The impromptu conversation in the back booth of a buzzing bar around midnight on a Saturday could have resulted in nothing more.
Instead, it sparked the second and perhaps most famous of Riot Hospitality Group’s venues that jump-started the Scottsdale company’s fast growth in the restaurant and nightclub space.
Ryan Hibbert, CEO of Riot, met Valley native and country music star Dierks Bentley through a mutual friend at a benefit concert in 2011. The two started talking and Hibbert learned the chart-topper had thoughts of opening a restaurant/bar of his own. Hibbert walked Bentley over to the downtown Scottsdale El Hefe, Riot’s first venue that opened in 2010, which was near the concert venue.
With El Hefe, Hibbert crafted a venue that hit a precious intersection of restaurant-bar-nightlife. At the time, this business model didn’t exist, he said.
“It’s always exciting to be first in the market. Once people understood the concept, it absolutely exploded,” Hibbert said.
At the time, Hibbert was thinking about adding a second restaurant in the same vein and secured a location across the street from El Hefe. But he was looking for a different style that wouldn’t compete with it. With Bentley, he sensed an opportunity.
The two opted for a booth at the rear of a hopping El Hefe in weekend prime time. They started talking business.
According to Hibbert, Bentley’s response was: “If we can make this kind of energy with country music, I’m in.”
A year later, Dierks Bentley’s Whiskey Row opened in Old Town. Coupled with El Hefe, it created geographic synergy that spread Valley-wide for Riot’s future locations that span nightlife to healthy food — concepts that now total 11, with a Whiskey Row in Nashville and El Hefe in Chicago.
These two concepts combined the food of a quality restaurant with a nightclub vibe — a duo that Hibbert said didn’t exist in the food and beverage space when Riot introduced them.
“It’s exciting to see we are at the forefront of a change in the hospitality industry,” said Hibbert, who helms Riot with business partners Mike Troyan, Jon Wright and Justin Cohen. “But, we want this to be part of more.”
By the time Riot had five El Hefe and Whiskey Row locations, they developed menus of higher quality than typical bar food. It was time to flaunt another strength in Riot’s toolbox. Soon after, Farm & Craft was born. Hand Cut Burgers & Chophouse followed.
In May, the company debuted its newest concept, Riot House — a sexy beach-themed nightclub with all the bells and whistles plus a diner menu, cocktails and brunch.
Keeping things moving has been key, Hibbert said.
“I wanted to evolve once again. We made a more sophisticated, classier, fine-tuned concept that had that energetic nightlife side to it. (Riot House) equates to something that doesn’t really exist,” he said.
‘They keep stepping it up’
This family of venues generated success to the tune of $42 million in gross sales in 2017, Hibbert said. By the end of this year, that figure is projected to reach $75 million. Riot has experienced an average of 95-98 percent growth year over year since opening.
This growth has not gone unnoticed. Industry publication Inc. named Riot to its Inc. 5000 list for 2018, which recognizes the nation’s fastest-growing private companies.
Hibbert and his partners were on to something. According to the National Restaurant Association, 61 percent of adults prefer to spend money on an experience like going to a restaurant or a similar activity, than purchase an item from a store or grocer. It’s also put their venues in a category of full-service restaurants that generated $263 billion in food and beverage sales in 2017.
Longtime Riot regular George Carr has been to every Riot venue but tends to hit Farm & Craft and Hand Cut most. Carr, a dentist based in Tempe, met Hibbert and Wright as patients. They became friends. Carr has since become an investor.
The quality of the food and service along with the ownership’s credibility were all factors in Carr’s decision to invest, transitioning his role from customer to owner.
“They were catering to the masses and doing a great job of it while making it profitable and fun,” said Carr, who lives in Scottsdale. “Not only were they friendly, fun and smart, but they appeared to be business trustworthy and transparent. That combination is a tough combination to come by regarding personal character, and especially investments.”
Cynthia Sassi has been a Riot customer since the first El Hefe opened its doors. Other than the Nashville location, she has been to every Riot venue. Riot House and Farm & Craft, with a menu that caters to her vegetarian and dairy- and gluten-free preferences, are her favorites.
“There are so many options for me there,” said Sassi, who lives in Scottsdale. “On the weekdays I can do (work) meetings there and on the weekends, bottomless mimosas. It’s very versatile.”
As the founder and president of the online lifestyle publication FabulousArizona.com, Sassi also admires Riot’s business acumen and ability to satisfy different demographics and their varying moods.
“They keep stepping it up every time they open a new location,” she said. “What I love most is their attention to detail. I’m an ambiance person and they keep getting better and better with their décor. It’s all about how you feel when you go into those places.”
A Phoenix native, Hibbert has worked in the Valley’s restaurant and bar scene since he was 16. He was an operating partner for a hospitality company when he decided to break out on his own, relying on his years of industry experience as a guide.
“I saw a better way to build a business than was currently out there. I’d worked at a lot of restaurants and bars and wanted to build something that I would personally go to, that I thought was cool,” he said.
Creating desired environment is the tricky intangible that is at the core of keeping venues fresh and preventing staleness. Evolving isn’t a choice. It’s a requirement in an industry beholden to rapid competition, copycats and fickle tastes and trends. Hibbert said his time in the industry is an asset to accomplishing this.
“It doesn’t need to be a hybrid. It needs to be about what a specific demographic and city wants at that specific time,” he said.
Hibbert looks to expand Riot’s brands as well as its reach. He talked about bringing his venues into markets that don’t provide the experiences that his do while embracing the opportunity to flex his ingenuity muscles.
“Being able to be creative on a daily basis and come up with events and new menu items, build concepts and getting some of the best people in the industry to work with us … it’s the biggest thing I enjoy,” he says.
Riot Hospitality Group
WHERE: 7525 E. Camelback Road, #100, Scottsdale
INTERESTING STAT: Annual sales in the restaurant industry total $799 billion, according to the National Restaurant Association.
DETAILS: 480-947-3763 , riothg.com