The Super Bowl is on Sunday. But for Long John Silver’s, the big day comes three days later, on Ash Wednesday.
That’s when many of the nation’s 69.5 million Catholics give up meat and eat lots of seafood. Sales typically increase 75 percent at the Louisville-based chain on Ash Wednesday.
The company expects to sell as much as a half-million Hush Puppies that day, and it expects to sell 22 million pieces of fish throughout the season.
“Lent is our Super Bowl,” James O’Reilly, Long John Silver’s CEO, told Nation’s Restaurant News. “For our franchisees and company operators, it is our most important season.”
And this year is particularly important. O’Reilly took the helm at the quick-service chain in March and the company has since overhauled its management team, adding a new chief operating officer in Brian Unger and a new vice president of culinary innovation in Peter Czizek.
How important? “We’ve been preparing this for nine months,” said O’Reilly, the former chief brand officer with Sonic Drive-Ins. “We’re excited for Lent. We expect to continue our momentum in 2016.”
O’Reilly said that sales at the chain picked up in the second half of 2015, and hopes that a strong Lenten season can keep the winning streak going. Though he didn’t provide numbers, he said it was the chain’s best stretch since 2012.
A good Lent season would be a nice shot in the arm for a chain that has struggled since Yum! Brands Inc. divested the company in 2011 to LJS Partners LLC, a consortium of investors and franchisees.
The chain’s system sales fell 24 percent between 2012 and 2014, according to Nation’s Restaurant News Top 200 data, while unit count fell by nearly 200, from 1,325 locations in 2012 to about 1,100 now.
In his first 11 months on the job, O’Reilly has focused on getting the chain back to the basics.
The company has increased training for franchisees and for company store operators, using online tools, an effort that began as the new management team took over.
“The most important thing we can do is to give customers the best service in restaurants and focus on quality, service and cleanliness,” O’Reilly said. “We’re focusing on our core products, seafood, our homestyle sides, beverages and desserts.”
But the company has also taken a more unique pathway in its effort to turn the chain around: It bought up franchisee locations.
Since the fall, Long John Silver’s has acquired 44 locations from franchisees. That itself is not entirely unusual — companies like Papa Murphy’s Holdings Inc. and Wingstop Inc. have purchased franchisee locations.
What is unusual is that Long John Silver’s owned no company stores before last year. It was an all-franchisee owned company. It’s rare for franchisors to get back into the business of owning company locations at a time when many restaurant company owners provide the high-profit business of selling the rights to operate stores to entrepreneurs.
“We believe part of becoming a better franchisor is to be a better hands-on operator and get into the shoes of franchisees,” O’Reilly said. “From all indications, the results have been encouraging.”
O’Reilly said that the shift hasn’t been too much trouble for the management team at the company. “Our leadership team is very tenured in the quick-service restaurant space,” he said. “Acquiring restaurants into company ownership and operations was a very natural fit within our leadership team.”
The company’s focus has been largely on getting operations improved before the Ash Wednesday crowds arrive. But that doesn’t mean the company isn’t considering ideas for new menu items or a new restaurant prototype. “There’s lots of new stuff in the works,” O’Reilly said, “Let’s talk in a few months.”
Seafood has frequently been a difficult protein in the restaurant business — several seafood-oriented restaurant companies have had their challenges in recent years, though some have since bounced back.
But O’Reilly said that it is a good base for a restaurant chain, and that its popularity and Long John Silver’s 50-year history convinced him to take the position back in March.
“Consumers love seafood,” he said. “In 2014, consumers ate more seafood than they did for a number of years before that. The opportunity from a business standpoint is growing.”