It’s no secret that James J. “JJ” Buettgen has plans to shake up Ruby Tuesday Inc.
During the company’s latest earnings announcement — Buettgen’s first since becoming chief executive on Dec. 1 — he said the company would close all of its 13 Marlin & Ray’s restaurants and that it also planned to close its Wok Hay concept and sell the company’s two Truffles Grill locations.
The goal, he said, was to refocus the Maryville, Tenn.-based company on its core Ruby Tuesday brand. The company also plans to expand Lime Fresh Mexican Grill, the fast-casual concept it acquired last year.
The company has already made changes at its Ruby Tuesday restaurants, Buettgen said, including a focus on serving high-quality food free of MSG and high-fructose corn syrup. Restaurants only serve fresh, not frozen, he said, an important differentiator for many consumers.
The décor and quality of service are also differentiators for the company’s 709 company-owned and 77 franchised Ruby Tuesday locations, Buettgen said.
“I think what you’ll see in the coming quarters is that you’ll start to see some of the refinements that we discussed,” he said. “You’ll start seeing new menu items and a greater range on price points.”
He added, “To me, that’s an example of where there’s an opportunity for us to better communicate.”
Effectively communicating the story and offerings of Ruby Tuesday to consumers, he noted, will be a big part of its future success. Buettgen was was most recently senior vice president and chief marketing officer at Darden Restaurants Inc. He took over the Ruby Tuesday role from Sandy Beall, who founded the company 40 years ago.
Buettgen spoke with Nation’s Restaurant News about what to expect from Ruby Tuesday during his first year on the job.
About a year ago, Marlin & Ray’s was considered the future of the company. Why didn’t the concept work, and why did your team decide to shut it down?
The decision to close Marlin & Ray’s was made to focus on the upside we have at Ruby Tuesday. We want to make sure we’re focusing on the right aspects of our business. The priority is driving guest count and same-store sales at Ruby Tuesday.
If you think back to it, really, the Marlin & Ray’s concept was more about conversion of Ruby Tuesdays rather than building new units. Given that there’s a lot going on at Ruby Tuesday, we want to focus on that business.
What caused problems at Marlin & Ray’s? Was it related to broader casual-dining trends?
To me, if you compare the decision to close Marlin & Ray’s as opposed to expanding Lime Fresh, it’s not about casual dining versus fast casual; it’s about comparing how the two brands performed in each segment.
Lime is in not only in the fastest-growing overall segment within fast casual, but the Mexican segment itself is a really high growth sector. Seafood [Marlin & Ray’s] has been a relatively flat to declining segment in recent years.
What makes Lime Fresh worth not only keeping in your portfolio, but also expanding?
I think there are a couple things that are different about Lime Fresh if you take a look at the brand holistically. As I look at it, Lime, to some degree, creates a niche between traditional fast-casual dining and casual dining. There’s a bit more of a casual element, where our employees bring food out to guests. There are different areas of the restaurant where you can be closer to the salsa bar or closer to lots of energy, or you can find somewhere quiet to sit.
It’s a great place to hang out. It’s a much less utilitarian experience than most fast-casual restaurants out there.
Throughout the 2000s, former CEO Sandy Beall tried to reposition Ruby Tuesday as a higher-end casual-dining destination. Do you plan to continue that trend?
We’re early on in our thoughts for strategic change, but there are a couple of things I can tell you that you’ll see from Ruby Tuesday going forward. Directionally, you’ll see the brand steer toward affordability and approachability. You may see a menu that’s got a wider range of price points and foods that are less center-of-the-plate, entrée-driven. You’ll see more sandwiches and salads fitting a broader range of occasions.
There have been a lot of changes made to the brand. We just haven’t told the story well enough yet. To many guests, the perception of Ruby Tuesday is still locked in a date that was prior to those changes. We want to find a way to tell the story and take advantage of the changes we’ve already made.
You mentioned in the earnings call that Ruby Tuesday would double down on its marketing efforts. Can you discuss any specific plans for social media, television or print?
I think it’s a little bit of all of the above. Up until about a year and half ago, [the focus] has been couponing and local advertising. This last year we’ve made an investment in national advertising and cable to show our advertising more consistently. You’ll see us use more advertising tactics throughout the year.
How will your experience as a CMO help inform your performance as a CEO?
I think my background will benefit me in that whether it was within restaurants, or the entertainment industry, or consumer packaged goods, I’ve spent most of my career trying to find out what’s important to consumers, really understanding what opportunities present themselves in different markets, and what customers want in different product categories. I’ve focused on how to position brands to take advantage of opportunities to enhance the business.
In this business, where the fit is really good is that there have been so many great changes made to the Ruby Tuesday brand over time. I think that skill set is a pretty good fit for the opportunity here at Ruby Tuesday.