Is Ted ready to roam with the buffalo?
With Ted Turner announcing this week that he's stepping down as vice chairman of AOL Time Warner Inc., one thing that lies ahead for the media magnate is tending to his fledgling chain of buffalo burger restaurants.
Ted's Montana Grill has only six locations, none farther west than Colorado, serving what the company calls "comfort food for the 21st century." But the founder of the CNN network is planning to add dozens more restaurants over the next several years, bringing such down-home delicacies as chili-cheese buffalo burgers and "beer-can" chicken to Los Angeles and other cities.
Modern comfort food interpreted by the onetime "Mouth of the South" includes 20 varieties of burgers -- made from beef or bison, ground fresh daily -- and other recipes they don't teach at Le Cordon Bleu.
Turner, who's said to own the largest herd of buffalo in the nation, started the chain in January 2002 with George McKerrow Jr., an Ohio-born restaurateur who founded LongHorn Steakhouse and is considered a pioneer in casual dining. McKerrow's RARE Hospitality International Inc. today operates 190 restaurants, including Eastern U.S. steakhouse chains Bugaboo Creek and Capital Grille.
Though the latter is as fancy as the extra "e" in Grille suggests, Ted's Montana Grill is decidedly more laid back, in an eco-conscious cowboy sort of way. Diners are reminded that there are more than 400,000 bison in North America, and that buffalo meat is nonallergenic and has less cholesterol than beef.
In an interview Thursday, McKerrow said that the chain is doing well, with each restaurant on track to gross $2 million a year on an average take of $15 per diner. McKerrow wouldn't comment about Turner's plan to leave AOL Time Warner, which on Wednesday reported a stunning $98.7-billion loss for 2002.
Speculation about Turner's next move has run the gamut, from potentially buying the Atlanta Braves to trying to wrest control of CNN. Such ventures, however, could be made more difficult by the collapse of Turner's personal fortune, which has plummeted along with AOL Time Warner's stock price in the last couple of years.
If Turner, 64, has any plans, he hasn't let on, although friends say he may focus on the restaurant's expansion. McKerrow said they want to add a dozen outlets this year and twice that number in 2004, including perhaps some in California.
Pete Meersman of the Colorado Restaurant Assn. said Turner has visited his Colorado restaurants at least half a dozen times. "It looks like he's going to be very hands-on," he said.
Bison is hardly new on the California dining scene. On Catalina Island, bison were introduced in 1924 by Hollywood filmmakers and can still be seen on the hoof as well as on a plate. "It's my main attraction," said Luis Perez, manager of Buffalo Springs Station restaurant at Catalina Airport.
The appeal of buffalo meat appears to be growing, although it's not for everyone. In an Atlanta suburb, 7-year-old Conner Lacks was at Ted's diner with his dad Thursday.
"I don't think so," Conner said. "I'm kind of afraid because I know what buffalo eat."
Atlanta-based writer Christopher Wang contributed to this report.