Promising a “French revolution,” the Mimi’s Café chain on Friday is scheduled to open a new prototype restaurant designed to reinvent the full-service brand with more fast-casual options.
Officials with parent company Bob Evans Farms Inc. said earlier this year the Mimi’s chain would under go a remodel program similar to that of the Bob Evans brand, which has added new sales layers with on-site bakeries and more carryout options.
Irvine, Calif.-based Mimi’s Café, with 145 locations in 24 states, has been struggling to turn around negative sales trends in recent years, and some reports have indicated the chain is for sale, though company officials have declined to comment on what they describe as rumors.
Mark Mears, Mimi’s’ president and chief operating officer, said the new prototype in Valencia, Calif., will be the first to test a comprehensive overhaul that will bring the French-inspired brand back to its roots as a bakery-café and bistro that will appeal to a younger, more contemporary audience on a number of levels.
Mimi’s, said Mears, had “lost its way,” drifting in recent years under various leaders to a more New Orleans-jazz-themed concept. The 34-year-old brand was founded in 1978 by Thomas Simms, whose restaurateur father Arthur Simms was inspired by French cafes while serving as an airman during World War II.
Though the chain reported a 3.3-percent decline in same-store sales during the first quarter, Mimi’s also scored relatively highly in the annual NRN Consumer Picks and other consumer surveys this year.
“Our core concept is strong, but we’re looking for new growth engines,” said Mears.
The new prototype design aims to make Mimi’s more relevant, offering a store-within-a-store format that will appeal to today’s convenience-hungry consumers who may not have time for a full-service experience, he said.
The first thing guests will see when they walk into the new prototype is a French bakery featuring traditionalitems like croissants and the chain’s signature muffins; pastries and Parisian-style macarons; breads such as baguettes, fougasse and batards; and a selection of grab-and-go sandwiches, salads and drinks.
Baristas will also serve coffee, including a new bold French roast, as well as a line of specialty mochas, lattes, cappuccino and flavored coffees. From the bakery, guests can also pick up carry out and to-go items, like quiches or savory tartines.
Mears said the goal is to double Mimi’s off-premise business, though he declined to specify what percentage of sales its takeout and catering segments currently represent .
“It’s really about making the asset more productive,” he said, noting that Mimi’s is one of few casual-dining chains that offers three dayparts. At the same time, Mimi’s is also enhancing the full-service side, with a new menu that emphasizes classic French dishes, but adds new options with smaller plates and more customization.
At breakfast, for example, guests can either build their own omelet or choose a featured recipe. At lunch, guests can build their own burger. At dinner they can choose their protein, sauce, sides and add-on options to create a meal the way they want it, or they can also choose among more traditional dishes, such as coq au vin.
A new section on the menu featuring “petite plates” offers smaller portioned, lower-priced options that can be a snack or combined as a meal. Options might include various flatbreads, spinach-stuffed mushrooms or seared scallops with bacon corn chowder.
In addition, the new Mimi’s has a different design for each room. The bar area, for example, is designed to look like a warm and comfortable bistro, Mears said, with a zinc bar top, dark wood and an enhanced “Happiest Hour” program.
Over the past few years, the chain has been shifting from a primarily beer-and-wine program to a full bar. About 90 locations currently have a full bar, and the company is working to build bar sales from close to 5 percent of sales currently to about 10 percent, Mears said.
Another dining area has a more romantic bistro feel, with warm lighting, curved booths and darker wood finishes. The “winery” room has brick walls, exposed wood beams and a more “clubby” feel, Mears said. A brighter “garden room” is filled with light and plants for a more airy café experience.
“It’s providing more and different occasions for guests to find what they love about Mimi’s,” said Mears.
Valencia is the first of three new prototype designs of varying levels that are scheduled to open before the end of the year.
Once the format is tested and tweaked, the company intends to move ahead with remodels, the same way it has with the Bob Evans brand, Mears said.