WE'VE ALL VISITED RESTAURANTS THAT SEEM like they are stuck in a time warp. Sometimes that's a good thing — let's say you're catering to the nostalgia crowd — but usually, not so much. Tastes change. Trends come and go. The concept that clicked 10 or 20 years ago could be dying a slow death right before your eyes — unless you can keep it fresh. Here, we share some insight from operators who have stepped back, taken a hard look at themselves and evolved.
Cary Borish, whose small group of family-run Marathon restaurants have fed Philadelphians since the 1980s, saw the handwriting on the wall in recent years and, together with his brother, decided not to take it sitting down. Between savvier guests and an influx of top chefs, new concepts and gastropubs, the city's competitive landscape has changed radically in recent years. “All these factors made us say, ‘hey, we are going to lose market share if we don't get better,’” Borish recalls.
The solution, he said, was to improve on what Marathon was already doing well — feeding the neighborhood.
Marathon's six Philly locations grew up in the 1980s and 1990s around the city's expanding urban population, and they served moderately priced family recipes at breakfast and lunch, mainly on weekdays. Each time a new restaurant opened, the concept grew a little more sophisticated, but it wasn't until about two years ago that the family decided to bring in professional chefs to up the ante. “We didn't want to abandon the core values of the company — we just wanted to make everything better,” Borish says. He hired an executive chef, Luke Eschbach, who in turn brought in a chef de cuisine and sous chef for each location. They took a huge menu and pared it down, keeping the scratch focus but adding more fresh and local ingredients and dinner entrees. And the Borishes invested in liquor licenses for each location, to help stoke that dinner business.
Next up: the design, which Borish described as “corporate lunch.” A local artist was hired to create some signature art, and artisan furniture was added to make interiors feel warmer and more inviting.
To be a good neighbor, Marathon is making efforts to operate more sustainably. The group is working with the Green Restaurant Association and recently launched an urban farm initiative in the city.
While the changes have met with some resistance from long-time regulars, overall the response has been good, Borish says, and the changes have brought in new customers. “It's hard to take connotations that people have had for 20 years and get them to think differently,” he says. “But we're definitely offering a better customer experience, and we're getting better comments,” he adds.
Getting Local Buy-in
Pasta Pomodoro, a 27-unit casual Italian chain launched in California in 1994, faced similar challenges when new owners took it over about a year ago, and patrons helped provide a solution. “In the first few months we spent a lot of time talking to and listening to our guests,” says Matt Janopaul, c.e.o. The company also conducted third-party marketing research.
The talk and research targeted two challenges: battling Californians' anti-chain attitude, and serving an affluent clientele.
“We knew that Pasta Pomodoro needed to return to being a locally run and owned business,” Janopaul says. Menu choices now showcase fresh ingredients from local purveyors such as Niman Ranch, Zoe's Meats and Belfiore Cheese; they also incorporate seasonal specials with more fresh and organic ingredients. An artisan beer and wine program introduces guests to local producers that aren't widely distributed. “The feedback has been tremendous,” Janopaul says.
Because the market research showed that Pasta Pomodoro guests were more affluent than expected (average household income: $125,000), the target age group was huge (35-64), and the majority of guests were college educated, the menu also includes more calorie counts, vegetarian options and several more healthful versions of Italian favorites.
“People like that we're really stretching from a culinary standpoint,” Janopaul says. “They like that if they want to explore other dishes, price points, and tastes, they can do that.”
New Owner, New Course
New ownership also injected new life into a former Darden Restaurants concept, Smokey Bones. Sold two years ago, the 67 Smokey Bones units were watching business shrink. “The brand wasn't working at that point,” says Ian Baines, c.e.o. The new owners looked for ways to reverse the two-year trend of declining sales and guest counts, and they approached it systematically.
“First, we needed to increase the frequency of guest visits. People crave barbecue, but not as often as, say, Italian.” Baines explains. “Second, we had a fair amount of square footage dedicated to the bar area, but we saw four years of declining alcohol sales. They were running at about 7.8 percent of sales at the end of 2008. Third, Smokey Bones had become somewhat of a sleepy brand — a me-too family dining experience. We wanted to reinvigorate the environment, both in terms of the look and how our teammates interacted with the guests.”
The new owners started market research even before the brand changed hands, including a total use and frequency study of the menu. The goal was to reduce the menu to the fewest choices with the broadest reach. The logo and name were revamped: Smokey Bones Bar & Fire Grill better reflects the expanded focus. Now about half completed, a chain-wide program brought in brighter colors, louder music, HD flat-screen televisions and high-top tables in the bar area and new lighting. Televisions, once tuned to kids' shows or sports, now mix it up with music videos, customized entertainment and sports. The high-top tables encourage socializing and hanging out. Homey artwork has been replaced by “Boneisms,” a revolving set of humorous pieces.
“We've cleaned the menu up and created a place that people can use for a night out — not just for dinner, but social interaction,” says Pete Bell, v.p. of marketing. “We rarely talk demographics,” Bell says. “We look at psychographics: people going out to have a good time. That's the type of guest we're trying to appeal to. We want to be a place where they can hang out and be comfortable.
The brand has achieved several of its goals, including increased guest frequency and healthier bar sales. Alcohol sales have doubled overall since the new menu and focus was rolled out; at remodeled locations, it's up closer to 25 percent. Remodeled restaurants are seeing 10 percent higher sales on average, some up to 30 percent.
At Marlow's Tavern, a six-unit group in Atlanta, sales benefited from a change in marketing strategy. Before last year, the six units marketed themselves independently; today, consistent and bolder promotions help them command a bigger presence in the market.
A major boon to the new “brand” involves edgy limited-time promotions that pair seasonally driven menu items with alcoholic beverages — examples include Ribs & Whiskey, Bayou 'n Bourbon, Lobster & Libations and Red, White & Brew. “We wanted people to know we do a great bar mix, as well as a great food mix,” says John Metz, one of Marlow's founders. The pairings helped bump sales up from 5 to 25 percent, he adds.
When Sam Borgese took over as c.e.o. of Charlie Brown's Steakhouse last year, he inherited a 49-unit East Coast brand that was struggling to rise above the crowded casual dining category. Research determined that the brand had a lot of nostalgic appeal for long-time guests, but price and quality had both dropped over the years, and younger generations were harder to attract. “They might not like what the brand had become, but they would absolutely come back if we could make it relevant and contemporary,” he recalled.
Three changes were quickly rolled out: new menus with more focus on USDA choice meats; new training and uniforms and new design cues to underscore the company's heritage.
“One of our first steps was to start a fresh meat program,” Borgese explains. That upgrade brought immediate positive feedback. The menu also underwent a total makeover, going from 110 to 60 items and from a slip-in sleeve to a trifold sheet of paper. Appetizer and desserts were also upgraded. The overall image that resulted is one of a higher-quality experience and product at a very reasonable price. Also, interiors have been changed at some locations to include a fresh steak display and a dessert cart, both cues to remind customers of Charlie Brown's renewed focus on quality.
Photo: Lauren Rubinstein
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The check average hasn't jumped up much yet, but Borgese says the guest profile is improving and comments are positive. The initial target has been loyal Charlie Brown's fans, but there is an ulterior motive. “We want their children and grandchildren to have the same feeling about us,” he says.
Sometimes the seed of concept might make sense, but it needs a different environment to thrive. That was the case with Jonker Street, a full-service Malaysian restaurant that struggled for more than three years in Vancouver's Yaletown neighborhood. The owners wanted to cut back their hours and possibly expand to other locations.
With the help of Moeski Consulting, the space morphed into a fast-casual operation called Fresh Bowl, which specializes in takeout and delivery of healthy southeast Asian specialties.
“We kept the basis of the food, but gave it a healthier twist, and made sure it could be prepared and served more quickly,” says Karin Bohne, director of interior design for the company. The neighborhood had plenty of full-service restaurants, but not many healthy-to-go options, which presented an opportunity. The interior underwent a quickie three-week makeover that included fewer seats and a bright color scheme and lighting that lent the concept more street appeal and visibility.
Fresh Bowl was a hit from day one, and within nine months, weekly sales were double what its predecessor had been achieving. Even better news: A second unit is on target to open early next year.