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R&IEditorial Archives2002 — March 1 — Special Report

The Strongest Links
Customers have their say, rating America’s restaurant chains

View the scores by Attribute for all 75+ eligible chains.
View details about the Survey.

Staying in step with customers’ needs keeps concepts top of mind with consumers, judging by the results of Restaurants and Institutions’ 2002 Choice in Chains survey.

Consider Romano’s Macaroni Grill, which posted the highest overall score for the fourth consecutive year. The Italian chain continues to raise its performance standards, posting top marks in its category for food quality, menu variety, service, atmosphere and cleanliness.

Romano’s is matched by seven other chains with back-to-back wins in this year’s survey, which polled 2,767 consumers across the country. Red Lobster, Chick-fil-A, Krispy Kreme, In-N-Out Burger, Baskin-Robbins, CiCi’s Pizza and Cracker Barrel also repeated their 2001 victories.

The Cheesecake Factory, which ranked first among all chains for menu variety, joins Steak and Ale and Old Country Buffet in moving up the rankings for wins in 2002. Meanwhile, newcomers Chevys Fresh Mex and Panera Bread debuted atop their categories.

As in the past, category winners are not necessarily the largest chains in terms of either system sales or unit counts. But the leaders make the grade by the toughest and, ultimately, the most important measure of success: pleasing their customers.

Read on to find out more about how the 2002 Choice in Chains winners have achieved and strive to maintain their most-favored-destination status.

When John Miller talks about competitors in the Italian-concept category, the president of Romano’s Macaroni Grill is generous with kudos. “They’re on our heels,’’ he says. “They’re pesky, but that’s good. There’s room for all of us.’’

The chain maintains leadership in the Italian segment with high scores in food quality, atmosphere, service and menu variety. Staying focused on the concept: means offering authentic regional cuisine, good value and the spirit of Italian hospitality in a friendly, comfortable atmosphere.

The nature of Italy’s food makes that easy, Miller says. “Regional styles of Italian cooking offer taste profiles that appeal to everyone.’’ The menu mix reflects Italy’s various regions with hearty red sauces, ragus, delicate cream sauces and a bonanza of seafood preparations from coastal areas.

At the heart of the chain’s culinary inspiration and vision is Naples, Italy-born Marco Fiorini, Romano’s executive chef. Thanks to the purchasing power of the 170-unit chain, Fiorini can buy the freshest ingredients in volume for the best price. Managing inventories regionally also helps keep pricing modest, Miller says. The average check is $13.75.

To promote the spirit of Italian culture and cuisine, Romano’s each year sends several chefs and managers to Italy. That experience becomes a teaching tool when the travelers return and lead educational workshops. Chefs and employees participate in cooking demonstrations, menu samplings and lectures.

Romano’s aims to retain staff by providing a education opportunities, premium pay, a bonus incentive program, and in-house promotion, Miller adds. And consistently strong systemwide sales plus national brand recognition attracts employees looking for better tips and bonuses.

For 2002, the chain plans to open 20 stores and introduce a prototype design offering “more Old World charm” through use of brick, stone and stucco, arches, warmer colors and better lighting. In addition, the menu will expand to include more-complex dishes, such as risotto, and additional pizzas and entrees from wood-burning ovens. The wine program will feature a new 1.5-liter jug in addition to the standard 4-liter vessel.

Romano’s insistence on high standards in cleanliness goes beyond training, Miller adds. “You make it a priority. With such an open design plus wide aisles and good lighting, you can’t hide anything.’’ —Margaret Sheridan

Loyal In-N-Out Burger customers are a peculiar lot. Their near-fanatic devotion to the regional chain’s simple menu of burgers and fries is storied among quickservice concepts. And when it comes time to order, true In-N-Out aficionados know how to get exactly what they want: They speak in their own language.

Looking for a hamburger with grilled onions instead of raw, with mustard fried onto the bun and topped with extra sauce? Order it “Animal Style.” How about a sandwich with all the fixings but sans the meat? Ask for a “Wish Burger.”

These regularly requested sandwiches are among the dozen or so creatively named In-N-Out fixtures not listed on the menu. For the Irvine, Calif.-based quickservice outlet, it’s just one more way to give customers what they want.

“All those items that customers have learned to order and have been given names over the years really are variations on the methods of preparation for our burgers,” says Carl Van Fleet, vice president of operations at In-N-Out. “We make everybody’s burger to order, so it’s pretty simple for us to accommodate [special requests].”

Like the company’s handmade, never-frozen burgers and fresh-cut fries made from whole potatoes, these longtime “secret menu” items help create the In-N-Out experience that keeps customers coming back.

Of course, In-N-Out can’t always supply what diners demand. For example, the company has no plans to expand outside its current three-state region of California, Nevada and Arizona, Van Fleet says.

“We make all the patties ourselves, don’t own any freezers anywhere in the system and deliver to our stores every other day, so there’s only so far we can go,” he says. “As far as growth, Arizona was a big step for us—Phoenix in particular—and we’re just going to try to grow within our current boundaries.”

Family-owned since 1948, the company remains tight-lipped about the financial performance of its 158 stores. But Van Fleet says In-N-Out’s main concern is maintaining focus on the chain’s signature freshness, quality and service.

“Often what [customers] tell us is, ‘Don’t change,’ “ says Van Fleet. “We hear: ‘I come to you for your burgers. I like the fact that it’s the same burger that I ate with my dad 30 years ago. Please don’t ever change it.’ “

Never fear, double-double devotees, In-N-Out is listening. —Allison Perlik

Let the eyes feast” could well be the marketing strategy for The Cheesecake Factory.

The chain of 30 upscale restaurants sets the benchmark in the dinner-house category for food quality and menu variety. More than 200 items plus a check average of $15.50 appeal to a wide variety of diners. But what sharpens the appetite is the dessert display. Before they’re seated, many customers mentally order dessert, having seen the array of caloric fantasies by the hostess stand, according to Howard Gordon, vice president of marketing and business development.

Largesse and abundance are part of The Cheesecake Factory dining experience. “Portions are huge by design,” Gordon explains. “We want customers to take food home.’’ Even the contents of the breadbasket go into a doggie bag.

The menu offers something for everyone, he says, from kids to seniors, burger lovers to vegetarians. Guests with particular dietary needs will find displays of fresh fruits and vegetables part of the décor. Menus of specialty drinks attract a lively bar scene. A wine-by-the-glass program includes 23 choices, including four sparklers.

Finding the right location is critical in drawing business. Cheesecake Factory units averaged $11 million in sales in 2001, while the chain’s highest-grossing store, in Chicago’s John Hancock Building, generates $18 million, a testament to real estate selection. “The John Hancock unit has just what we look for when locating a restaurant: demographics and traffic,” Gordon adds. “It attracts locals, visitors, shoppers, tourists and corporate business.’’

Locating the right people is just as important. With 12 new units planned for 2002, the concept depends on the stability of tight-knit teams at each operation, Gordon says. He contends that the foodservice labor market suffers from a retention crisis, not a shortage of employees, so The Cheesecake Factory concentrates on keeping qualified staffers. The chain boasts close to zero turnover in managers and has reduced churn among hourly employees by carefully screening applicants. A mentoring system for new hires plus on-floor trainers ensures a consistent level of service.

“We look for individuals who consider service an empowering career path, not one of servitude,’’ Gordon explains. “Our name says it. Cheesecake is about comfort and fun. It’s a business, yes, but we have fun doing it.’’ —Margaret Sheridan

Even a price increase doesn’t detour CiCi’s customers. Loyal patrons and a tightly run operation position the Coppell, Texas-based chain as a winner. For two years running, it has earned the top spot in the pizza category.

With its $3.99 all-you-can-eat format, CiCi’s highest score, not surprisingly, is for value (even with a price increase from $2.99 early last year). But the concept is more than a price leader: it also bested its competitors in the areas of menu variety, service and cleanliness. That has kept systemwide sales growing, reaching $315 million in 2001, about 5% more than the previous year, $301 million in 2000, according to Joe Flanigan, vice president of marketing.

“If you going to raise prices, which we hadn’t done for 10 years, you’ve got to deliver a dollar’s more worth of value,’’ he says. CiCi’s did that by developing a thicker pizza crust, reformulating its sauce, adding more cheese and by switching to fresh vegetables instead of canned. Maintaining excellence comes from striving to exceed customers’ expectations, he adds.

“Price and value are just part of the mix. If you provide a good experience at a reasonable price point, you will win over people. They become regulars.’’ The “one price, all you can eat buffet” approach is the drawing card. Each unit offers a rotating menu of 16 pizza varieties, a choice of hot pasta entrées, salads and desserts. CiCi’s strives to offers a clean, safe family environment, providing “great pizza at a great price, and a place where kids can be kids,’’ Flanigan says.

Smart hiring is critical. Fewer than 40 of the 375 units are company-owned. Each franchisee is trained to look for people with enthusiasm, says Flanigan. The company creates a work environment that attracts people who enjoy serving in a fun atmosphere. “If a customer arrives, looks around then turns to leave, we want the kind of employee who will jump over the counter to get him back.’’ Flanigan says the company concentrates on running the business with a “four-walls mentality: focus inside the unit to make it safe, clean, fun and offering fresh hot food.’’

CiCi’s plans include 60 new units in 2002. A re-imaging campaign launched last year is continuing, giving stores brighter colors and a more contemporary logo and graphics. Nine units have been completed. The changes also have had a positive impact in attracting attention from experienced multiunit restaurant developers. “We’re now on the national radar screen,’’ adds Flanigan. “We want to grow the brand.’’ —Margaret Sheridan

“We’re just trying to help these cows out as best we can,” says Dan Cathy, responding to news that Chick-fil-A once again earned top honors in R&I’s Choice in Chains, topping the competition in every attribute.

Cathy, president and chief operating officer for the quick-service chicken chain, refers to Chick-fil-A’s crowd-pleasing ad campaign featuring cows pleading with consumers to “Eat Mor Chikin.” But a duty to cows seems an understatement in explaining the company’s success.

Despite the slowing economy, Chick-fil-A posted a 14.4% increase in total sales in 2001, on top of a 4.9% rise in same-store sales. Other milestones for the concept last year included the opening of its 1,000th location and the introduction of the first new entrée in six years.

The private, family-run company still prides itself on catering to customers rather than Wall Street. Along those lines, Chick-fil-A takes every opportunity to get to the heart of what customers crave.

“We do both quantitative and qualitative research in that regard,” says Cathy, outlining a program that includes focus groups, in-store customer intercepts, quarterly consumer surveys and a toll-free number for guest comments.

Telephone communication provides especially useful suggestions and observations. “We are able to get live recordings of customers that capture not only the issues and points of improvement, but also the passion level among these customers,” he says. “Operators frequently play those calls back for their team members so we can look for ways to make process improvements.”

Some of these improvements found their way to Chick-fil-A’s menu in 2001. Cool Wrap entrées, available in spicy, chargrilled and Caesar styles, were rolled out systemwide last spring “to overwhelming applause from cows as well as customers,” Cathy says. Also updated was the hot beverage program with coffee, tea and hot chocolate—again in response to customer feedback.

The changes strike a chord with consumers, who ranked Chick-fil-A’s food quality well above the competition. Service, too, sets the concept apart from its Choice in Chains challengers, with scores well ahead of other chicken chains.

“We put a premium on being able to attract and retain great people,” says Cathy. “We have a reputation that it’s easier to get a job with the CIA than the CFA.”

The other side of Chick-fil-A’s strategy is simply sticking with what works. Case in point: the “Eat Mor Chikin” advertising campaign.

“It has become almost an inseparable icon image of our business,” Cathy says. “We’ll keep running that program until the cows come home.” —Allison Perlik

Family dining
Even the best strive to be better and Cracker Barrel Old Country Store has done that, not only scoring its 12th consecutive first-place finish in the family-dining category, but doing so by taking top marks for each attribute.

This year’s win is especially sweet for the chain’s top management because it tells them their efforts to refocus and revitalize the brand are in line with consumer desires.

“We lost sight of some things in chasing the consumer, and execution eroded,” says Michael Woodhouse, chief executive officer of parent CBRL Group Inc. “We strayed from what our brand means: tradition, familiarity, nostalgia.”

All aspects of the concept have been reviewed, from menu and marketing to the mix of products in Cracker Barrels’ gift shops, with changes made.

“We concentrate on improving operations every day,” says Don Turner, president of the 443-unit Cracker Barrel division. “That means the selection of managers, [monitoring] that the quality of the raw materials and food quality are high, that recipes are followed, holding times are proper and that every customer is treated with respect.”

The menu of prepared-from-scratch foods has remained fairly constant, emphasizing home-style dishes such as country ham, chicken and dumplings, chicken-fried steak and breakfast at any hour. Seasonal specials cycle on and off, recently including a grilled prime rib dinner special on Saturdays, beef stroganoff on Sundays and a peach pancake sampler for breakfast. Turner says Cracker Barrel will continue to try new entrées to keep current with consumer tastes, while keeping prices moderate. Value is an important part of the brand identity: Per-guest checks average $7.19.

Cross-promoting restaurant meals and retail store products is being tried: a recent Applefest promotion featured an apple crisp dessert and touted availability of ingredients in the store. Retailing is an important element in the Cracker Barrel concept, accounting for 24% of total revenues.

Woodhouse says the changes made already had strengthened the brand with its customer base before September 11, although the change in consumer mind-set that has followed those events has made its marketplace position even better. The company in December reported that comparable-store restaurant sales were 8% ahead of year-earlier levels.

With most units located near major highways, Cracker Barrel traditionally has been a major user of outdoor advertising. To better define the brand, new billboards go beyond directions to the nearest unit, adding positioning lines such as “Where comfort meets food.”

Moving beyond highways is in Cracker Barrel’s expansion plan, but the company won’t rush. “We’re carefully learning how to choose the right site, “ Turner says. —Scott Hume

Setting its sights on customers who have tired of the usual fast-food formulas, Panera is pursuing a strategy to lure them to its bakery-cafes.

“We’re building on what we call the ‘chill-out’ business,” says Jon Jameson, chief brand officer for the bakery chain. “Consumers are rejecting fast food. They want real food served by real people. They want a comfortable place to relax, visit with friends, work on the computer, sit back, read a book by the fireplace while drinking cappuccino or eating a pastry or a sandwich.”

For Panera, courting that market means creating an atmosphere that engages as well as energizes. Updated units feature warm colors, a mix of seating styles, “cozy corners” (with leather chairs, and in newer stores, a fireplace) and background jazz or classical music. Panera also is exploring Internet hook-ups as a draw.

But fresh-baked specialty breads—original sourdough plus 14 other varieties—remain the heart of the brand. Driving product quality and consistency at 330 units are 14 fresh dough facilities that supply ready-to-bake doughs and pastries.

“A lot of people don’t realize that we have more than 500 bakers,” Jameson says. “Every bakery-cafe has at least one baker, sometimes more.

“Everything about the concept rises from bread,” he adds. “It is the platform for the entire menu, from breakfast pastries to lunch sandwiches, from bagels to loaves.”

The best-selling lunch item is “You Pick Two,” allowing customers to pair a half-sandwich with soup or salad. The most popular bread variety is sourdough, “the mother bread,” Jameson says. “It takes a lot of care to maintain the signature taste profile and texture.”

Interested customers can learn about the intricacies of baking through “Breadwise,” Panera’s free quarterly newsletter. The debut issue, available in stores and on the Internet, includes a profile of Michael Marino, Panera’s master artisan baker, recipes and a focus on Asiago cheese bread, one of the chain’s signature offerings.

Marino, plans to enhance Panera’s breads via the chain’s Artisan Bread Initiative, a program that will have hand-formed artisanal breads baked in on-premise, gas-fired, stone hearth ovens. So far, 35 bakery-cafes have been fitted with the new ovens. By year’s end, Marino expects 150 units to have the program in place, some through retrofitting (at a cost of about $40,000 per unit), others through new construction. —Janice Matsumoto

Red Lobster leads the seafood category in food quality, a Choice in Chains distinction it has held many times before. Those high marks underscore a key component of the concept’s continued success, says Jim DeSimone, director of communications. “Food quality begins with food safety. That’s why we’ve been around for 30 years.’’

In addition to complying with national standards and regulations, the 661-unit chain, a subsidiary of Darden Restaurants Inc., has its own network of quality-assurance labs, food scientists and inspectors. It applies stringent guidelines to every phase of foodservice, from hauling and handling the fresh catch to storing and cooking the processed seafood. Maintaining the highest standards of food safety, cleanliness and service is what DeSimone calls the “non-negotiables,” the corporate priorities that are taught and reinforced through all ranks.

To lend a hometown feel to a national chain, decisions and issues are dealt with on a regional basis, he says. That includes listening to the consumer. “We pay attention to local taste preferences and consumer surveys,” he says. Senior vice presidents and culinary teams make decisions for each region.

As a result, there are 142 versions of the Red Lobster menu, reflecting local tastes and pricing patterns. The conch fritter sandwich popular in Tampa, Fla., would raise eyebrows in California. Mussels, when available, are must-haves in Detroit. Holding the national average check at $14 to $15 is possible because of smart purchasing.

In general, customers like to order what they don’t cook at home, which at a seafood chain, encompasses many items. Variety is key, and it’s the challenge Stephen Anderson, executive chef, faces. When guests asked for innovative dishes, Anderson and his chefs created crab-stuffed portobellos, crab and shrimp Cobb salad and seared mahi mahi with teriyaki glaze.

“Red Lobster has tremendous purchasing power because we buy in very large volume,” he says. “We can take advantage of this year’s bumper supply of shrimp, for example. It becomes a headliner at all units, and we can pass savings on to the customers.’’ The concept’s popular annual “fests,” which spotlight lobster, crab and shrimp, compound this value message.

Red Lobster’s improved beverage selection mirrors changing consumer tastes. The wine program recently expanded from four choices to 17. Menus now carry food-wine pairing suggestions while staff training helps guests feel comfortable making selections.

In opening new units this year, Red Lobster plans to continue positioning units as venues that offer competitively priced, high-quality food in lively surroundings. —Margaret Sheridan

Steak and Ale last scored a first-place finish in the steakhouse category in 1989. That the chain is the 2002 platinum winner (following a tiebreaker with Outback Steakhouse) is fitting. After a decade of dormancy when only a handful of new units were opened, aging and underperforming restaurants were closed and systemwide sales were flat at best, the Steak and Ale concept is being refurbished. Consumers noticed.

“This award reinforces the work we’ve done” to rebuild the brand, says Steak and Ale President Bill Spae. It wasn’t easy for Spae and his team to watch other steakhouse concepts’ consumer perceptions move to the top, and rethinking Steak and Ale hasn’t been simple. Returning to the top spot in Choice in Chains, however, makes the effort worthwhile.

“The steakhouse segment has been the fastest-growing category among diners age 35 and up for the past five to 10 years,” Spae says. “It’s very competitive and it’s tough to stay current, but it’s absolutely necessary to do so.”

Steak and Ale pioneered the casual-dining segment when its first unit opened in 1966, an attempt by Norman Brinker to replicate the atmosphere of an Old English alehouse with modestly priced food and beverages. The chain passed through several ownership changes before becoming part of Dallas-based Metromedia Restaurant Group in 1988. Steak and Ale languished for several years, Spae concedes, losing both focus and customers.

The chain’s core baby-boomer customers have been rediscovering Steak and Ale as the chain rediscovers its brand heritage.

“We’re going back to what Norman did. Well, we’re not bringing back the wenches costumes [part of the original Old English theme], but we are going back to what worked for Steak and Ale” in its early years, Spae says.

New exterior designs reinforce the tavern concept, “but more importantly, apart from the physical changes, we’re improving our focus on all the inside-the-four-walls systems” through better back- and front-of-the-house execution, he says. Training has been improved and food quality has been notched up as Steak and Ale returns to its original concept of being “affordable fine dining,” Spae says.

“We reevaluated the music and the lighting, putting candles on the tables and reinstituting tableside wine service,” Spae says. “Little details make a big difference in customers’ experience, and they’re saying to us, ‘Gee, it’s like you used to do it before.’

“The dining rooms used to have their own names, and customers had their favorites. Over the years, Steak and Ale has taken those names down, but they’re going back up.

“I’ve been an operator for 30 years,” Spae adds, “and I’ve never seen a situation where a focus on the basics didn’t result in gains.” —Scott Hume

When you achieve cult status, as Krispy Kreme Doughnuts has done, changes are made very selectively. However, the chain realizes that resting on laurels is risky as well.

“It all starts with the hot doughnut experience. That defines the brand,” says Stan Parker, senior vice president for marketing at the 216-unit chain. “Every time a customer comes to Krispy Kreme we want them to have the best experience they can get. But [consumer] expectations get higher.”

During its fiscal year ended in January, Krispy Kreme opened 43 stores or 20% of its total system. That means, Parker says, pressure to meet expectations in new markets where consumers may have heard wonderful things about Krispy Kreme doughnuts. Reputations can fall on word-of-mouth as easily and as quickly as they can soar, so ensuring consistency of both product and experience is the company’s primary challenge, he says.

Krispy Kreme recently has opened a new, larger training facility near its Winston-Salem, N.C., headquarters to maintain that consistency in new stores. The chain expects to top last year’s openings count in 2002, Parker says, which equates to even higher training demands.

Additionally, a staged rollout this year will introduce Krispy Kreme’s expanded beverages program to existing stores and be incorporated in new units. That program—made possible by the chain’s acquisition last year of coffee roaster and equipment fabricator Digital Java—includes three new drip coffees as well as espressos and frozen coffee drinks. “The big bills [for the rollout] are equipment and training,” Parker says.

Krispy Kreme is far from saturating the U.S. market, but its potential isn’t limitless. Parker says the company sees room for perhaps 750 traditional “factory stores,” which produce an average of 230 dozen doughnuts hourly. Those units typically require 4,500 square feet, limiting site-selection options. To create the Krispy Kreme experience in smaller towns, airports or in-line malls, the company is testing technology that will allow doughnuts to be partially cooked in a traditional unit then finished and sold in a store requiring as few as 900 square feet.

“We know the technology works because we’ve conducted consumer taste tests” that show no appreciable quality decline, Parker says.

Three stores in North Carolina continue to test the technology, but that rollout remains a low priority as Krispy Kreme continues to open stores that provide the full experience customers have come to expect. —Scott Hume

Will diners at a Mexican restaurant order grilled buffalo or Maine lobster? Tests at Chevys Fresh Mex restaurants point to yes—as long as they’re served in fajitas, of course.

His customer’s appetite for adventure continues to surprise Scott Bergren, company president and chief executive officer. “If you run a Mexican restaurant company, you think customers want more and better Mexican offerings,” he says. “As we expand across the country, we have found that is not always the case.”

Through multiple research methods, Bergren realized his customers generally fall into two main categories. Chevys’ primary audience orders traditional Mexican dishes, “food that has higher flavor profiles, that is hotter, spicier,” Bergren says. Others “look for things they can pronounce ... kinds of foods that we historically haven’t carried.”

To meet this demand, Chevys promoted roughly a dozen new items in 2001, says Chief Marketing Officer Bruce MacDiarmid. Many involved Mexican staples with nontraditional twists, such as lemon-rosemary chicken tacos with garlic-herb tortillas and grilled buffalo fajitas with papaya salsa.

“Our guests want variety, and for us it’s critical that menu innovation be part of that strategy,” MacDiarmid says.

If a test unit in Santa Rosa, Calif., is any indication, Chevys’ assessment of its customers is on target. “We have challenged ourselves to really broaden the menu [in Santa Rosa], and 25% of the food we’re selling is new items,” Bergren says, pointing out that these items represent far less than 25% of the total menu.

At any of Chevys’ 129 locations nationwide, whether customers opt for more-traditional chicken enchiladas or more-daring tempura-battered coconut shrimp, most agree on one important factor, says Bergren: freshness.

“Chevys delivers fresh,” says MacDiarmid. “There are no cans in the kitchen. We blend our salsa hourly. And we show customers fresh by having [a tortilla-making machine] in every dining room. “

The formula is working for the privately owned company, which in 2001 did more than $240 million for Chevys’ 93 company stores.

“We can be just about anything we want,” Bergren says. “We’re not walking away from our heritage, because we think we’re the best in the United States in making terrific, authentic Mexican food. But we cook so much from scratch, we’re such good cooks, that we think we can present other, more-mainstream foods in the same way and they’ll be very acceptable.” —Allison Perlik

Ice cream/Frozen yogurt
For Baskin-Robbins, pleasing customers is all about “making magic on both sides of the counter,” says John Carlson, the chain’s director of marketing.

A growing line of frozen beverages, a system-wide operator-retraining initiative and the popular Free Scoop Night are a few ways Baskin-Robbins continues to attract customers to its almost 2,600 U.S. units and ensure solid scores on R&I’s Choice in Chains survey.

The concept’s high score for menu variety traces in part to its launch of new frozen beverages. Following the success of last year’s “Shrek”-inspired Swamp Fizz—a carbonated drink that changed colors and “popped” when a powder base was added—comes another movie tie-in. The Spirit Shake—to be introduced in late spring in conjunction with “Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron”—is a 12-ounce, frozen vanilla drink topped with crumbled chocolate wafers.

“The shake is deceptive,” Carlson says. “As you mix cookie bits into the ice cream, the drink turns into a swirl of pastel blue or purple.”

While Swamp Fizz and Spirit Shakes target kids, the chain’s Layered Shake—a combination of chocolate syrup, vanilla shake and crushed peanut butter candy or chocolate wafer cookies—aims for adults. It debuts nationwide in June, at between $2.49 to $2.99.

The chain, a unit of U.K.-based Allied Domecq, also is focused on updating its brand image through a system-wide initiative to retrain and recertify all operators and renovate units. Over the past 18 months, more than 1,300 franchise operators have been retrained, and their units refurbished with new seating and natural birch wood touches, all interwoven with the signature pink-and-blue Baskin-Robbins colors.

“[The upgrades] make stores more of a destination, a place to sit down and enjoy yourself,” Carlson says. More than 2,400 units nationwide remain to be upgraded, a process that will be carried out over the next five years as current leases expire.

The chain continues its annual “thank you” to customers, Free Scoop Night. The promotion, which doubles as corporate fund-raiser for a nonprofit children’s literacy organization, is scheduled for May 1.

“It’s a chance for customers to come in, enjoy a free ice cream cone, see what new products are on hand for summer, and support charity,” Carlson says. —Janice Matsumoto

Convenience, value, attention to service, and a broad menu contribute to earn Old Country Buffet top honors with consumers in the cafeteria/buffets category.

“We’re known for serving traditional American food,” says David Goronkin, chief operating officer of the 404-unit chain, which operates in 36 states. “Many of the recipes still being used originated 18 years ago, when the restaurant first started, in co-founder C. Dennis Scott’s mother’s kitchen. Dishes such as meatloaf, chicken livers, bread dressing, and chicken and dumplings.”

More than 90 menu items are offered daily. Though comfort foods, including extensive salad and dessert bars, anchor menus, operators are encouraged to tailor a small percentage of food offerings to local clientele.

“The southern California market tends to include a lot of Mexican items, with central Los Angeles units offering more Asian foods. A few western Pennsylvania stores serve pierogi for the Polish-American population,” Goronkin notes. “Some recipes may be old family favorites from guests who come in daily and want to contribute to the menu.”

Perceived value also ranks high in consumers’ minds. Old Country Buffet lunch checks average $6.19, dinner $8.39. Seniors receive a discount, while children are charged by their age—50 cents a year up to 12. “Guests really like the menu pricing,” says Glenn Drasher, executive vice president of marketing. “There are no add-ons, no surprises.”

Additionally, diners give the concept high marks for convenience, a reflection of the chain’s strategy of maximizing the number of restaurants in a given market. “Los Angeles, with 34 units, is one of our larger markets; Chicago has 25 stores,” Drasher says.

Inside the restaurants, a scattered-bar layout that allows guests access from either side of eight different stations. “Not everyone likes to start with salad,” Drasher notes. “This format lets them go where they want, when they want, with no long lines.”

A new initiative called “Service Plus” boosts convenience. “The typical expectation in buffet-style restaurants is that there is no service,” Goronkin says. “Under this program, service assistants will come to the table, refill beverages and provide any additional service you may need.” —Janice Matsumoto

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