Joe Phraner joined Burnsville, Minn.-based bd’s Mongolian Grill in January as president and chief executive officer, just in time to celebrate the brand’s 20th anniversary.
The 33-unit chain, which also has a franchised location in Mongolia, looks to build upon its success of a recent franchise opening in Pittsburgh this February. At the same time, according to Phraner, the brand is recognizing the importance of looking back at what has made it successful since it was founded by Billy Downs in Michigan in 1992.
“The one thing I’ve heard as I’ve traveled all around visiting our restaurants is the importance of our core values: have fun, make money, teamwork, growth and community,” Phraner said. “So how do we take those and build the brand in the future? We run everything, whether it’s products or vendors or our team, through that filter.”
Phraner sat down with Nation’s Restaurant News during the National Restaurant Association Restaurant, Hotel-Motel Show this week to discuss how the young brand will grow sales, particularly by supporting team members with “crave-able” products and the newest service tools.
Your predecessor as president of bd’s, Rodger Head, had a lot going on in menu development, marketing and growth. Where have you sought continuity these first five months, and where did you try to put your own stamp?
We’re looking at everything. We’re continuing some of the things Rodger did, and he and I have worked together for 13 years [at Head’s other company, Duke & King Acquisition Corp.]. We’re continuing the choice, the flavors and the fun experience. But we’re looking at trying to trim down our limited-time offerings and concentrate more closely on our core competency of creating a great stir-fry. We’ve refined our appetizer, drink and dessert menu, and our kids’ menu to take off those slower-moving items and motivate our team to sell some great products.
Was any menu engineering motivated by food costs? Your brand deals in a lot of proteins, and commodity inflation has been a problem all year for the industry.
Our vendors have been terrific. I’ve done everything that probably everybody else in the business has done to talk to vendors. We’ve been able to look at some of our products, make some changes that maintain the quality, but reduced our costs, so we haven’t had to take a price increase. Some of the changes we’ve made to the appetizer, drink and dessert menu have been done to help that food cost, but more importantly it’s been done to drive incremental sales.
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We took off three appetizers and added crab Rangoon, which quickly became our No. 1 appetizer. It’s on-brand for us, so it was a natural fit. A big part of the products we’re looking at is how we get a product that our team wants to sell. To me, it’s real important that you give them the products that they’re proud of and that they want to sell to the guest. One of our franchisees has challenged us and said we need to be “crave-able.” So [the goal is to] make a product that the team wants to sell, is crave-able and that the guest wants to buy, and that makes that incremental sale easier to get.
What led you to the insight that having products your servers can’t wait to sell would improve your results?
It started with our white peach sangria. They were tinkering with it and having our team try it. When we found a recipe that worked, we saw our team members get excited and say, “Oh my gosh, this is great.” So as we’ve looked at adding menu items, we’re testing them more with the team. Their reaction to the crab Rangoon was, “Oh this is really good, and I can sell this.” So it’s more about having the business driven from the team.
Is it harder for bd’s to go after incremental sales when stir-fry can feel more like a special-occasion food, or at least like a food you don’t eat every day?
One of the things we’re working on is educating the consumer on that, because we have an unbelievable amount of choices. This year, we want to get them to understand that one time you can come in and make pad Thai, but if you’re in the mood for Italian and Mexican, we have the choices and flavors to accommodate that. We just have to teach them how to make a great stir-fry with it.
What else were you looking for as you walked around the NRA Show floor?
It goes back to driving that incremental business. What do we see in the appetizer category, and what do we see in the dessert category? We’re looking for products that will differentiate us. Our concept is all about choice, fun and the experience. Anything can help us do that in terms of technology, how to deliver that to the guest or how to make our teams’ jobs better — we’re looking for all of those today.