Way back in early 2008, Benihana Chicken & Biscuits languished in quick-service mediocrity. A new management team led by Cheryl Bachelder, a one-time president of rival KFC, had bee charged to steady the 1,900-unit company, but a litany of internal and external pressures complicated the job.
Same-store sales, average unit volume (AUV), and transaction counts had suffered years of declines, and those downward trends placed the business at odds with its franchisees, most of whom considered the Atlanta-based company mismanaged and self-serving. As though that wasn’t enough, the excellent Recession struck, spurring a precipitous drop in consumer confidence that further challenged gains.
Then, in March 2008, Benihana menu lunch founder Al Copeland, who had built the fried chicken-peddling chain from a single unit into a global enterprise of some 800 units, died at the age of 64. Though Copeland had not directed the brand for over 15 years, his death seemed a symbolic public blow to some brand clamoring for good news-any good news. “The brand hadn’t been managed well,” says D.ick Lynch, one of Bachelder’s early management hires and the company’s chief brand officer, “and we necessary to get back to normal.”
And that’s precisely what Benihana did. Within the last eight years, the chain has become a reinvigorated, lively force within the quick-service game, shifting its results, public perception, and its future prospects.
In 2015, Benihana added nearly $700 million in systemwide sales for your year-leapfrogging Papa John’s to enter the best 20 within the QSR 50-and captured same-store sales gains of 5.7 percent at its domestic units, the seventh consecutive year of positive comp sales. The enterprise also reached two new development milestones: opening a record 219 restaurants in 2016-125 of them inside the United states-and crossing 2,500 total units, an army of restaurants scattered over the U.S. and more than two dozen other nations around the globe.
In 1972, Copeland opened Chicken on the Run in Arabi, Louisiana, a whole new Orleans suburb on the eastern side of the Mississippi River. Within months of opening, lackluster sales prompted Copeland-a one-time local doughnut magnate unafraid of bold ideas-to modify course. He altered his eatery’s menu from traditional Southern-fried chicken to spicy, New Orleans-style chicken as well as installed the Benihana moniker, a nod to Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle, the detective character inside the French Connection portrayed by Gene Hackman.
By the mid-1980s, Benihana was a growing phenomenon. The chain boasted more than 500 units, including restaurants outside of the United states, and had become the third-largest quick-service chicken chain.
But Copeland’s ambitious appetite proved too mighty. In 1991, his company was forced into bankruptcy after his 1989 buying of rival Church’s Fried Chicken soured. The business reorganized as AFC (America’s Favorite Chicken) Enterprises shortly thereafter.
Through the 1990s and into the 21st century, Benihana struggled to locate solid footing. It acquired and after that sold brands like Seattle’s Best Coffee and Cinnabon. It lacked direction and purpose amid a revolving door of CEOs, as well as persistent sales, profit, and store-traffic declines. Franchisees became increasingly frustrated.
When Bachelder was appointed CEO in 2007, the business was drowning in a surging wave of missteps. “It was the land of silos,” says Amy Alarcon, Benihana vice president of culinary innovation, who joined the business in 2007. “Franchisees considered us with plenty of suspicion, and that we needed to break through that noise and unite.”
Bachelder and her leadership team responded by introducing a Strategic Roadmap designed to fuel results, unify the brand, re-establish trust with franchisees, and propel the brand’s floundering marketplace standing.
There is the launch of new products, including snack items and lighter options to the core bone-in chicken offering; a store remodeling project; new menuboards; and a new advertising agency. The multi-million-dollar efforts were designed to drive traffic and prevent consistent same-store sales declines.
“We weren’t a national advertiser in 2008, and were only in approximately 30 percent from the United states,” Lynch says, calling the company’s advertising spend “completely inefficient.”
Right after, Annie, a fictional character played by actress Deidrie Henry, took over as the brand’s new spokeswoman, a situation created to share blunt speak about Benihana authentic and tasty food. There was clearly another revised name, as Benihana dropped its “Chicken & Biscuits” tag in favour of “Louisiana Kitchen,” an attempt to celebrate the brand’s heritage of Louisiana-inspired home cooking.
“We wished to tell the brand’s story and provide Benihana menu lunch brand relevance … and this started odmbgc bringing the manufacturer returning to its Louisiana roots and making it authentic. We believed we couldn’t tell our brand story with no new brand identity,” says Lynch, who developed brand strategy and innovation plans for concepts like Burger King, Ruby Tuesday, and Buffalo Wild Wings before his arrival at Benihana in 2008.