Since 2006, Diana Hovey has been chief marketing officer for Dallas-based Corner Bakery Café, shaping the branding and messaging strategy for the bakery-café pioneer that considers itself “the ultimate neighborhood gathering spot.”
The past two years have been an exciting time for Hovey and the 150-plus-unit chain, she said, as Corner Bakery’s 2011 acquisition by Atlanta-based private-equity firm Roark Capital put the brand on a path toward accelerated franchise growth to more neighborhoods in new markets around the country.
Corner Bakery’s change in ownership meant a major increase in marketing resources going toward franchisee support and growth, particularly for local-store marketing in new territories. But every brand decision is still made with the guest experience in mind, Hovey said, and the newer demands on ensuring franchisee success have been met with Roark’s resources and experience.
“From a marketer’s perspective, it’s a dream to have an owner that thinks like a consumer and understands what it takes for a brand to succeed in today’s marketplace,” Hovey said in an email conversation with Clay Dover, chief marketing officer of Raising Cane’s and board member of the Marketing Executives Group.
She discussed Corner Bakery’s recent successful franchise expansion — in major cities like San Francisco and Miami as well as smaller markets like Corpus Christi, Texas — and near-term prospects for growth and menu innovation.
It’s been two years since Roark Capital acquired Corner Bakery. What has been the biggest change?
First of all, it’s hard to believe it’s been two years. The last two years have been an incredible time for Corner Bakery Café, as we’ve readied the brand for the fast-paced growth path we’re on. Joining the Roark family of brands has been a match made in heaven. Roark saw a well-positioned brand with strong heritage and great potential for growth. While we were comfortable growing steadily through primarily company development, we knew we had a lot to learn about franchising. Roark not only brought the resources to help us accelerate our growth, but we’ve found that their vast experience in franchising provided the coaching and system development we greatly needed.
What were your biggest concerns about the acquisition, and how did you address them?
When the acquisition was first completed, I had some concerns that we’d be able to maintain the uniqueness in our brand in Roark’s vast portfolio of restaurant companies. Admittedly, from a marketing perspective, I had concerns that we’d be able to keep our distinctive look and feel in our communication and materials.
I discovered quickly that my concerns were totally unfounded. The Roark team is in our test kitchen on a regular basis, and their pride in our culinary points of differentiation reassured us from the beginning that they want to protect the brand as much as we do. I can remember my first meeting with my fellow CMOs from other Roark brands. Nothing like a room of competitive, type-A personalities protecting their individual brands: We found immediately that we could share best practices, knowledge of industry resources and be each other’s go-to person for quick insights, but we were also able to respect each other’s desire to keep certain marketing strategies to ourselves. There’s rarely a week that goes by that I’m not in touch with fellow Roark CMOs, which was a great, unexpected benefit.
What has the company allowed you to work on which previously had not been a focus?
The biggest benefit from joining the Roark team has been the help they’ve provided us with franchising. We brought on quite a few new resources, including expansion of our franchise sales, operations, development and marketing teams, as well as made a significant investment in our IT infrastructure. Most importantly, we are looking at every brand decision through a franchisee lens, ensuring all programs and operating systems can be consistently and efficiently executed in large and small markets across the system.
Thriving in fast casual
Corner Bakery has posted caloric information and served healthful menu items for some time now. How have they performed? Was there any pushback from guests?
More than four years ago, we developed a comprehensive nutritional brochure for all cafes, and it was very well received. We found that guests appreciated our transparency, and they discovered that there were quite a few menu options that fit into their diets and lifestyles. It’s been almost three years since we introduced calories on our menu boards in all company markets and in several franchise locations. We’ve seen no negative response or mix shift.
At the same time, we’ve been introducing additional programs that give our guests greater control and choice in their menu selections. Our 100 Under 600 offering provides more than 100 Corner Combos under 600 calories. We offer two sizes of our signature salads and pastas to give our guests more choices for portion, calories and value.
What has helped Corner Bakery thrive in an extremely competitive bakery-café segment?
Corner Bakery was created 22 years ago by Rich Melman as a small bakery on a corner in downtown Chicago. Over the years, we’ve stayed true to Rich’s advice and have always listened to our guests, who are quite vocal and very possessive of their local “corner.” As a marketer, I spend a lot of my time talking with them, whether it is sitting in their living rooms, discussing product ideas in the test kitchen or following their many comments online. As a brand team, we also have a very strong culture, with one of the longest tenured hourly, management and executive teams in the industry.
What will separate competitors in fast casual in the future?
We’re in the sweetest spot of the industry. It’s interesting to watch the growth and evolution of the segment as more and more brands join the ranks. It’s also interesting to watch the adjacent industry segments seek a piece of the fast-casual pie — whether that is casual dining with new lunch offers or quick service with its heightened focus on quality.
For success in fast casual, brands must be continually focused on product innovation using fresh ingredients. Consumers are looking for crave-able dishes, customizable and made to order. They’re all Food Network junkies, looking for menu items made with ingredients they might not have in their own refrigerator. We bring in more than 40 different types of fresh produce and are focused on dishes that capture the freshest flavors of the season.
Technology will play a big role in making brands more accessible. Time is “the new black” for consumers. We continue to see significant growth in our catering business, which already represents more than 20 percent of our $2.3 million annual unit volumes. Online ordering for catering has been extremely well received and is further indication that today’s consumer is all about control and saving time.
What restaurant chain other than your own do you think does a great job?
I am particularly impressed with Moe’s Southwest Grill and the tremendous results they’ve seen from their product innovation and technology-based initiatives.
Which marketing trends outside foodservice should be incorporated into our industry?
Personalized experiences on “my terms” are key for today’s consumer and are a key brand differentiator. Not only do our guests expect to be recognized and greeted by name, they also want us to know that they want extra basil on their Chicken Pomodori Panini. Today’s consumer is not a number; they see themselves as part of a brand’s family. We want to make sure we never take that for granted.