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Emerging Brands

How Dick’s Last Resort is bringing back bawdy in 2019

After more than three decades, the casual-dining concept is getting smarter—but doubling down on its saucy roots.
Photograph courtesy of Dick's Last Resort

Conventional wisdom would suggest that a sassy concept like Dick’s Last Resort might tone things down in the #MeToo era, when sensitivity toward racy sexual innuendo is high. But the executives at 13-unit Dick’s Last Resort would disagree—and their recent sales figures support their decision to revamp their training program to double down on their PG-plus brand of humor, while also upgrading the menu for modern palates, says Mark Buehler, the company’s CEO since 2017.

The new emphasis on employee training assures Nashville-based Dick’s special brand of humor is being used appropriately as the brand grows into markets with a variety of demographics.

“The concept got a little bit watered down,” Buehler says, as the brand expanded into new markets. “The humor dropped to a G or PG level.” To set its brand apart, though, Dick’s needed to revive the edge—when appropriate. “It starts with reading the table and reading the dining room,” he says. There are to be no jokes around race, religion, gender or gender identity, and no vulgar words, he adds. With that in mind, the company identified three kinds of customers: those who want to play (“They get it and dish it back out.”); those who want to watch (“Ninety-five percent of those guests convert to those who want to play.”); and those who want nothing to do with the jokes and simply want to eat, drink and leave.

“We train and teach and coach to that,” Buehler says. As part of its refocusing efforts, Dick’s has moved to an online training system for coaching and teaching, along with weekly management meetings to hone the message.

It’s not just in-house guests Dick’s wants to push its refreshed image to. The chain has added a full-time channel manager for social media. And it redefined its Dick mascot as someone who is “sarcastic, aware, sharp-witted, easy-going,” Buehler says. “Kind of like a crazy drunk uncle. … Raw but still endearing.” The logo had become too cartoonish, he adds, so it’s been remade into a more modern image.

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Apart from revamping the brand identity, Dick’s Last Resort has stepped up its kitchen game as it plots a growth plan. Over the years, the concept had come to rely on fully prepared foods, rather than cooking items in-house, Buehler says. But that’s changed. Now, all chicken tenders (fresh, not frozen) are cut in the kitchen, the chain has upgraded its salmon and sirloin quality, it is preparing all sauces in-house and has switched to a toasted brioche bun. High-powered blenders were rolled out in all locations to make fresh sauces and compound butters.

With units that vary in size from 4,000 to 12,000 square feet, the menu is also being customized by location for maximum efficiency in each kitchen, Buehler says. The Boston unit, for example, is the smallest of all of the chain’s restaurants. When pasta was added to the menu last year, he says, “It almost killed Boston because they couldn’t deliver.” That kitchen added small burners to aid in sauteeing, but pasta got scrapped from that unit’s menu.

After losing money for several years, Dick’s Last Resort saw an almost 7% jump in check averages last year and positive sales in the first part of the year, he said. “We’re grandfathered in somewhat,” he says. “It’d be very hard for someone today to create a concept that looks like Dick’s Last Resort.”

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