Six months after taking over as CEO of Famous Dave's of America, Jeff Crivello said the “tired” casual-dining chain is rolling out a series of experiments aimed at enticing diners to order more often —and not just inside the restaurants.
The trial initiatives for the Minnetonka, Minn.-based barbecue chain include testing a new store design, a massive overhaul of the menu, expanding off-premise sales and developing a new barbecue brand in collaboration with pitmaster Travis Clark.
“It’s time to fight for survival,” said Crivello, named CEO in mid-November 2017.
The focus in the coming months will be increasing the company’s digital relationships with customers. Specifically, Crivello is going after delivery through shared kitchen spaces in California, and ghost-style restaurants in Denver and Minneapolis. The latter would be standalone Famous Dave’s locations dedicated solely for catering and delivery; the California test, on the other hand, would involve sharing a kitchen with a small group of restaurant brands to service delivery through third-party operators.
Delivery-only spaces call for a substantially smaller footprint — 500 to 800 square feet versus the 5,000 square feet of most traditional locations. The first shared space, expected to reduce overhead costs such as labor and rent, is scheduled to open by the end of the year.
Like other casual-dining chains, Famous Dave’s sees delivery as a virtual introduction to a customer that has eluded the brand: Millennials. In restaurants where delivery is currently offered, Crivello said orders “skew younger.” Today, 31 percent of the company’s total sales come from off-premise sales, which includes online orders and third-party delivery. That’s up 10 percent from a year ago.
Third-party delivery, which launched at corporate stores in August of 2017, is one of the brand’s biggest opportunities, COO Geo Concepcion said.
Other tech-driven plans include investing in tableside tablets, and in-store kiosks.
The company is also testing 23 new menu items at a remodeled store in Coon Rapids, Minn., and a value menu in the East Coast.
The new line of foods debuted last month at the Minnesota restaurant and include Hillbilly Hubcaps, or Cajun-seasoned fried jalapeño slices; Burnt Buttz, or smoked pork flash-fried and griddled in blackberry barbeque sauce; bacon-wrapped Brussels sprouts, flash-fried and served with a side of sweet soy glaze; and jalapeno sausage. The trial menu is available along with the company’s core menu, which hasn’t seen a new LTO since burnt ends launched in 2013.
After the test, Famous Dave’s will roll out the most popular new items to other restaurants. The company is also testing a value menu in a handful of stores in Minnesota and New Jersey. The menu, where items are below $9.99, features a mix of both barbeque and non-barbeque items served in smaller portion sizes.
Crivello said all the menu tweaks, which are items typically not associated with barbecue, are designed to entice diners to visit stores more often. Currently, most customers come in once every three months, he said.
Later this year, Famous Dave’s also plans to announce a new restaurant brand created in partnership with Travis Clark, an award-winning pitmaster who specializes in Kansas City-style barbecue. Clark started in January, filling the new role of National Pitmaster. Famous Dave’s said he is responsible for overseeing culinary development and menu innovation.
Crivello did not provide further details about the new concept, only stating that adding a “different kind of barbecue” eatery is part of an overall plan to evolve Famous Dave’s and set it up for positive sales growth.
For the fourth quarter ended Dec. 31, Famous Dave’s said same-store sales for franchise-operated restaurants increased 1.1 percent. Same store sales at company stores, by comparison, rose 8 percent with traffic up 9.2 percent. Of the chain’s 150 stores, 134 are franchise locations. The company is expected to announce its first quarter earnings Monday, May 14.
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