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Eat'n Park's spinoffs part of strategy to stay relevant beyond diner

| Monday, Nov. 9, 2015, 10:30 p.m.
Jeff Broadhurst (left), president and CEO of Eat’n Park, and Kevin O’Connell, senior vice president of marketing, are leading the company’s diversification.
Justin Merriman | Trib Total Media
Jeff Broadhurst (left), president and CEO of Eat’n Park, and Kevin O’Connell, senior vice president of marketing, are leading the company’s diversification.
Jaquala Lepolt serves a salad Friday, Nov. 6, 2015, at Hello Bistro, Downtown. The restaurant has a focus on fresh ingredients.
Justin Merriman | Trib Total Media
Jaquala Lepolt serves a salad Friday, Nov. 6, 2015, at Hello Bistro, Downtown. The restaurant has a focus on fresh ingredients.
Jing Li of McKeesport, left, watches as India Gaines, nicknamed 'Chop Chick,' prepares her salad Friday, Nov. 6, 2015, at Hello Bistro, Downtown.
Justin Merriman | Trib Total Media
Jing Li of McKeesport, left, watches as India Gaines, nicknamed 'Chop Chick,' prepares her salad Friday, Nov. 6, 2015, at Hello Bistro, Downtown.
There are many burgers available at Hello Bistro, Downtown.
Justin Merriman | Trib Total Media
There are many burgers available at Hello Bistro, Downtown.
Customer can choose from a number of ingredients for custom salads at Hello Bistro, Downtown.
Justin Merriman | Trib Total Media
Customer can choose from a number of ingredients for custom salads at Hello Bistro, Downtown.

The lunchtime crowd at Hello Bistro threaded along the line of salad options, considering myriad questions quietly in their heads.

Would it be iceberg lettuce or a spinach and kale mix? Moroccan salmon or fiesta chicken with avocado? Edamame? Goat cheese? Artichoke hearts?

And the chop? Small, medium or big bites?

“Half the people in here have no idea it's owned by an Eat'n Park,” said Jeff Broadhurst, CEO of Eat'n Park Hospitality Group, the parent company of Hello Bistro. “You don't have to be an Eat'n Park fan to love the place.”

Indeed, Hello Bistro is a key part of Eat'n Park's larger plan to adapt a 66-year-old family restaurant chain for a new era of dining shaped by a busier, younger generation that prefers fresh ingredients to pre-made meals and the ability to customize dishes, either on the spot or ordered online.

During the past decade, the Homestead-based company has diversified beyond its diner roots with newer concepts such as the upscale Six Penn Kitchen and more casual concepts like Hello Bistro, The Porch and Delicious Raw juice bar. Meanwhile, it has not abandoned its legacy Eat'n Park locations, which account for 95 percent of restaurant sales and which the chain has been busy renovating and rebuilding to be more modern.

The changes occur as many family restaurant brands such as Shoney's and Perkins have struggled to find relevance amid adapting tastes and lifestyles.

“I think if you're a legacy brand, you have to think about how to drive the younger generations,” said Darren Tristano, executive vice president of Technomic, which tracks the restaurant industry. “Oftentimes, the older generations that use the legacy brands, they are using the restaurants less and, quite frankly, they are dying off.”

For Eat'n Park, evolving into fast casual has been part of the answer. Restaurants such as Chipotle and Panera are hallmarks of fast casual, a concept that splits the divide between fast-food and sit-down restaurants by not offering full table service but still promising higher quality food than what customers could get at a McDonald's or Burger King.

The fast-casual sector has dominated growth in the $465.9 billion restaurant industry, with a 13.1 percent surge in sales last year compared to 3.8 percent growth across the restaurant industry, according to Technomic.

The challenge for traditional full-service chains has been how to evolve into the fast casual space without abandoning their legacy brand, Tristano said. In some ways, it makes sense to treat the brands as separate rather than make an explicit connection, he said.

“The biggest reason why you would want to have a separately established brand is the millennial generation that is looking at what's new and what's next, and the restaurant that defines their generation,” Tristano said. “They don't want to go where their parents or grandparents went.”

Hello Bistro was designed with a younger audience in mind, Broadhurst said.

The company has not tried to hide the association with Eat'n Park, but it has kept the connections subtle. Hello Bistro combines the two most popular Eat'n Park features — the salad bar and burgers — into one location, Broadhurst said. The two share some of the same foods, such as the homemade ranch dressing. Otherwise, the connection is more of an implied one.

Besides attracting a younger demographic, Hello Bistro restaurants allow the company to move into new geographic markets. The facilities are less than half the size of a traditional Eat'n Park and can fit into smaller urban environments where the company could never build a 7,000-square-foot sit-down diner, Broadhurst said.

Having a newer, more nimble format opens up possibilities to grow beyond Western Pennsylvania.

“We consider this maybe an option to grow outside the Pittsburgh area, Western Pennsylvania for sure,” Broadhurst said, declining to say which markets the company might expand into. “We wanted the identity, we wanted to grow in the heritage of Eat'n Park, but at the same time, we want it to stand on its own.”

The company has four Hello Bistro restaurants and expects to add six more during the next two years, Broadhurst said.

Still, Hello Bistro, Six Penn and the other brands are more about “filling in pockets” in the market than they are a wholesale revolution of the business model. Its focus remains on updating the legacy Eat'n Park restaurants, which account for 69 of the company's 75 food establishments. In the past eight years, the company has remodeled 33 locations to have natural lighting, in some cases adding space and updating them with more modern kitchens. On Nov. 19, it will open a location in Bethel Park that was torn down and rebuilt to include, among other things, a pick-up window.

“It's definitely going to help our sales,” said Jeff Dean, the location's general manager, who has been with the company since 1971. “I think it's the right time for something like this. People's lives are so hectic that they can pick up a full meal, take it home and spend time with their family.”

The remodeled Eat'n Park might appeal to younger generations, Dean said, but it will still have plenty to offer longtime customers. What matters most to those people is not so much the lighting, the decor or even minor changes in the menu as much as seeing familiar faces inside ready to serve them.

“I have 18 servers with 25 years at Eat'n Park. One with 44 years,” he said. “They have a loyal clientele.”

Chris Fleisher is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7854or cfleisher@tribweb.com.

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