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Cotton Patch Cafe storefront All photos courtesy of Cotton Patch Cafe

Cotton Patch looks to grow in smaller communities

CEO Kathy Nelson foresees concept as strong Southern regional brand

Cotton Patch Café is expanding its Texas-based casual-dining brand, finding tall-cotton success in in smaller communities. 

Kathy Nelson, CEO of the 50-unit Grapevine, Texas-based brand for the past four years, said Cotton Patch Café’s goal is to become a Southern regional brand.

The company will open its most recent unit in Hobbs, N.M., in late June. Nelson, who joined Cotton Patch from Pizza Hut seven years ago, said the concept is set to expand beyond its current four-state region with between five and seven new-unit openings in the next several years.

“We were born in Texas, but we now have two restaurants in New Mexico, three in Oklahoma and one in Arkansas,” she said. “In the next several years, we’ll be as far as Missouri and Tennessee.”

The company is also in the process of remodeling all its existing restaurants. “We want to ensure our brand looks consistent and updated,” Nelson said. The entire system will be updated by the end of 2019, she said, with the company spending about $250,000 per restaurant for the remodels.

The company also plans to move its oldest restaurant — the original that opened in in Nacogdoches, Texas, in 1989, she said. The company will relocate that unit with a new restaurant a half a block away, she said.

In Nation’s Restaurant News’ Top 200 research, Cotton Patch reported U.S. systemwide foodservice sales of $97.1 million for the fiscal year ended December 2016, up from $94.6 million in the prior year.

Palo Alto, Calif.-based Altamont Capital Partners LLC acquired Cotton Patch Cafe in February 2015.

Nelson spoke with Nation’s Restaurant News this week about the casual-dining concept and what it has in store: 

You’ve been expanding the Cotton Patch prototype that was introduced three years ago. What does that do for the brand?

We’re still trying to be and feel the hometown café that makes you feel comfortable. I think that’s what our new prototype does. 

How has that mission changed?

We’ve always been a brand that focused on having a very comfortable, hometown feel. As we opened units, we tried to do that. Now that we are expanding at a more rapid rate — five to seven, building up to 10 a year — we got more concentrated on what the brand should look and feel like.”

What did the prototype offer in seats and atmosphere?

The new prototype is primarily a stand-alone unit with 155 seats. Visually, it’s reminiscent of a farmhouse with a pitched roof, lots of reclaimed wood and metal. It’s homey, yet updated for today. We’re trying to give it the look of southern-style cooking the way you visual it would be.

What kind of locations do you seek out?

We love the towns we are in. We tend to be in towns where there are not a lot of restaurants. We are important to the towns, and we bond to the town. 

What about recent openings?

The brand recently opened in Hobbs, N.M. [with about 34, 000 residents], and we got a great response from customers.  Just Before that , we opened in Ada, Okla. [population of about 17,300] and Chickasha, Okla. [population 16,000], and got a great response there. They are comfortable and get the concept right away. Our tagline is: coming here is like coming home.”

What are your menu’s bestsellers?

Chicken-fried steak by far. And No. 2 is a small chicken-fried steak, and No. 3 is a chicken-fried chicken. 

How do the new prototypes compare in size to older units?

I would say they are right-sized. Our base is anywhere from 80 seats to 250 seats. This one is 155. We’ve right-sized it to the kitchen and to the community. You don’t want the restaurants to be empty, and you don’t want an hour line on Sundays after church.

Any private-dining areas?

This prototype has an area that we can section off. For the size that we want to build, we found that the private dining is not used as much in this day and age. So we limited it.

How many units of the new restaurant have you built?

We’ve got nine of them. It was introduced three years ago. This is the format. All stand-alone units look like this.

Any accommodation for carry-out?

We have a dedicated to-go area to make it easier for the guests. The new prototype includes space for a bar. It’s not a big part of our ongoing business, but it is now an offering.

What’s your daypart split?

We’re kind of the every day brand that makes you feel welcome. We are about equally divided between lunch and dinner.

Contact Ron Ruggless at [email protected]

Follow him on Twitter: @RonRuggless

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