OPINIONOperations

The restaurant brands we just can't let go

We loved them once. Will we love them again? Nancy Kruse and Lisa Jennings talk about the wave of restaurant brand revivals attempting to make what's old new again.
Steak & Ale
A rendering of the new-and-revived Steak & Ale, which was once the casual dining concept to define casual dining. |Rendering courtesy of Steak & Ale.

Lisa:

Nancy, you may not know this about me, but I do love an all-you-can-eat buffet.

Of course, all I can eat is not very much, so it’s a losing proposition for me as a consumer. But I still remember the joy of walking into a Souplantation/Sweet Tomatoes, the buffet chain with two names that was killed so cruelly during the pandemic.

I loved paying one price to choose from way too many options. But the part about “choice” for me was being able to choose as little as I wanted from that salad bar that seemed to go on forever, those soups, the breads and, yes, there was soft serve.

How I loved that soft serve, but not because I could make myself a big fat sprinkles-covered monstrosity, as fellow guests often did. I loved it because I could make myself a tiny little splurt (the international measurement of soft serve), which was all I needed. Just a splurt. Maybe with sprinkles. And I was happy.

Of course, the 97-unit buffet chain, once owned by Garden Fresh Restaurants in San Diego, closed in 2020 during the pandemic shutdown, and they never reopened. At the time, nobody wanted to think about strangers coming in such close proximity to their broccoli salad, even with a smudged sneeze guard to protect them.

Some industry pundits even declared the buffet dead and gone.

But now, it seems, the Sweet Tomatoes brand is back. In a few weeks, a Sweet Tomatoes is reopening in Tucson, Ariz., and we will once again know the joy of trying to cram too much food onto a plate to get your money’s worth, even though you know you won’t be able to finish it.

In fact, Sweet Tomatoes is one of a number of legacy brands making a comeback. It seems there are many restaurant brands that we just can’t seem to let die.

It appears the thinking is that, because someone, somewhere out there loved it once, then perhaps another generation can learn to love it too. Sort of like the movie “Mean Girls.”

Nancy, can we talk about these restaurant revivals? What does it say that we are so willing to relive the past?

Nancy:

One of the things that I really enjoy about our monthly exchanges, Lisa, is that I always learn something new. In this case, it’s two somethings: First, that you’re a hardcore splurter, to which I can only say that it takes one to know one. And the second is that Sweet Tomatoes is making a comeback.

This last delights me not merely because of the splurting opportunities it may afford, but because the chain was responsible for some of the very best under-the-radar, one-step-ahead menu R&D in the business. Nothing would make me happier than to see them back at it.

The bigger question that you raise about restaurant revivals strikes me as especially timely, given that, as you note, several legacy brands are slated for resuscitation at a time when we’re not exactly lacking for new concepts, even if an inordinate number of them do seem to involve pickleball. Or golf. 

Press reports indicate comebacks of casual-dining classics like Steak and Ale, which first saw the light of day in 1966, and quick-serve antiquities like Arthur Treacher’s Fish and Chips, which took its name from an English character actor born in the 1890s and hit its peak in the late 1970s.

It strikes me that these blast-from-the-past concepts go hand-in-glove with other phenomena that suggest we really are turning into our parents. 

Consider that the Wall Street Journal just ran a story headlined “The Hottest New Bedtime for 20-somethings is 9 P.M.” The story suggests that they’ve eschewed barhopping and dining out to be in their jammies shortly past sundown.

In a similar vein, concept meister Danny Meyer has observed that six o’clock is the new eight o’clock when it comes to bagging a table at popular hot spots, thereby giving new meaning to the notion of the early-bird special.

Then there’s the slew of stories about how younger consumers are eating up older brands. The Takeout, a food and pop culture newsletter from the creators of the satirical The Onion, recently sang the praises of the Olive Garden, noting its appeal to Gen-Z diners.  This followed an earlier story on the Eater website proclaiming that “Casual Dining Chains Are Back, Baby” and reporting that “uncool” chains are making a return.

I’m really intrigued by all this, though I’m not entirely sure that it means we’re willing to relive the past, since most Gen Zers are too young to have a past.

I wonder if you see something else at work here?

Lisa:

You remind me how I used to amuse myself by making dinner reservations at high-end seafood restaurants using the name Arthur Treacher. Now everything’s online and they took the fun out of it.

But you’re right that some of these revivals are a classic case of what’s old becomes new again.

In California, for example, a young brother-and-sister team of entrepreneurs is reportedly taking over the Pioneer Chicken concept, once a beloved 270-unit fried chicken chain based in Los Angeles that was founded in 1961 and known for its “Strips and Chips” and Orange Whip.

Val and Ernesto Aguirre are both under age 25 and they are the grandchildren of the franchise operator who ran the last two remaining units of the brand. These two bring something to the table that their grandparents apparently couldn’t: social media savvy.

Pioneer Chicken now has more than 58,000 followers on Instagram and 12,000 on TikTok, for example, and perhaps the brand is cool in part because you can still spot the brand’s iconic old signs around town, haunting our memories, even in spots where the actual restaurant is long gone.

It will be interesting to see if this youthful injection of marketing translates to sales. As Heather Haddon of the Wall Street Journal recently noted, the fans of fast food brands—whether old or new—can be incredibly loyal, and their “engagement” can seem extreme at times, as anyone attempting to be first in line at a new Chick-fil-A can attest.

So, Nancy, is it only a matter of time before we see the return of Burger Chef, Chi-Chi’s and Kenny Roger’s Roasters? I feel like there are superfans out there just waiting and hoping that day will come.

Are there any brands you particularly miss?

Nancy:

Any chains that I particularly miss? No, there aren’t; and honestly, I think some brands are better left in the boneyard. If they couldn’t deliver on what patrons wanted the first time around, I’m not confident that they’d ace a do-over.

This brings up the obvious question of what exactly do contemporary consumers want? Regardless of the age of the concept or the age of the customer, what are the must-haves necessary for success in a tough, competitive restaurant environment?

Well, for starters, The Takeout article listed five things that make the Olive Garden “so endearing.” These include table service, big portions, good prices, to-go options and the ability to customize. All the basics, right?

But to your point, social media looms large here, too. The author reports that “In true mukbang fashion, people are filming themselves ordering every conceivable combination (of pasta and sauce), stuffing pasta in their mouths and getting millions of views online.” Not a pretty picture, I know, but I’m just the messenger here.

Add to this the Eater story that says previously “uncool” chains are redeemed by consistency, good value, an atmosphere that promotes socializing, and nostalgia, which for Millennials like the author are “a reminder of a simpler time. A time when you thought going to the Olive Garden was a fancy night out … these chain restaurants may not be cool or sophisticated, but they are cozy and familiar, and I think many folks (myself included) would honestly prefer that to waiting in line at a hip eatery.”

Cozy and familiar? Talk about turning into your parents! 

So it appears that we truly have gone back to the future. In a post-Covid environment, chain brands that do the basics well appear to represent a kind of security blanket for Gen Zers and Millennials, who are not so much reliving the past as seeking shelter from a challenging present. 

And those 20th-century brands trying to establish themselves with a 21st-century audience?

So long as they understand the current environment, do the requisite operational blocking and tackling and provide a little click bait, they may very well succeed. Miniskirts and Nehru jackets optional, of course. 

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