Inside Track: Wine serves as catalyst for RedWater Restaurant Group
COO Craig Smith used his food service experience to successfully blend a mix of private golf courses and public eateries.
In the early 1980s, Craig Smith had a fortuitous encounter with a recruiter.
At the time, Smith — now COO of RedWater Restaurant Group — was working at a small contract food service company and happy with his job. The recruiter was an old friend of his two older sisters and asked what he was up to following his graduation from Michigan State University.
“I told him I worked for a company that runs the food at a couple of local GM plants, and his eyes lit up,” Smith said.
The recruiter was searching for a candidate to fill an opening at Steelcase as director of corporate food services.
Three months later, following a lengthy hiring process, Smith had the job. He developed and helped scale up Steelcase’s food service plan from 500 employees a day at headquarters to more than 8,000 employees across North America.
Five years into the job, leadership asked him if he had a desire to move away from food service. It was a tough decision for Smith, who had a longstanding love of the hospitality industry. His family took long vacations, soaking in great restaurants and hotels. He wrote a paper in high school about his future career in the industry and then majored in hospitality at MSU.
Despite his dream of someday running a hotel or restaurant, he said yes and moved into a marketing role at Steelcase, responsible for developing plans for new furniture lines across the continent.
“I jumped out of my comfort zone,” he said. “That really helped define the marketing part of my career.”
In 1993, after more than a decade with Steelcase, Smith moved to Gordon Food Service to head its marketing efforts. Following another decade or so with GFS, Smith found his way back to Steelcase with its startup division called Workstage. He wore several hats for the company, including human resources and IT.
At the time, he was also having a conversation with a former Steelcase COO who had left to become part of the Watermark Properties ownership group. Those conversations centered on Smith leaving Steelcase to run Watermark’s golf operation.
While he was happy at Workstage, the switch to Watermark offered the opportunity to get back into the hospitality industry. It was also another example of how his connections resulted in a career move.
“It’s really those connections that help move your career along,” Smith said. “It’s not usually something you see posted online and apply for.”
Smith began his work at Watermark Properties about seven years ago when the company included two golf courses — Watermark and StoneWater — a restaurant and a conundrum.
Within a year of Smith’s joining the operation, Watermark added a third golf course, Sunnybrook, and two more restaurants. But the conundrum persisted: Because the golf clubs were private, the public often believed the restaurants were, too.
“As we went down the road of restaurants, it was clear to me that people were confused,” he said. “With that confusion, we really wanted to start a restaurant group to help pull us out of that.”
That opportunity came approximately two years ago, when Watermark Properties purchased Reds on the River in Rockford. With the purchase, Watermark created RedWater Restaurant Group and separated the marketing of its restaurants.
The realignment also offered an opportunity to rebrand the 16-year-old Watermark Grille, which had become a little tired, with much of the focus on the pro shop that shared the country club’s building.
Confusion among consumers also existed regarding the names Watermark Country Club and Watermark Grille, so the decision to fully rebrand became obvious. To figure out a new identity for the re-imagined restaurant, Smith took a look at the demographics of the Forest Hills/Cascade/Ada area in which it is located.
He quickly learned one of the state’s wealthiest populations lived on the restaurant’s doorstep, many of whom regularly drove right past Watermark on their way to downtown Grand Rapids for dinner, likely at a restaurant with an extensive wine list — the preferred beverage of the middle- to late-stage professional.
“We decided to name the restaurant Cork and create the largest wine list in the area,” Smith said, citing the restaurant’s 170 bottles and 50 offerings by the glass. “We just decided we’d go after the wine consumer in a big way, but also to give them a great value.”
A month later, another restaurant concept came to fruition: a higher-end version of a wine restaurant called Vintage. The high-end steak and seafood restaurant is only open four nights a week and is in high demand, Smith said.
He said wine sales are up more than 300 percent since the rebranding.
Beverage selection has been one of the important themes of RedWater Restaurant Group’s restaurants, and Smith said a committee of managers from the restaurants is responsible for choosing the menus.
“Unless you have someone who understands wine, spirits and beer, you’re in trouble,” Smith said. “Most people have a preference drink and the rest of the selection struggles. So we pick the best people at all those things to create the beverage program across the group.”
In November, RedWater opened Gravity, a new craft-beer-focused restaurant on East Beltline Avenue in the former Malarky’s location, which was Duba’s Restaurant before that.
The idea for the 64-tap pub came from the group’s endless market research. Smith said RedWater regularly looks at what’s going on in New York City and Chicago, making trips to the Windy City to understand what’s happening in the industry. He also saw the beer-centric concept in Portland, Ore., while visiting one of his daughters.
“You have to keep watching what’s happening out there; this is a fast-paced business,” he said.
At Gravity, Smith put forth the best management team he could gather — Executive Chef Laurel Deruda, Cicerone Angela Steil and General Manager Kristin Kent, exemplifying his belief that a company runs best when the correct people are in the right positions.
“We’re only as good as the people we hire,” Smith said. “You have to hire the right people and get them in the right seat. We try to do both really well because we have to enable them to do their jobs well.
“If a team member leaves, we have to look at how we get a better team than we had. They took us to that next step, and we can build on that.”
While the focus has gravitated toward the group’s restaurants, that’s not to say the three golf courses are taking a back seat. Smith said it’s much easier to grow the restaurants.
“Golf courses are hard to find, hard to obtain and much more difficult to manage,” he said. “With a restaurant, we can manage the volume coming in and it’s much more controllable.”
It’s the ability to help Watermark Properties’ portfolio grow that’s given the 60-year-old Smith his proudest career moments.
“It’s been amazing building this business so quickly, but also managing it well financially as it grows and finding the right people to staff it,” he said. “It’s been a significant ramp-up the past few years.
“Getting the team together, developing the concepts and putting the systems in place — that’s been the most gratifying for me.”