Huddle House sales began turning positive early last year with internal improvements, like restaurant remodeling and new limited-time offers, but the brand sought marketing help from outside the company to sustain its positive momentum in 2012.
Chief executive Ken Keymer — who was elevated to his post full-time last April after serving as interim CEO following the departure of Phil Griefeld — found that fresh perspective in new chief marketing officer Marc Butler.
Butler took over advertising, social media, and culinary research and development responsibilities at the family restaurant operator on Dec. 5, and said his new role comes with the welcome problem of facing same-store sales comparisons that reached the mid-single digits by last April.
Nation’s Restaurant News spoke with Butler about how his experience as senior vice president of marketing at Church’sand on the agency side with Carat USA would help him refine marketing practices at the more than 400-unit, Atlanta-based Huddle House this year.
Since becoming permanent CEO last year, Ken Keymer initiated a lot of changes. How do you want to carry that momentum, but also put your own stamp on things as the new CMO?
The biggest challenge for me is to roll over the high top-line numbers. We’re trying to refine a lot of our procedures, relating to product testing and engaging customers, more than in the past. We’ve got a lot of menu items in our pipeline now, and our job now is taking a step back and asking which is most likely to get guests to come to Huddle House. First and foremost, everything we take out on a national basis has been thoroughly tested from a sales and margin-building standpoint.
From a product standpoint, we’re looking at doing new menu lines, each of which might take one or two different products and allow us to use them multiple ways, like taking an appetizer and using it as an entrée, so that they help with flow-through in the restaurant and have broader appeal. Take our shrimp, for example. We can use our high-quality shrimp product in a basket appetizer or as a po’ boy sandwich, or in surf-and-turf or a shrimp salad. In the past, it was more of a single-purpose product, but now we’re looking for a product we can use more often in the system.
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Ken has been a real driver of the social part of [our marketing strategy], and I’m looking to refine everything we do now to make it as efficient as I can. We spend a lot less on marketing dollars than most do. Franchisees contribute maybe a third of what other brands’ franchisees do.
What do you want to accomplish in social media this year?
We’re looking at a more loyalty-based program, but we’ve had some challenges in the application of one. We are looking to get one in there that works with our POS system. And we want something with text functionality, because our customers don’t necessarily have lots of smartphone capability, but they do text. We also have a good following on Facebook, but there are some other ways to generate trial inside the store we’ve never tapped into. We’re trying to tie those into the new-product LTOs we have going on. With a brand our size with fewer resources, you have to get as much out of those resources as possible.
Two double cheeseburgers for $5.99 is an aggressive offer. Is value-driven traffic the name of the game this year, or will Huddle House seek to build average checks with some higher-price items as well?
It’s going to be a combination of both. There are times of the year where it’s important to represent a good value for your customer, which is why we’re testing a two-for-$15 deal of two entrees, a shared appetizer and a shared dessert. We think that represents a great value to the customer, so we expect we’ll see increased frequency, while guests are encouraged to spend a little bit more for an appetizer and dessert, which generally are low-selling items for us.
Over the past year or so, we’ve introduced products on an LTO basis, and they’ve performed very well and could become more signature items. There are endless amounts of line extensions we’ll look at, and we’re trying to narrow it down to two or three. But we’re not alternating between traffic driving and check building, because we want new products that accomplish both of those, but not necessarily at a value price point. There will always be a value component, and we’ll maintain pricing on many of our entry items.