Because extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures, some operators in the Southeast are straying from business as usual in an effort to keep customer visits on track.
From operational changes, such as the introduction of liquor to beverage menus, to creative promotions, such as giving away gasoline, restaurateurs are rolling out their big guns to protect sales despite the limping economy.
“With tough economic times, you have to find new ways to bring in traffic without alienating your core customer,” said Nick Vojnovic, president of Tampa, Fla.-based Family Sports Concepts Inc., parent of the 250-unit Beef ‘O’ Brady’s chain.
Beef ‘O’ Brady’s recently introduced liquor in seven of its units. Historically, the family-oriented chain has sold only beer and wine, but Vojnovic said the company’s research showed its female customers wanted such drinks as Cosmopolitans and Margaritas.
But while the trial has boosted sales, the chain has been careful to maintain its family-oriented atmosphere by not selling such items as alcohol shots and promoting nonalcoholic drinks such as strawberry lemonade and peach ice tea.
“We don’t want some newly legal drinkers coming in drinking shots at our bar, that’s not the idea,” Vojnovic said.
Beef ‘O’ Brady’s will slowly roll out the liquor program to more of its stores, while also introducing premium nonalcoholic beverages, Vojnovic said. In stores ineligible for liquor licenses—several units in Florida are too small to be granted liquor licenses—wine programs that might offer wine-based Margaritas will be unveiled. “We all have to work harder to just stay in the same place, especially with the price of everything going up, up, up,” Vojnovic said.
This summer Beef ‘O’ Brady’s plans to offer burgers for $5.99—a $2 discount—in an effort to drive traffic, particularly at the chain’s Florida locations. Vojnovic said his Florida stores have been the hardest hit by the economic downturn.
Tampa, Fla.-based The Melting Pot  has debuted a bar menu at new units in Farmingdale, N.Y., and Oldsmar and Melbourne, Fla., that focuses for the first time on nonfondue items, such as lobster quesadillas and ahi tuna. Kendra Sartor, vice president of brand development for the 132-unit chain, said that the bar menus have been extremely successful.
In addition, The Melting Pot has instituted a fixed-price menu Sunday through Thursday evenings that can save customers about $20 off the fondue concept’s four-course offering. Most locations nationwide also have unveiled ladies’ nights offering for $30 to $35 for a drink, dinner entrée, services from local spas and fashion shows.
“When the economy goes, most operators’ first instinct is to discount their regular offerings, but then when the economy rebounds people expect that discounting to continue,” Sartor said. “That can be alienating in the long run. So instead we look for other additional opportunities to draw in customers, like the bar menu, or the ladies’ nights.”
Atlanta-based Mrs. Winner’s Chicken & Biscuits, looking to drive traffic at its 47 Atlanta-area locations, is holding a “Free Gas for a Year” promotion. Weekly winners will receive 52 gasoline cards worth $50 each.
“With our current free-gas promotion, we feel it touches upon a timely issue, where people are making decisions on whether they should fill their tanks instead of their stomachs,” said Robert Jacks, director of marketing and public relations for the 120-unit chain.
Meanwhile, Maitland, Fla.-based Sonny’s Real Pit Bar-B-Q is tying the 139-unit chain’s 40th anniversary to several all-you-can-eat promotions emphasizing price rollbacks.
The chain recently offered for five weeks a barbecue chicken promotion for $6.99 and an all-you-can-eat sweet and smoky ribs promotion for $10.99. Beginning May 12, the chain will hold a month-long promotion selling all-you-can-eat chicken and pork for $7.99.
Monique Yeager, director of corporate affairs and marketing, said the promotions have definitely driven traffic at the stores.
Jacksonville, Fla.-based Firehouse Subs has been proactively promoting itself through business-to-business programs and increased radio advertising. It also is emphasizing its catering business, said Don Fox, chief of operations for the 321-unit chain.
“While some groups cut down on events during an economic downturn, others, such as medical groups and pharmaceutical companies, don’t,” Fox said. “We try to capitalize on such trends.”