'Fresher, different, lot more fun' guide changes at Kings Family Restaurants

| Monday, March 10, 2014, 11:12 p.m.

Selling more than a half million pretzel buns in six months is validation for Kings Family Restaurants President Chris Whalen.

The buns, which were introduced in June, are part of the family-owned restaurant's efforts to freshen its menu and reinvigorate its business. Pretzel bun sliders are among the introductions to the menu.

“We went through 594,000 pretzel buns from June 1 through Dec. 31 — that's a lot of buns,” said Whalen, who has run the 32-store restaurant chain for owner and founder Hartley King since June.

Whalen says the bun sales and other successes are a sign that Kings is moving in the right direction, and it has started a TV marketing campaign to promote some of the new menu items developed at its test kitchen in White Oak.

“We want to do things fresher, different and a lot more fun,” he said. “There's a perception that we're old and tired and kind of just hanging out there, but that's far from the truth. That's why we're doing the campaign.”

The chain has annual sales of $51 million. But Whalen said sales have been stagnant — a nagging challenge for many casual dining restaurants since the Great Recession. Consumers have been watching their budgets and health, and have cut back on eating out.

How to keep picky spenders and eaters happy isn't its only problem. Kings confronts competition from Homestead-based Eat'n Park along with Denny's, Perkins and others.

Owner Hartley King, who is 80 years old and still involved in managing the business, said the response from customers to the menu changes and an aggressive advertising campaign to promote it has been “very positive.”

“We're a hometown family restaurant that needs (to be) energized,” said King, who has been trying to sell the chain for several years. “That's what we're doing,”

A “completely redesigned and bigger” turkey club with more turkey and multigrain sesame seed bread “took off,” with sales surging 300 percent, Whalen said. And orders for a new, thicker meatloaf dish doubled.

The pretzel buns, obtained from a supplier in Canada, have been the biggest addition. Kings uses them in sliders — small corned beef, burgers, tuna melt or cod sandwiches.

Customers have noticed the changes. “They're trying to accommodate the new generation,” said Pat Pierro, 75, of North Huntington, who was having lunch at the Kings restaurant in North Versailles. Pierro, who said she often dines at Kings, hasn't tried the new offerings.

But Kings' effort to improve its menu is necessary for its success.

“The idea is to stay contemporary, and the restaurant industry is no different,” said Harry Balzer, chief food analyst with NPD Group in Rosemont, Ill.

The restaurant industry has increased competition, declining consumer spending and road blocks such as a bad winter, said Balzer, who grew up in Carnegie.

Since 2000, eating out has declined from 215 meals per person to 192 last year, he said. “The industry muddled along as new types of restaurants were opening. Then the recession illuminated very brightly that people didn't have the money to go out.”

New fast-casual restaurants including Panera, Chipotle and Five Guys “have played havoc with the industry,” he said. These restaurants, a growing segment of the industry, appeal to customers who do not want table service but want food that is a step up from traditional fast-food dining.

National casual dining brands, such as Red Lobster and Outback Steakhouse, have saturated television with commercials to lure diners — offering new menu items, lower prices, and lunch and dinner specials.

Kings also is advertising. The first of 22 King's commercials to appear this year ran last week. The campaign was formed by Smith Brothers Agency of the North Side, whose clients include Heinz, Drumstick ice cream treats, Red Bull and PNC.

The commercials use a team of actors, selected for their talent as comedians, to perform as characters called Sweet, Salty, Tart and Spicy. “The idea is we have bold flavors and homemade food, and they're bored with everything else until they come to Kings,” Whalen said.

The chain is updating its restaurants and computer management systems. Work at Upper St. Clair, Heidelberg and Plum was completed last year. The North Versailles store was first in 2012. Whalen plans to work on three to five more this year.

The new systems also help Whalen and his managers keep better track of performance. Pulling out his iPhone, he shows off a sample of detailed information he studies — hours worked by each employee, to the minute, how many tables a waitress served that day and sales of each item on the menu. A kitchen management system helps cooks balance what to prepare and when.

Despite the changes, King is hoping to sell the restaurant chain because he said his two daughters have no interest in the business. A deal in 2010 to sell to restaurant operator Unique Ventures Group of Meadville died when financing fell through.

“We're trying to find a local group to buy it from me and my family and keep it growing,” King said. “I'm 100 percent set on selling. My children have no desire to take over.”

John D. Oravecz is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7882 or joravecz@tribweb.com.

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