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Anita Walker

CMO Perspectives: Anita Walker of Fox Restaurant Concepts

This interview is part of CMO Perspectives, presented by NRN in partnership with the National Restaurant Association’s Marketing Executives Group. The monthly feature explores how leading executives are navigating the ever-changing restaurant marketing landscape.

Anita Walker
Anita Walker, VP of marketing, Fox Restaurant Concepts. Photo: Fox Restaurant Concepts

One of the current-day restaurant visionaries would have to be Sam Fox. Having visited many of his restaurant concepts I am amazed at the variety of experiences and foods he creates. The person that oversees this creative empire is one of my favorite people, Anita Walker. Anita is the vice president of marketing at Fox Restaurant Concepts and responsible for executing the vision and supporting multiple restaurant brands with unique messaging. I had a chance to meet the marketing team and visit with her at the Fox Company Headquarters located above (yes above) one of their restaurants — The Henry.

The interview was conducted in person with follow up questions by email.

Explain to the readers a brief description about Fox Restaurant Concepts.

Fox Restaurant Concepts (FRC) was founded by Sam Fox in 1998 in Tucson, Arizona. Sam’s started introducing a collection of restaurants that provided guests a unique and different dining experience at each of his locations. Having a variety of concepts also allows his team the freedom to dream up the most innovative selection of food and drinks, while making the design and ambiance an equally important piece to the FRC experience. From True Food Kitchen, a restaurant based on Andrew Weil’s anti-inflammatory diet, Culinary Dropout, one of the first gastropubs, to Flower Child, a fast-casual, healthy, free-spirit experience — all very different but very detailed concepts — this is what we live to do. We have introduced over 15 different restaurant concepts, a killer food truck (The Rocket), a monster event space (The Showcase Room) and multi-use game areas as reuse projects (The Yard) and have 49 restaurants across the country with plans for more. We can’t stop.

I am amazed at your approach towards marketing all these different brands.

I refuse to market our eclectic brands together. I am so proud of each one. I insist they all have their voice. This makes life hard. Essentially, we work for 15 separate companies with different goals, marketing plans, creative and partners. Additionally, each culinary team and menu deserves its own spotlight. They are works of art! My approach to marketing varies for each brand but a constant effort throughout is brand engagement. How do our guests touch, feel, taste, and interact with our brand inside and outside of the four walls? Our Flower Children deliver “Flower Bombs” to office break rooms around the community — stocking the office fridge with top to bottom Flower Child dishes. Little Cleo’s, our boutique seafood restaurant spent $30 and planted turquoise (brand color) lawn flamingos up and down a neighborhood street as a “hello.” Zinburger gave out free full sized, fully loaded burgers for one hour outside the store just as a “what’s up” to friendly passersby. Advertising is nice, but people really respond to a smile and something delicious. 

Flower Child restaurant
Flower Child is Fox's healthful fast-casual concept. Photo: Fox Restaurant Concepts

What are you seeing in the restaurant industry? What trends or changes are happening?

People these days are very conscious of what they are putting into their bodies, and they want transparency in ingredients. The restaurant industry is following suit and putting everything out on the line. From where ingredients are sourced to its quality — it all matters. And, we think it's great that the public is holding restaurants to a higher standard. Another huge trend is fast-casual dining. Consumers want quality food but they don't want to wait long for it — who has time? The last few years have brought on a wave of fast-casual dining spots where people can order their food rather quickly without the hassle. Sam was actually one of the pioneers of fast-casual when he launched Sauce Pizza & Wine in 2003. We have now added Flower Child to that roster and really, we've combined the trends together with this concept by providing healthy eating in a fast-casual setting. We are especially proud of this restaurant as it serves guests with pure, wholesome and clean food in a very cool environment.

Can you tell the readers about an initiative or event that you are really proud of?

It so hard to pick just one initiative but my pride definitely leans toward our work in the communities we serve. Sam is incredibly generous and wants us to support large national organizations to the t-ball team down the street. We’ve done big things like creating our own combat hunger brand “Feed the Soul” and supporting partners like No Kid Hungry allowing us to put food in front of kids who need it and with St. Vincent de Paul for a Kitchen Takeover. St. Vincent de Paul is an organization that's dedicated to feeding, clothing, housing and healing individual families who have nowhere else to turn for help. We quite literally took over their community kitchen and surprised their guests with a three-course meal. It was so rewarding to see the looks on their faces as some of them don't get the luxury of ordering off a menu.

But something a bit smaller gives me pure joy. A mother emailed us a few years back thanking our Zinburger staff for making her son, Chase, his favorite shake as he endured chemotherapy and couldn’t stomach anything else. It was just a thank you. Of course we couldn’t leave it alone and became Chase’s biggest fans and sponsor a “Chase’s Shake” month each year at all of our Zinburger locations with all proceeds going to his charity: Lock Boxes of Love. We feel incredibly grateful working in the industry we do and are honored to say thank you to our communities and neighbors anyway we can.

What trends are you seeing that apply to restaurant marketing? 

Micro-local is the new national. Although we are growing nationally, and focusing both our PR and marketing efforts nationally, we will always stay committed to local. Spreading the word locally, partnering with various businesses locally, and grassroots marketing locally is as important to us as growing our brand nationally. And, again, with the rising trend in the healthy food space, our marketing efforts have to adapt by creating a menu that caters to everyone. I'll use Flower Child as another example as it has pick-and-choose options that are suitable for everyone from the gluten-free eaters to the vegetarians to the average consumer looking for a healthy meal that doesn't sacrifice taste.

Finding inspiration, developing new talent

(Continued from page 1)

Tell me where and how you get inspiration?

I find inspiration in so many places — dining out, chilling with my pre-teen, Bella, for what’s “in” right at this moment, getting lost in today’s beautifully done food and lifestyle blogs, breezing through every magazine on earth, indulging in some occasional MTV to stretch my imagination and most definitely, creating with Sam. I’ve had to learn to stop moving so fast that inspiring things pass me by. That’s why I thank the heavens for phones that store photos.

Culinary Dropout restaurant
Culinary Dropout serves gastropub fare. Photo: Fox Restaurant Concepts

What role does marketing play in the development of these unique concepts?

We know what marketing usually entails, right? We try to take that one step further. Marketing in our eyes is intimately involved in the look and feel within the four walls. A brand should be carried out from logo, to creative, to digital, to menu, to uniforms, to signage, to art on the walls, and so on. Ambiance is so important to a lasting brand and we want our guests to feel the creativity and personality from the first moment they walk into one of our restaurants. Sam and I walk through a newly developed store before opening and make a list of 50 things — usually art, murals and environmental branding that will make the store “alive.” We oversee uniforms too — such an important part of a brand. (Don’t tell anyone I’m just a frustrated fashion designer and this is my release.)

Best marketing advice to share with entrepreneurs wanting to market their restaurant?

Be the face to launch 1,000 checks. That is a terrible quote that I just made up so don’t repeat it. But what it means is — get out there. Make sure everyone in your community knows your face. Participate, get involved, support your local restaurateur peers, and be at every event. Nothing will win you more loyalty than showing up. 

What is your favorite Quote? 

“No.” —Rosa Parks, 1955

What is your favorite Sam Fox moment?

Sam gifts us with a lot of favorite moments, most not for public consumption, but I think a favorite is the time we landed on Little Cleo’s name and branding. After a half a year of trying to determine a name, I finally threw a name at him that I found in (Shhh… Wikipedia under famous “lures”) and he stopped and said “That’s it.” From there he could verbalize his whole vision to me — the décor, the music, the food, and the drinks. I feel so privileged to have witnessed that magic; it was beautiful.

How are you developing the next wave of restaurant marketing talent? 

I always start mentorship with lessons in passion, hard work and commitment. Once these values are set, the lessons in Marketing are simple. But mark my words, it’s not brilliance that will be coveted in the future generation, but the resilient, hard worker. So I work my team until their fingers bleed. It’s for their own good. Wink.

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