Flagship Restaurant Group has spent the last 20 years bringing high-quality, big city-inspired restaurant and bar experiences to smaller Midwestern markets. A group of friends, all in their late 20s at the time, launched the company by opening a stylish sushi and sake concept in Omaha, Nebraska, in 2002. The entrepreneurs had no experience in the on-premise industry prior to creating Blue Sushi Sake Grill, but they learned as they went along, adding new concepts and additional units to their company portfolio. Now, Flagship Restaurant Group boasts more than 25 restaurants spanning ten concepts, from multiple outposts of their original sushi venue to others that focus on Tex-Mex and Tex-Asian fare to a gastropub and a seafood concept. In recent years, the company has put a major emphasis on the bar, adding several drinks-focused venues to their roster, too.
From humble beginnings in Omaha, Flagship Restaurant Group now boasts restaurants and bars in ten states, with more planned for this year, including units in new markets. The company weathered the Covid-19 pandemic, shifting from on-premise dining and drinks to takeout and delivery, and then back again, ultimately making 2021 one of its busiest and most successful years in its two-decade history. For 2022, revenues are expected to top $100 million, with beverage alcohol contributing roughly 35% company-wide. Though executives note that some restaurants average closer to equal 50% revenue shares for food and beverage and that their bar-focused concepts boast as much as 90% drinks sales. With more growth planned and continued success on the horizon, Flagship Restaurant Group is poised to become a much larger player in the on-premise arena.
“Our lack of experience in the industry was our greatest strength when we opened the first restaurant,” says Flagship co-owner and CEO Nick Hogan. “We were coming in with a naïve perspective, but we’ve learned over the years. Now, our experience is our biggest strength and that’s an important evolutionary process. Our first restaurant was on-trend at that time. We brought the trends we saw nationally into Omaha, Nebraska; it was new and ahead of the market. Now, we operate in a dozen markets and in bigger cities like Dallas, Austin, Denver, and Chicago. We have to be on the cutting edge and set trends. We’ve evolved and we’re helping to push the industry forward. We’re now a group that helps forecast where restaurants are going.”
Blue Sushi Sake Grill debuted in northwest Omaha in 2002, offering a bustling bar and upscale food menu that was relatively unseen in the city before. The concept has evolved a lot over the last two decades, but it still boasts a vibrant bar and chic food, and now it has 16 locations open in nine states and two more slated to debut soon, including its first in Tennessee. The original Blue, now affectionately dubbed the OG Blue, relocated in 2016 to a spot a few doors down from its first location. The new space is double the size of its predecessor and features a sake lounge and an outdoor patio.
As it has from the start, Blue Sushi Sake Grill emphasizes responsibly caught and humanely raised seafood. The menu at the flagship unit in Omaha’s Grayhawk Pointe shopping center lists specialty nigiri and sashimi dishes and myriad maki rolls, alongside shareable plates like lettuce wraps, crab rangoon, and beef tenderloin served on sizzling rocks (food ranges from $5-$16 at the OG Blue). These complement a varied drinks program, with specialty cocktails ranging from a Bacardi-based Raspberry Mojito and Tito’s-based Blue Mule to sake-enhanced sangria and Martinis and the specialty China Doll, mixing Skyy Blood Orange vodka with house-made jasmine tea syrup and pomegranate and lime juices (specialty drinks are $9-$12.50 at the OG Blue). A handful of lemonade-based alcohol-free drinks are also available.
Sake gets a lot of attention at Blue Sushi Sake Grill and is served in several pour sizes. The OG Blue in Omaha lists 12 offerings, from Gekkeikan Traditional and Sho Chiku Bai to Hakutsuru Awa Yuki and Yoshinogawa Winter Warrior ($3-$6 a 2-ounce pour; $6-$12 a 4-ounce pour; $14-$29 a carafe; $28-$65 a bottle). The restaurant also lists a few sake flights for drinkers who want to sample multiple varieties ($12-$14 for three 2-ounce pours). These are joined by Asian and domestic craft beers ($4-$6 a draft pour, bottle, or can) and roughly 25 wines, with an emphasis on labels from California ($7-$14 a glass; $30-$115 a 750-ml.).
“The goal for our bars is to offer fun and interesting cocktails in a fast-paced environment,” says Dustin Fox, Flagship Restaurant Group’s head of beverage. “We want the cocktails to match the quality of the food and our bars are designed to be high volume and fast-paced. We’ve been evolving our techniques and bar training, and modernizing how we operate the bars and how our bartenders work with the ingredients and equipment. We’re catching up to current drinks trends and experimenting with molecular gastronomy and smoking and fat-washing drinks.”
Fox’s role as the lead of Flagship’s drinks program was created two years ago as part of the company’s ongoing efforts to prioritize and strengthen the bar. Prior to naming a corporate drinks manager, the company had each of its venue’s individual bar managers and their staff work together on drinks creation without a ton of central oversight. Under this new setup, Flagship’s bar team has a clear leader, and the company recently built a corporate research kitchen and bar in Omaha, Nebraska, where Fox is based.
“The bar piece continues to grow for Flagship,” Fox says. “Before my position was created, the bar was kind of a team job and everyone put their heads together to come up with new drinks. Food was definitely the priority early on. But now, drinks creation has a full staff, and we research and work on new drinks. As we continue to grow the company, our focus on cocktails and mixology will grow and be a larger piece moving forward. And now, with our research kitchen and bar, I’m constantly in a bar working on new cocktails and service standards. We now have a dedicated space for drinks creativity.”
The drinks piece really rose to prominence at Flagship Restaurant Group in 2020, when the company opened its first true bar concept—Revival House in Des Moines, Iowa. Revival House is a tiki-inspired cocktail den that offers classics like a Mai Tai and Daiquiri alongside signatures and specialties, including the Sancha Verde, blending Sombra mezcal and Midori liqueur with house-made coconut syrup, and pineap- ple and lime juices (cocktails at revival are $8-$12). The bar is a standalone concept, but it’s located adjacent to Flagship’s Blue Sushi Sake Grill in Des Moines and has access to the restaurant’s kitchen for light fare at the bar.
The following year, Flagship debuted Ghost Donkey in Denver. Created in partnership with AvroKo Hospitality Group, Ghost Donkey is an agave-spirits focused concept with a full roster of Tequila and mezcal cocktails. The bar offers Margaritas and Palomas, as well as classics like the Spritz and Negroni that incorporate agave spirits. In addition, there are signatures like the Burro Tropical, mixing Lalo Blanco Tequila, Real McCoy 3-year-old rum, Chinola Passion Fruit liqueur, Calpico Japanese soft drink, ginger and lemon juices, and soda water (cocktails are $13-$16). The bar also offers a handful of wines ($10-$16 a glass; $48-$64 a 750-ml.) and beers ($6 a bottle or can), and a massive list of more than 110 Tequilas and mezcals, accompanied by a handful of lesser-known agave spirits from Mexico, including sotol, raicilla, and bacanora ($6-$21 a 1-ounce pour). A second Ghost Donkey recently opened in Phoenix.
Hogan says both bars are doing well and that the company plans to pursue more of them as opportunities arise. Fox adds that Ghost Donkey has quickly become a destination in Denver. “We focus on mezcal and Mexican hospitality, with Latin music, twinkling lights, lots of agave spirits, and nachos,” Fox says. “Ghost Donkey is a night, not a stop along the way.”
Mexican spirits also excel at Flagship’s Roja Mexican Grill + Margarita Bar, a Tex-Mex concept in Omaha, Nebraska, with its own lengthy list of sipping Tequilas and Margaritas. Roja is Flagship’s second-oldest venue after the original Blue Sushi Sake Grill, having opened in 2004, and it’s still going strong. The restaurant serves enchiladas, burritos, tacos, and fajitas, as well as specialty Tex-Mex fare ($10-$36), joined by a variety of cocktails ($7-$12) and both Mexican and domestic beers ($4-$7 a draft pour, bottle, or can). Roja boasts more than 80 Tequilas on its menu, too ($6-$59 a 2-ounce pour).
“Tequila and mezcal, and all agave spirits, are extremely popular,” Fox says. “We love agave spirits, and you’ll see a lot of them on our menus. One common thread that ties our bar programs together is our agave spirits and how they work in cocktails and our passion for Mexico. We really enjoy trying new things.” Blue Sushi Sake Grill also highlights Tequila and mezcal, offering cocktails like the Naked & Famous, made with Sombra mezcal, Aperol, Yellow Chartreuse, and lime juice ($13.00 at the OG Blue in Omaha).
Beyond sushi, Flagship operates a second seafood concept, Plank Seafood Provisions, with locations in Omaha, Nebraska and Austin, Texas. Plank highlights oysters and grilled fish and lists a few agave spirits-based cocktails alongside several drinks that incorporate vodka and gin. Standouts include the Island Hopper, mixed with Bombay Sapphire gin, Pint House Pizza Electric Jellyfish Hazy IPA, and pineapple and lemon juices (cocktails are $10-$13 in Austin). The restaurant also has a solid wine selection, spanning more than 50 American and European labels ($8-$18 a glass; $36-$148 a 750-ml.). Upper-tier wines include the Kosta Browne One Sixteen Chardonnay and the Marchesi Biscardo Amarone della Valpolicella.
“Our wine selections are pretty specific to each concept,” Fox explains. “Our higher-end places have quality selections. Quantity is never our focus. We will never have the most wines on a menu, but we have a curated selection that our sommelier team and beverage team work on together.”
Beer gets a bigger billing at Flagship’s Tex-Asian pub Anthem in Austin, Texas, and at the pub Blatt Beer & Table, which has three locations in Omaha, Nebraska. Anthem’s menu lists more than 30 draft pours and roughly 10 additional beers in bottles and cans ($5-$12), divided into categories like hoppy, malty, and sour. Meanwhile, Blatt also lists roughly 30 draft pours, which are available in glass pours and crowlers, and about 25 more in bottles and cans ($4-$26). “Draft pours are always our top-sellers for beer, they’re a great way to draw attention to the bar,” Fox says. “We have a healthy respect for beer and we make sure to put together quality lists.”
Flagship Restaurant Group aims to make its bar spaces comfortable but stylish, evoking an upscale lounge atmosphere. Whether in the restaurants or at the bar-specific concepts, the spaces have cozy seating in the form of couches and ottomans, dark lighting, and loud music. “This sets the tone,” Fox explains. “Our bartenders are front and center, the stars of the show. You should be greeted by a bartender when you walk in. They’re excited to have guests back and show off their knowledge. After the last couple years, people are longing for a cocktail experience and a destination bar with the right music, vibe, and design, and a high level of service.”
Hogan adds that he and his management team aim to create concepts and venues they themselves would enjoy. “The idea is that if we collectively enjoy our places, hopefully other people do too,” he says. “All our restaurants have an active bar component and fall into that polished-casual category. Over the course of our career, we’ve watched the bar get more attention in restaurants. We try to bring a social element into all of our places and the bar is a big piece of that and of what we do. We stop short of being true fine dining, but we want to be elevated.”
Hogan adds that company-wide, across all of Flagships many concepts and properties, the beverage segment makes up roughly 35% of total sales, led by spirits and cocktails. Though he adds that some of the more drinks-heavy restaurants have