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Black Bear Diner CEO talks expansion as chain preps new opening Courtesy of Black Bear Diner

Black Bear Diner CEO talks expansion as chain preps new opening

Family-dining chain takes its mountain lodge theme to Oklahoma

Black Bear Diner Inc. will debut on Monday its first restaurant near Oklahoma City, pushing its mountain lodge theme and conversion strategy further eastward.

The Redding, Calif.-based company said the Midway City, Okla., opening will bring its total to 105 family-dining restaurants and broaden its footprint to nine states. The company plans to expand to Texas in early 2018 with a new diner in Katy, Texas

The brand was founded in Mount Shasta, Calif., in 1995 by Bob Manley and Bruce Dean (left). Dean currently serves as CEO and has grown the chain through a blend of corporate and franchised restaurants.

Black Bear Diner has an average unit volume of about $2.6 million, a spokesperson said, and the company has reported 26 consecutive quarters of same-store sales growth.

Dean spoke with Nation’s Restaurant News about growth plans and operations: 

What is attractive about the Oklahoma market? 

Generally, we have been a Western footprint – Colorado and on west. We’re very heavy in California; 41 of our units are in California. As we’ve moved east, we’ve basically built out Utah, and we’ve pretty much built out Arizona. The natural progression of our brand is to step into some new areas. We believe that the business environment and the consumer environment both in Oklahoma and Texas is conducive to our brand.

What is it about those demographics that appeals to you? 

People like good food and a lot of it.

Is anything changing about the size and look of the restaurants as you expand eastward? 

We do about 5,000 to 5,500 square feet. Since the day we started, we’ve taken other people’s buildings that haven’t worked for them and make them work for us. We’ve converted every brand you can think of. It’s opportunistic to a degree. None of the Black Bears are built to a specific footprint because of the strategy I’m using.

Which brands have you converted?

We’ve done them all. We’ve converted a lot of Coco’s and Carrows that have been there for years. We’re open to whatever is out there. 

Houston will divert from that conversion plan?

Houston is an interesting deal. We had a contractor come and offer to build us a shell building. It wasn’t a conversation. The one in Oklahoma was a local restaurant that we have taken over. Some of these national brands, especially in the casual-dining space, are kind of settling out, and we’ll look to convert many of them as time goes forward. 

Courtesy of Black Bear Diner

What about the menu?

Our menu is family dining with breakfast, lunch and dinner. That separates us out from traditional family dining in that we actually deliver on dinner, with 31 percent of sales across the chain done during the dinner segment. We’re a blend of family dining and casual dining. … We’re open generally from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. The dinner is between 4 p.m. and closing. 

And alcoholic beverages?

It’s a small part of the mix. We made the decision to be family dining, and we’re ensconced in that, but we do offer beer and wine in most locations just to prevent the veto vote at dinner for those who want a glass of wine with their dinner. Less than 1 percent of sales are alcohol. 

How about the décor?

The food has to anchor it, but it has to be an experiential environment. We create these mountain cabins. We started in this little town in Northern California of about 3,000 people. We started to make these diners that feel like mountain cabins. We’ve opened them in the desert. We’ve opened them in Las Vegas. We’ve opened them in Seattle, Southern California and Colorado Springs. People just like the feel. 

What’s the biggest change in the brand over the past 22 years?

We often talk about this. The first restaurant we opened in 1995 doesn’t look much different than the restaurant we open today. … We sell a chicken-fried steak that people love. It’s old-fashioned, hearty-type food. 

What’s the average check?

Overall, the per-person average is around $13.50. Obviously, that’s a little bit less at breakfast and a little more at dinner. 

Courtesy of Black Bear Diner

How about digital efforts?

We basically work through our e-club. We’ve got nearly 300,000 people in our e-club. 

And social media?

Social media has become an increasingly important tool for us as we have an incredibly engaged and loyal fan base. Our digital team, including our internal communications specialist, interacts with these guests daily to maximize this unique opportunity. As we grow into new markets, it’s also a great way for new guests to get to know Black Bear and learn our core values from us and from our loyal fans. In addition to social media, we have also added digital-ordering capabilities to provide our guests with the convenience they desire and the delicious meal they deserve.   

What’s your biggest concern about going into a new market?

It’s a little bit of an unknown. In order to counteract that, I’m throwing a lot of resources at the two new openings. I’m giving them very seasoned people from our operation to make sure we hit on guest satisfaction. We’re going into the unknown, but I’m trying to limit my risk. 

And your personal satisfaction?

I’m a founder. Growing from one to 105, and now going to Oklahoma and Texas, it’s just exciting. If we do well, then Katy bar the door.

Contact Ron Ruggless at [email protected] 

Follow him on Twitter: @RonRuggless 

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