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Heritage Matters Promoting the past to invigorate the present

Applebee’s is changing up its appetizer category with on-trend dishes like shareable American-Style Kobe Beef Meatballs.
PHOTO CREDIT: nocredit

Applebee’s is changing up its appetizer category with on-trend dishes like this shareable American-Style Kobe Beef Meatballs. Heritage brands boast more than just longevity. They connect to our culture in some meaningful way, seeping into our collective history. Ford Motors is a good example of a heritage brand. So are Levi’s and L.L. Bean. Heritage restaurant brands are numerous and include concepts founded more than 50 years ago, like Bob Evans and Sizzler. Younger brands can also make that heritage claim, and they include concepts launched 20 to 30 years ago, like Copeland’s of New Orleans, Applebee’s and Firehouse Subs.

Branding successfully involves relaying a compelling narrative that links the heritage of the brand to authenticity, integrity and nostalgia. That value set is the golden ticket for today’s diner. More modern brands, like Chipotle and Five Guys, can hook their wagons to authenticity and integrity but fall short with nostalgia. It’s not in their wheelhouse, and that’s okay—they have other values that help keep them front and center. But for heritage brands, that emotional connection is key.

Why is it important and what can other restaurant concepts learn from heritage brands? Storytelling is everything today: The story you tell about your brand is an important factor in fostering a long-term competitive advantage.

While the heritage of a brand offers valuable assets to a restaurant concept, it can also weigh it down. Without innovation, longevity can read as stale, old fashioned and predictable. The challenge is finding the precarious but crucial balance between celebrating the past while pushing into the future.

50 Years and Counting
Sizzler was founded in 1958 as Sizzler Family Steak House in Culver City, Calif. It now has more than 150 units across the country, concentrated mostly in the West. In the next five years, this 57-year-old brand plans to push into new markets like Chicago and Denver.

Its heritage is proudly displayed on the walls in black and white canvas, reminding diners of how long it’s been around. The vibe reflects glory days of the late fifties and early sixties through horn-rimmed glasses and bouffant hairstyles.

But Sizzler suffered an identity crisis from about 1995 to 2005. “It was a pretty bad time, and we didn’t know who we were,” says Tamra Scroggins, Sizzler’s director of food culture. The current executive team came in six years ago. “The first thing they did was look through our archives and look at what made Sizzler the brand that people love.” Hanging onto a recognizable identity seems simple enough, but through the mists of time, things get lost. Strategies are attempted and failed. Looking way back to look ahead makes a lot of sense. “What we are is a salad bar concept and a steakhouse—two concepts under one roof,” she says. “We are not a buffet concept and the crisis came from trying to play in that world. Now we know our identity and when we do menu ideation we ask, ‘Is this Sizzler?’”

Heritage brands must strike the balance between tradition and innovation. Bob Evans has improved its fried chicken recipe over time without drastic changes. Attracting Millennials can be challenging for heritage brands, as this younger demographic might not feel the same nostalgic pull as older cohorts. “We’re going after the guest who used to go to Sizzler with their grandparents, or when they were celebrating good report cards,” says Scroggins. “They have awesome memories. But how do you get them to bring their kids in? That’s the challenge and we’re slowly succeeding.”

An ongoing challenge for some brands that go back this far is making a clear move from frozen and canned items to fresh, made-in-house fare. “We struggle with that,” says Scroggins. “We’re not frozen steaks and pre-made food that’s dumped out of cartons. Now, we’re hand-cutting steaks in the back. We’re making most of our dressings, too, and using fresh produce.”

Sizzler’s menu innovation demonstrates its move into modern flavor profiles. Diners can still get the iconic cheese toast, but they can also now find a California Mint Kale Salad and a Mango-Jicama Salad at Sizzler’s famous salad bar.

Bob Evans, with its homestead heritage, finds a built-in path to “down on the farm” branding. In fact, Bob Evans Farm in southeastern Ohio is the heart of this iconic brand that launched in 1946. The “Homestead,” now on the National Register of Historic Places, was once a stagecoach stop and an inn. The Evans family opened the Sausage Shoppe in the front yard with 12 stools for seating. It then evolved into the Bob Evans we know today, one of the largest chains in the family-dining segment with more than 550 units nationwide. Tradition and hospitality are key values in its heritage branding. “That working farm in Ohio gives credit to the brand and is our guiding light for innovation,” says Brian Wilson, senior culinary development chef.

That innovation takes shape as the Fit from the Farm menu, touting items at 650 calories or less. It also comes through platform innovation. Bob Evans’ new broaster chicken is currently being rolled out. It features a whole chicken cut into pieces, rolled in a white coating, then fried in a pressure fryer. “It cooks faster, allows it to get crispier and moister, and still fits the Bob Evans brand really well,” says Wilson.

21 and Over
Heritage brands are made up of more than just concepts that have been around since the 1950’s. Brands like Applebee’s, Copeland’s of New Orleans and Firehouse Subs can claim heritage status through family history or neighborhood tradition.

Copeland’s opened in 1983 and ties its heritage to family and New Orleans provenance. “When we opened the restaurant 32 years ago, we saw it as a great opportunity to take that heritage and put it on a menu,” says Al Copeland, Jr., CEO and chairman of the board of Al Copeland Investments. Photo walls illustrate the heritage of the brand—the butcher shop where Al Copeland, Sr., got started, childhood photos with Louisiana as the backdrop, and at the newest location, a hand-painted mural of a plantation.

But like most restaurant brands that bask in the glow of heritage, Copeland’s needs to energize its menu to attract new customers. “We are challenged with that,” says Copeland. “And we try to offer items that are more innovative. Everyone in casual dining is chasing the Millennials. They’re going to fast-casuals. We’ll never be the place that Millennials will use as a super hot spot. We don’t want to be that place. I think we can win through kids—even Millennials have families.” Newer dishes include a Louisiana riff on poutine called Spicy Crawfish Cheese Fries with a roux-based crawfish gravy and spicy pimento cheese.

Copeland’s has stayed true to certain New Orleans favorites, like this Eggplant Pirogue featuring Cajun-fried eggplant slices with Gulf shrimp and crab claws atop angel hair pasta. Applebee’s has an interesting tie to heritage. The brand gets there through its time in the market—35 years and counting—but also through its positioning as a neighborhood grill. The challenge is that the neighborhood changes, and Applebee’s is keenly aware that it needs to move with the times. “We need to constantly evolve to remain relevant, but we don’t ever want to forget or ignore our roots,” says Michael Slavin, corporate executive chef of product development for the country’s largest casual chain, boasting more than 2,000 units. “We know what our in-state is, and we have to pull our guests along with us, but we don’t want to shock or alienate them,” he says.

The Pub Diet, rolled out at the end of 2014, reflects Applebee’s modern menu innovation, moving the conversation of calorie count to feel-good cuisine. It includes bar and grill favorites that are under 600 calories. “It’s a new iteration of health consciousness, but we don’t want to talk about what they can’t have,” says Slavin.

An even bigger innovation comes through its re-tooling of the appetizer category, which rolled out in early 2015. But this recipe development is firmly tethered to Applebee’s heritage. “We completely reinvented the category to stay as a relevant bar and grill—everything we did focused on that neighborhood grill sensibility,” says Slavin.

One of the new items is a shareable plate of four American-Style Kobe Beef Meatballs cooked back of house with a pomodoro sauce. Salsa Verde Brisket Nachos featuring slow-cooked brisket with white queso tempered with white and yellow cheddar is another new appetizer. The third one of note reflects more than flavor innovation—it capitalizes on the larger trend of fluid dayparts, where guests customize their eating experience away from the constraints of traditional menu parts. The Churro S’more, a sweet bite of fried churro tossed in cinnamon sugar and served with toasted marshmallows and chocolate syrup, is positioned as an appetizer—illustrating a deft balance act between heritage and innovation by moving with the times but delivering on the promise of the brand.

Firehouse Subs shows that branding with heritage can be as simple as tying to family tradition. This 21-year-old fast-casual sub shop fuels a connection with its customers through fellowship and camaraderie of eating around a table. The concept’s new ad campaign introduces the two Sorensen brothers—both firefighters with a father who was a Safety Captain. “Internally, we call it an introduction to our heritage,” says Robin Sorensen, co-founder of this 850-plus chain. “Authenticity is a big part of our heritage, and we relay that through our family’s commitment to the brand. We want our guests to know that we’re real people serving real food—and lots of it.” But why stress the heritage of the brand over the size or quality of the sub sandwich? “Does it mean anything to our customer? This connection to family, tradition and authenticity?” asks Sorensen. “My intuition tells me that it does.”

About The Author

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Katie Ayoub is managing editor of Flavor & The Menu. She has been working in foodservice publishing for more than 16 years and on the Flavor team since 2006. She won a 2015 Folio award for her Flavor & The Menu article, Heritage Matters. In 2006, she won “Best Culinary Article” from the Cordon D’Or for an article on offal.