With James O'Reilly taking the helm, Perkins and Huddle House are updating their stories

The new CEO says sharpening the brand positions of the venerable family-dining chains is a top priority.
Ascent Hospitality Management CEO James O'Reilly | Photo courtesy of Ascent Hospitality Management

Rejuvenating two old guards of the greyhaired family-dining market isn’t a challenge every restaurant veteran would care to undertake. But James O’Reilly says he had no qualms about taking on that mission for the parent of Perkins and Huddle House, sector stalwarts that have been frying bacon and flipping pancakes for a collective 115-plus years.

“I am extremely bullish on the family market” says the 27-year restaurant veteran, who is just past his 30th day as CEO of Ascent Hospitality Management. “The resilience of restaurant brands that have great value propositions for customers absolutely have latent opportunity. The latent potential, the undiscovered potential of our sector, was a greenlight.”

Indeed, O’Reilly says, part of his new job is identifying other family-focused brands that Ascent could buy.

What’s needed, he continues, is a sharpening of his two charges’ “story”—what’s unique about the brands, how they got to where they are, and why they’re worth a visit.

That will likely involve “looking at the brands’ positions and marketing,” O’Reilly continues. “We have the opportunity to go deeply into their stories and say what makes them truly different, relevant and inviting.”

He views the operations as having very different DNA.

“I view them as different opportunities,” O’Reilly says. “Perkins as a sort of suburban dining choice for families in middle America,” he says. “It has very attractive price points,” and is known in part for its baking.

“Looking at Huddle House, it’s more of a Southern concept, more of a diner concept,” he continues.

Together, the two chains extend to about 600 locations, many of them franchised.

O’Reilly declined to reveal sales figures or other financial information, but disclosed that comparable-store sales for both of the Ascent brands have been growing.

He also stresses that the last two Huddle Houses to open have been setting sales records, with one notching a new all-time-high benchmark every day.

O’Reilly spoke with Restaurant Business right before he was set to meet with Ascent’s franchisees. But initial assessments have already given him insights into what needs to be done with both Perkins and Huddle House.

Sharpening their stories tops the list, he says.

Next on the roster is “focusing on the basics and helping our franchise operators and corporate operators to become more profitable,” he continues.

“The third area would be innovation and positioning these brands as leaders in certain aspects of how we do business,” says O’Reilly. “We will be focusing on technology innovation, helping guests access our brands. And we’re thinking of menu creativity and innovation.”

O’Reilly took the CEO’s post at Ascent after holding the same title for about 3.5 years at Smokey Bones, the full-service barbecue chain that Darden Restaurants launched in 1999. Its ownership has changed several times since then, and the chain has shrunk from 129 stores to the current tally of 62.

It was a single-concept operation. O’Reilly says the job at Ascent appealed to him in part because he’d have oversight of more than one brand. With the cost amortized across two operations, more support services can be offered.

All of Smokey Bones’ restaurants were company-operated.

“Working with franchisees was one of the things I ended up missing,” O’Reilly asserts. “Working with franchisees in restaurant systems adds a whole new level of conversation, but it’s a good conversation.”

He’s no stranger to franchised chains. Before joining Smokey Bones, he had turned around Long John Silver’s, a franchise system. Earlier, he served in high-level marketing posts for KFC and Sonic.

As for his new charges, O’Reilly says he’s looking forward to “the stories that people will be telling about these brands—stories about how these great brands have been revitalized.”

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