Granite City strives for more fun with a revamp

The chain of brewery restaurants is recasting its menu and operations with both the guest and employee in mind.
Photograph courtesy of Granite City

The Granite City Food & Brewery chain is revamping its food and beverage menus to encourage sharing—of cocktails as well as food—while also loosening up the experience of employees.

The goal, says CEO Dick Lynch, is to make eating and working in the company’s 36 restaurants more fun. A pleasanter work experience will translate into better hospitality for customers and a truer reflection of the brewery-restaurant concept’s point of differentiation. “You’re sitting in an actual brewery eating food,” he says.  “How can you not have fun?”

Lynch says he’s been working toward the menu recast and reemphasis of Granite City’s history as a brewer since joining the operation two years ago. “We’ve told our employees, ‘If you think this is just a menu change, then we’ve not done a good job of conveying the comprehensive recast we’re doing,’” he tells Restaurant Business.

The theme of the revamp is “The Birthplace of Unserious Good Times,” Lynch says.

Twenty-seven menu items, 13 cocktails and wines and 14 seasonal beers are being added to the menu as part of the program, says VP of Operations Michael McBride, whom Lynch credits for much of the heavy lifting.

Granite City shifted its focus to small plates because they fit the mission of encouraging guests to sample, share and generally interact. Included is a new meatball dish, served on a skillet-style dish, “one of our best sellers so far,” says McBride. Other selections include Poke Tuna Tostadas and Chicken Tinga Sopes.

The new array also includes vegetarian, vegan and keto-friendly items.

“We’re still all about comfort classics with a twist, but now the menu is aimed at drawing people into new layers of a more communal dining experience,” McBride says.

The sharpest departure from the past, he says, was the inclusion of shareable cocktails in the drinks menu. The choices include a deep blue 48-ounce Blue Chi Chi, a drink intended to look like a seascape, right down to candy sharks. Because of the serving size, a unit can’t legally sell the drink unless at least two people are going to split it, Lynch says, noting the serving can easily accommodate three people. The sharers are each provided with a long straw to draw from the cocktail.

To enhance the experience of employees, uniforms that Lynch likens to the outfits of any casual chain were dropped in favor of a loose dress code. Crew members wear jeans and what Granite City calls its “beer gear”—casual tops that are also available for purchase by customers from a new merchandise station.

“That really enhanced the employee experience,” says Lynch. “They’re telling us, ‘Finally, we can dress like we work in a brewery.’”

The attempt to foster fun involved a considerable investment of time and effort in retraining the staff, says Lynch.

The reorientation supports a number of tweaks in operation, says McBride. He cites the example of “the coaster greet,” one of five actions required from the staff in their dealings with customers. When guests are seated, they’re given “cute” coasters emblazoned with a provocative question, such as “What’s the biggest lie you ever told your mother?” McBride says.

“They’re questions we really want our staff to ask our guests” as a way of fostering interaction, he says. “It’s a lot more fun than just asking, ‘What do you want to drink? What do you want to eat?’”

Lynch would not reveal the sales impact of the new menu, which has been tested in six restaurants for the past four months. “It’s been exceeding our expectations,” he says.

He says the new merchandise outlet inside the six test stores was a particularly pleasant surprise. “It’s doing extraordinarily well,” says Lynch, without revealing any figures.

He and McBride say Granite City is continuing to investigate other enhancements that guests might value, but isn’t ready to bet on potential draws such as sports betting or esports.

That experimentation extends to the beverage side of the business. Lynch acknowledged that his charge is looking at beverages to go. “Crowlers make more sense,” he says, referring to the oversized cans that are increasingly being used in lieu of growlers.

The Upper Midwestern chain is “very actively and aggressively” introducing the new food and beverage menus systemwide, with an intention to finish the rollout by the fall.

The chain doesn’t have a sizable marketing budget to trumpet the change, Lynch says. In addition to using social media, Granite City is depending on its unit-level teams to get the word out. “That’s why we’re placing so much on the employee, because they’re crucial,” he says. “If you asked them, I think they’d say they’re having more fun. They’d say they’re making more in tips, too, but they’d say first that they’re having more fun.”

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