Diverging Brands

Carlson's decision to dump its upscale restaurant division scarcely bothers its founder

Cox thinks that Carlson just plain didn't understand AquaKnox, and probably had inflated expectations for it. "From the very beginning there was a higher expectation than what Stephan and I had intended from a financial standpoint," he says. "They started tinkering with it and suggesting things here and there...and I think once we went down that road, it started to destroy the original concept."

Ironically, the seeds of the AquaKnox failure may bear fruit with Ring's new restaurant venture called Triple R Group. After Carlson announced it was dismantling E-Brands, Ring secured the rights to the name zen den, the concept that sprouted from the corpse of AquaKnox last April. He's folded zen den into the slim portfolio of his fledgling company. Triple R Group currently has two concepts it is readying to hatch. Tom Tom Noodle House, a fast-casual 10-buck-per-mouth Asian restaurant, should open in the West Village in mid-April. In late May, the pair will open a "highly produced" Eastern Bloc-style lounge called Club Nikita underneath Taco Diner in the same development. Hayward says Triple R will zero in on Asian cuisine with plans to dot the Dallas area with up to six Tom Tom Noodle Houses before spreading to other cities. Triple R will use the zen den name for a midscale Asian restaurant it plans to launch after Tom Tom secures a toehold.

So far, the only restaurants to have left Carlson's auction block are a pair of Taqueria Cañonitas, which were sold to M Crowd Chief Executive Officer Mico Rodriguez, operator of Mi Cocina and Taco Diner restaurants, among others.

There was talk that Ring and Hayward might pick up the nine Samba Rooms from Carlson, a move that Ring says isn't seriously being considered at this juncture. "We're not going to run out and buy Samba Room just 'cause it's available and sacrifice this," he says, referring to his Triple R plans. "It would be a huge distraction."

Indeed. Such a move might even dilute Triple R and conflict with the reasons why Ring abandoned his post at Carlson to launch his company in the first place. Ring says that starting fresh "when it's your deal" makes all the difference in the world. It's the difference between dragging around corporate chains and wearing newly formed chains of DNA.

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