The family dining segment was disproportionally upended by the pandemic, but Black Bear Diner didn’t miss much of a beat. The California-based chain finished 2019 with 138 restaurants. Now it’s up to 154 with plans to open about 10 restaurants this year and 15 next year.
“When we came out of the pandemic, business was robust, which showed there was a lot of pent-up demand and allowed us to get back to development and quickly,” CEO Anita Adams said during a Zoom interview this week. “By mid-2021, we were resetting our development pipelines and getting those leases in place.”
In 2022, the chain signed four new franchising partners. Adams credits the company’s brand equity and environment for driving much of this interest and lists themes like cabins, mountains and black bears, as well as features like jukeboxes, abundant food, comforting ambiance.
“We are resonating wherever we go, and we’re not a big marketing/advertising brand. It’s just from being a part of our communities and providing what we believe is unique from a menu and experience perspective,” Adams said.
That experience piece is somewhat of a differentiator in a post-pandemic environment driven by digitally-enabled conveniences, and the company plans to stay the course as it continues expanding. That’s not to say adjustments haven’t been made, however. Consumer behaviors have changed and that has included the way consumers access Black Bear Diner, where now nearly 20% of the sales mix is off-premises. Black Bear Diner has made several technology and real estate investments to keep pace. Those investments will continue this year with an objective of ensuring an operationally efficient model as the business juggles more channels.
“Our flag is planted in the experience piece and part of the challenge is now we have 20% of the business that is off-premises and that’s very disruptive. So how do we balance both of these? Twenty percent is a huge component of sales,” Adams said. “Nothing is more aggravating for a customer coming in and having to wait while seeing delivery bags piled up. We are spending a lot of time refining our operations to support both sides of the business.”
That time has been dedicated to updating the kitchen design, for instance. Black Bear Diners now have kitchen display system routing and segregated packaging and bagging areas. Its restaurants now include a pickup window before customers step foot into the foyer. The company is also testing handheld ordering devices, which have increased order accuracy and streamlined orders going into the kitchen, making team members’ jobs easier. The handheld test has generated such positive results, it inspired the company to take a step back and look at its entire operational flow and how technology can play a role.
“Now we have two lines of business, we have two revenue channels and higher average unit volumes, which is great. But we also have new throughput concerns. We’re wrapping technology around it all and spending a lot of energy on this,” she said. “The restaurant of the future is hinged upon that technology component, and we want what gives us the most flexibility.”
It’s still early days to know where these investments will land, and Adams said everything is being evaluated – from gift card sales to pay-at-the-table options. The goal is to beta test this year with rollouts in 2024.
Beyond tech, Adams said Black Bear Diner is also reducing its building size as it expands to bring costs down more for franchisees. For consumers, the chain will focus on limited-time offers to present more value options versus just taking pricing increases. Otherwise, the plan is to continue staying the course.
“Make no mistake, we’ve made some updates, but I also feel we’ve stayed true to who we are and what our guest expects,” Adams said. “Our diners are alive, there is music playing, we don’t take ourselves too seriously. We’re always going to start with what makes us unique – the quality and abundance of our food and the hospitable environment. We’re deeply rooted in our culture and fiercely holding on to that as we grow.”
Contact Alicia Kelso at [email protected]