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When Black Enterprise magazine named Steve Davis one of the “75 Most Powerful African Americans in Corporate America,” it was even before he became chief executive and chairman of Bob Evans Farms Inc., a publicly held company that posts approximately $1.5 billion in annual sales through its food products companies and its family-dining brands, the 588-unit Bob Evans chain and the 105-unit Mimi’s Cafe chain.

Davis, whose career began in marketing for packaged goods, was president of Long John Silver’s and A&W Restaurants, concepts owned by Yum! Brands Inc., when Black Enterprise recognized him in 2005.

In early 2006, Bob Evans’ board of directors came calling. Former Bob Evans chairman, the late Robert Rabold, had cited Davis’ reputation as a turnaround artist at both food and restaurant companies. Davis, who spent 13 years with Yum Brands, had also been senior vice president of concept development and leader of the team that introduced the Wing Street concept at Pizza Hut.

Davis says he took the top job at Columbus, Ohio-based Bob Evans because he is always up for a challenge, and the challenge laid out for him is pretty straightforward—improve the performance of the Bob Evans chain, which has struggled even as its sister concept, Mimi’s Cafe, has flourished.

Bob Evans appears to be in the middle of a turnaround. Same-store sales and revenue have been up this year, compared with last year when the company was seeing sales and earnings dive. What has changed?

We got our people focused. Mimi’s is best in class in consecutive same-store sales. They’ve been up in 45 of the last 44 quarters. Why not do that at Bob Evans? We dialed up marketing and changed our advertising to make it more relevant to product launches versus generic brand building.

We also dialed up the focus on our operations. We started looking at customer complaints. The dinner business has been going down for many years. We had twice as many complaints about dinner. Breakfast is our heritage, but dinner is our opportunity. It’s about 30 percent of our business.


JOB: chairman and chief executive, Bob Evans Farms Inc., Columbus, Ohio

EDUCATION: bachelor’s degree in business administration, University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee; master’s degree in business administration, University of Chicago

AGE: 48

HOMETOWN: Milwaukee

INTERESTS: family, travel and reading

How are you improving the dinner business?

We’ve launched new products. The knife and fork sandwiches did well at dinner and lunch. After the ads ran on TV, in a week [dinner sales] turned back to positive.

Most of your restaurant career has been in quick service. How different is that segment from full-service family dining?

A lot of the principles are the same. It’s about brand building, sales growth, margins and return on investment capital. What I like about family dining is in the key word, “dining.” If something happens, you can fix it right there. In quick service, often if someone does not have a good experience, especially with the drive-thru, they may be gone in 120 seconds.

What do you see as your restaurant company’s major challenges at Bob Evans?

Our challenge is to differentiate the two brands and give a reason to come to us. There is a lot of competition in family dining and a ton in casual dining.

I believe our two brands are uniquely positioned, and if we drive them well, we can provide great customer satisfaction, one customer at a time.

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