James Coney Island, a 21-unit regional fast-casual chain, is refreshing its 90-year-old brand with a three-tiered repositioning effort.

The three tiers of restaurants will include a premium fast-casual JCI Grill and a new James Coney Island’s Walker Street Grill, a more upscale concept that takes its name from the chain’s first location on Walker Street in downtown Houston, and would offer a full bar.

The chain will begin converting two restaurants to a new JCI Grill concept within the next four weeks, said Darrin Straughan, president of Houston-based James Coney Island Inc.


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“The evolution is taking a nine-decade-old brand and making it more relevant. We don’t want to deviate so far from the James Coney Island brand,” Straughan said. “Many customers already call us JCI. We’re keeping our current customers, trying to get new ones and working to increase frequency.”

Some units will remain under the James Coney Island banner, Straughan said.

“Some of our properties were built in the ’70s, and while they have been remodeled and upgraded through the years, the demographics just aren’t right to invest a half million dollars or $700,000,” Straughan said. “They’ll just stay James Coney Islands. They are still viable properties, but they just aren’t in areas that fit what we are trying to do.”

Straughan, who has been with the brand for the past 20 years, said future development will likely be in the higher-end Walker Street Grill.

“Our demographics made us believe that we want to upgrade some of the units in our system now and evolve the brand into what’s more modern, relevant and contemporary,” he said of the move toward Walker Street and JCI Grill.

Some changes at the JCI Grill conversions will include expanded food offerings, menu boards lowered to “eye-level like at Pei Wei” Asian Diner, and an atmosphere that approaches casual dining, Straughan said.

“We’ll most likely be hiding the kitchens a little more than they are now. They are pretty open now,” Straughan said. “What we are trying to do is make the dining rooms a little quieter.”

Current units average about 3,300 square feet with 120 seats, he said. One unit on Houston’s major Westheimer Road covers nearly 6,000 square feet and is owned by the company. Straughan said that location remains a likely candidate for becoming a Walker Street unit.

The menus will maintain legacy items like coney hot dogs and chili, but the offerings will have more gourmet toppings that have been recently added, including guacamole and sauerkraut.

The concept has already added new sandwiches and salads like cranberry-pecan and Southwest chicken,  Straughan said. This month, restaurants will introduce a roast-beef dip sandwich, he said.

James Coney Island first opened in Houston in 1923 when Tom and James Papadakis arrived from Greece via New York. The company said the two flipped a coin to decide whose name would go on the sign, and Tom lost. In 1990, the family sold the business to local investors.

Contact Ron Ruggless at ronald.ruggless@penton.com.
Follow him on Twitter: @RonRuggless