Chain Restaurants Are Stepping It Up

As the competition increases and diners have more choices than ever, chain restaurants are forced to up their game.

Long ago, in a gastronomy far away, my sister-in-law said, “We always stop at Howard Johnson’s when we drive cross country because we know what to expect.” Therein lies the power of brand recognition and mega locations. Even Don Draper in season five of “Mad Men” made an appearance at a HoJos with its signature weathervane, orange roof and very mod ’60s styling. The iconic brand was one of the first operations to offer franchises, but their valuable turnpike locations were company-owned. By 1975 they had more than 1,000 restaurants and 500 motor lodges. While the hotel chain continues to operate, today there are just two restaurants left, one in Bangor, Maine, and the other in Lake George, NY. Empires can be built, but as the British and Romans know, they are a bitch to maintain.

What happened to Howard Johnson’s can happen to any food chain or indeed any singular restaurant. They were a victim of bad timing (oil embargo of the mid ’70s), bad luck (a couple on-site murders and a famous rape), changing dining habits of its target audience (the rise of even faster food) and, most unforgivable, bad food (it was cooked in a commissary in Brockton, Mass., and delivered across the country). In the end, it was a stale behemoth too big to resuscitate.

For any chain to survive, it needs to evolve with the dining public. Over the past 30 years, TGI Friday’s has changed their stripes, tossed out the soccer uniforms, uprooted the ferns from the bar and recently updated the décor again, swapping out the kitschy memorabilia for more tasteful prints — all in a effort to appeal to a younger demographic and not their parents. Seems like aging-in-place on a bar stool is not a good business model for restaurants.

Applebee’s is also trying to promote the “neighborhood bar and grill” motif by clearing the walls of random kitsch and updating with local high school team photos. They have discovered people enjoy eating at the bar and are focusing on bar food and building a better burger, according to their website. Chili’s is claiming “Fresh Ingredients & Unique Flavors.” These old-school chains are scrambling because there is a new school of sharks in town.

“Chef-driven” is the new catchphrase for the next evolution on the food chain. New regional chains don’t have a legacy of mediocre food to cast off — they’re starting from scratch in every sense. They seem to be in a category by themselves. I shall deem them “The Casual $12 Burger Emporium.” Unlike the $10 burger from the mega-chains, the new $12 + contender is hand-pattied, Certified Angus beef, tuna or lamb and served on a brioche bun with house-made tomato jam, etc. Adam Dorey, executive chef for 110 Grill in Nashua, claims to have tried 40 burger and meat combinations before making a choice to balance quality and price. Burger wars aside, management and chefs are trying hard on all fronts to woo the diner.

Tom Boucher, owner and CEO of Great NH Restaurants, works every angle to stay on trend with his local chain of T-Bones (five locations) and Cactus Jack’s (two locations) that was established in 1984 with a T-Bones in Derry. According to Boucher, good food is the most important ingredient for success. “We make every menu item from scratch, including sauces and dressing,” he says. “I know the chains are starting to do that, but because of their scale they won’t be able to do as much as we do.” The second most important factor, he adds, is service. “We put as much effort into our people and our customers as we do in purchasing and preparing our food. We have tremendous longevity because we treat our employees as people first.” Of course, their real secret weapon is Executive Chef Nicole, who not only develops recipes but is out in the community, engaging the public. Boucher adds, “People want to know who the person is behind the food and the brand.

Boucher and company have carved out their niche in the casual dining market — a market rapidly being filled by regional chains centralized in New England and moving into New Hampshire.

Chipotle Mexican Grill changed a lot about how a chain, even a national fast food chain, can operate. All are company-owned, a key factor for quality and consistency, and simply put, their food is good, with a strong effort to source responsibly. Their growth has been nothing short of phenomenal. On the fast food front, a whole new series of eateries are following their model, including Sweetgreen with locations in Massachusetts. They aim to be the Shake Shack of the salad world with organic and local salad components.

Chipotle’s rise in popularity was not lost on Steve Silverstein, now CEO of Not Your Average Joe’s, currently with 23 store locations, including one in Nashua. He says, “They changed the playing field for fast food. Yes, they proved that a chain can offer good food and I wanted to do that in a full-service environment.” His restaurant group is offering freshly prepared food that is chef-driven. The menu is not designed by a corporate board, but directed by Executive Chef Jeff Tenner, with deep culinary roots in New Hampshire. Tenner understands what makes a great dish and strives to pack a lot of flavor on each plate with just the right balance of zing and panache. The food looks good, the servers are pleasantly friendly and the décor hits the mark — hip with a combination of industrial chic and cozy comfort. Curiously, the Nashua Not Your Average Joe’s is located near a Chipotle Mexican Grill in the Daniel Webster Plaza.

Executive Chef Jeff Tenner of Not Your Average Joe’s oversees the menu at all their stores.
photo by susan laughlin

New Hampshire is fertile ground for the chef-driven concept. The Common Man Family of Restaurants, with more than 20 locations, has developed a loyal fan base, but are heeling to the pressure to fit the new model of dining — fresh, local and better. Common Man’s Foster’s Boiler Room in Plymouth recently updated their menu with a gastro-pub theme — an array of creative twists for snacking or accompaniment to beverages. For the Common Man-named restaurants, they are swinging the menu back to its roots with New England comfort food with a twist.

In an effort to stay abreast of demands and desires of the knowledgeable diner, the menu has to please, excite and satisfy the diner, and especially one with dietary restrictions. Burtons Grill in Nashua offers options for many food allergies and to ensure it is done right, a manager is tasked to bring the plate to the table. Chef James Gibney of British Beer Company says all their chicken and beef is fresh and antibiotic- and hormone-free. He adds, “The sourcing of food at BBC has gone through dramatic changes in the past two years, with a focus on fresh farm produce delivered through a farm co-op and fresh fish from local waters.”

Local sourcing has gone mainstream, and Boucher and Chef Nicole are sourcing produce from Donabedian Farms in Salem — both from the fields in season and numerous greenhouses after frost.

Scratch-made is the biggest new trend. T-Bones has long been aboard that train, but new passengers include 110 Grill in Nashua. Their executive chef, Adam Dorey, is passionate about quality food and strives to instill that passion and culture in his employees. In the end, he has to trust the talents of his staff to translate the 250 raw food items coming in the back door to the beautiful plated entrées he designed. Indeed, all the regional chains claim this same fame.

Average-tasting food has been the Achilles heel for the chain concept. All chains need to cover the basics like a great burger, but they are spreading their wings all across the menu. Just looking at salad options, Burtons Grill’s artisan salad comes with fennel and mint; at Not Your Average Joe’s, the super crunch salad blends chicken with quinoa, green apples, pistachios, avocado, mint and cilantro; 110 Grill’s steak salad layers beefsteak tomatoes with red onion, blue cheese, applewood smoked and grilled steak. All across menu boards expect to find more interesting reading fortified with scratch-made sauces.

The restaurant chains all look for the same thing before they site a new store — plenty of traffic that’s not going too fast and ample parking. Once a new road is targeted, the chains sprout off the byway like kudzu. In my 15 years in Nashua, Amherst Street west of Rte. 3 has offered home to 12 casual dining chains, not including 10 fast food offerings. Sprinkled in between are 12 independent operations, each unique, some fading lights and some glowing. Recently, PigTale Restaurant – Farm to Woodfired Oven was opened with just the right touch of trend and quality by two individuals inspired by good food and local sourcing. Will they be replaced by a Wolfgang Puck rustic pizza concept? Let’s hope not.

Locally owned and operated doesn’t guarantee success, but, with quality chains moving in next door, everyone has to up their ante. The dining public has never been so lucky.   

Categories: Features