba Gump's signature physical look. We wanted an atmosphere that was warm and friendly so we tried to create the impression that the restaurant started as a small place and new rooms were added on over time. We used bare wooden beams and distressed them even more. Where we could, we kept the ceilings low with the idea that they would connote "friendly confines." Later we would drop in artificial ceilings where we thought there was too much height.

Authentic barnwood was used for wall coverings. Over the years, we would buy up whole dilapidated barns in the south and Midwest for that purpose. Corrugated tin and aluminum was the exterior siding and occasional ceiling treatment whenever possible to complete the "shrimp factory" look.
Nailing the Branding at Every Detail for the Intended Effect
Making the ambience of the restaurant conform to the look and feel of the movie served a dual purpose. Each of the visual cues had to clearly communicate what Bubba Gump Restaurant was; there could be no chance of misreading cues or the branding could fail.

Most of all, each visual cue had to be consistent with the movie and blend together to create an authentic sense of the film. While this was true of our movie-based restaurant, keeping an eye on the details and how they combine to produce the intended effect is true for any new restaurant concept.
Keeping an eye on the details and how they combine to produce the intended effect is true for any new restaurant concept.
We had pitched to Paramount (the studio that made Forrest Gump) that the restaurants would stand for seafood, family, casual and fun. The real test of whether we delivered on this was quite simple: a person standing in the front door for the first time had to glean the concept - seafood, family, casual fun - at a glance.

Everything our team did in brainstorming and implementing concepts served this end. And ultimately our work paid off. What started as a somewhat far-fetched idea - creating a restaurant concept based on a movie - turned into a successful international franchise that still serves seafood, family and casual fun to this day.
Reach out to me today to learn more about creating and executing restaurant concept .
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