New Black-eyed Pea owners snap into action, return to casual-dining roots – News

New Black-eyed Pea owners snap into action, return to casual-dining roots – News – Brief Article

Dina Berta

DENVER — The new owners of the Black-eyed Pea restaurants are taking their cues from a former Colorado franchisee to put the once-bankrupt chain back on solid footing by returning to its casual-dining roots.

The 44-unit chain, which emerged from bankruptcy protection in May, is overhauling its country look in favor of a Western motif, adding more appetizers, seafood and grilled items to its menu and emphasizing its bar in an effort to shed its perception as a family restaurant.

“We’ve been making changes in cooperation with [the Colorado stores] to move the concept and the dining experience,” said Robert Langford, chairman and chief executive of Dynamic Management Corp. in Nashville, Tenn. “We want to define ourselves in the marketplace as causal and Fun, to have an environment that is energized for customers and employees.”

Black-eyed Pea’s former owner, Phoenix Restaurant Group, filed for Chapter 11 protection in U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Middle District of Tennessee last November. In May, Dynamic Management – formed specifically to take over PRG’s unit – and Restaurant Acquisitions Inc. of Orlando, Fla., purchased the remaining assets of the Black-eyed Pea chain from the court trustee.

PRG had hired Langford in 2000 to help stabilize the company, which was bleeding red ink. It had posted a $25.9 million loss in 1999 and a $30.7 million loss in 2000. Formerly known as DenAmerica, PRG at one time had been the largest Denny’s franchisee.

Langford, an ex-chief operating officer for Shoney’s Inc., closed 32 underperforming Black-eye Peas and 25 Denny’s as PRG entered bankruptcy.

Dynamic Management now operates 44 Black-eyed Pea restaurants, one in Hendersonville, Tenn., the rest in Texas. Dynamic also obtained 16 remaining Denny’s. units that Phoenix had run.

Even as the parent company foundered, Tim Schmidt and Jim Hayes, owners of Colorado Restaurant Management Inc. in Denver, fared better with their restaurants.

They opened the first Black-eyed Pea franchise in Denver in 1984. In 1997 they purchased the Colorado stores from PRG and retained use of the trademark in the Centennial State.

“We were just headed in a different direction at that time,” Schmidt said. “We operated, at that point, a lot better than they did. Our store in Colorado Springs had been No. 1 in the country, probably for 10 years.”

CRM’s 16 stores in Colorado average about $2 million in annual sales. The Tennessee and Texas units do about $1.5 million annually.

CRM had its best year in 2001, but sales are slightly negative so far this year, Schmidt said. However, they anticipate a $2 million renovation of their stores will generate a 6-percent-to-8-percent sales increase. CRM in September rolled out an advertising campaign to publicize the new look.

“With the economy, there is a temptation to just hunker down and hold your position and hold on for dear life,” said Gene Van Horne, vice president of corporate planning and development for CRM. “We decided to spend the resources to make sure the restaurants are where they should be.”

“And that way,” added Schmidt, “when the economy comes back, we won’t be playing catch up. We’ll be that much stronger.”

The remodeling is part of an overall strategy to move Black-eyed Pea away from family dining and firmly entrench it as the casual chain it was originally created to be, Schmidt said.

Black-eyed Pea’s competitors are Applebee’s and Chili’s, not Denny’s or the coffee shops of the world, he said. They are targeting Baby Boomers, older customers who dine out more frequently.

The Colorado stores are being remodeled inside and out. Black-and-white awnings will replace the old green ones, and clear lamps will be installed for the outside lighting instead of frosted ones. The green and yellow interior is giving way to black, brown and woods. The plastic tablecloths have been discarded. Walls are adorned with Western artwork instead of knickknacks and sports memorabilia.

“It was real kitschy–painted cows, sports equipment, farm implements, canning jars,” said Van Home as he and Schmidt sat down for a lunch of soup and salad at the Englewood, Cob., store.

“We went with an American West look,” Schmidt said. “West says what?”

“Freedom, independence, spirit, American spirit,” Van Horne answered. “It’s more of a Ralph Lauren West.”

The menu also is being revamped. Classic comfort foods like pot roast, meat loaf and chicken-fried steak still are emphasized. And the stores continue to make everything from scratch, including salad dressings and breads. But the menu offers more appetizers, seafood and grilled items. The average check, however, remains a little more than $8.

The bar also was opened up and made visible from across the room. Black-eyed Pea always has served alcohol–a characteristic of causal dining, not family restaurants.

“The person who started it 25, 27 years ago, wanted you to be able to get a chicken-fried steak and a martini,” Schmidt said.

The Colorado group hopes the changes will increase beverage sales 25 percent to 50 percent.

“Alcohol is a small percentage of our mix,” Van Horne said. “We’d like to see it move up.”

The goal is not so much to promote alcohol but rather the sense of fun and energy it connotes, said Langford, who has overseen similar changes to a prototype store in Hendersonville, Tenn.

The Texas stores have yet to go through the complete transformation although they have begun some changes, he said.

“We don’t want to copy them, but be directionally consistent with what they are doing in Colorado,” Langford said. “We’ve taken a lot out. It was very cluttered, no real sense of being bright or energetic.”

They removed items associated with family dining, such as toy machines in the entrance. Customers now pay their tabs at the table, rather than at a cash register near the door.

Black-eyed Pea had slipped over the years more toward the family-dining end of the spectrum, Langford said. When he came to the company, he found a chain that was confused about its identity.

“If you were to draw a continuum, with the far left distinctively family, say, Denny’s,” he explained, “and the far right is distinctively casual–say, the Cheesecake Factory–Black-eyed Pea had fallen just left of center of what should be distinctively casual. We don’t want to move all the way to where Cheesecake is. We just need to get right of center and do what we have to do to hold it there.”

COPYRIGHT 2002 Reproduced with permission of the copyright holder. Further reproduction or distribution is prohibited without permission.

COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group