Twenty-one years ago in Mount Shasta, California, Black Bear Diner opened its doors with the goal of being a small restaurant serving its community. That commitment to the community continues today but what started as a single location has blossomed into 85 locations across Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, and Washington.
True to its mantra, “Feed Your Inner Bear,” Black Bear Diner serves up hearty breakfast, lunch, and dinner—think Corned Beef Hash, Sourdough Melt sandwich, Bacon Cheeseburger Salad, and Slow-Cooked Pot Roast. The “Lil’ Cubs” menu includes staples like grilled cheese, chicken strips, and spaghetti while dessert is downright indulgent: Olga’s Bread Pudding, Sugar Bear’s Lava Cake, and Cinnamon Apple Cream Pie, among others.
The emphasis on comforting, home-cooked fare is reflected in the restaurant design, filled with playful flourishes like wooden bear totems, stone-covered jukeboxes, and spacious seating. More than two decades in, store count continues to climb as Black Bear Diner finds itself on a rapid trajectory: It’s slated to open about 20 more units in 2017.
Thus far, Black Bear Diner has expanded through both corporate-owned and franchised stores—a combination approach that has proved a successful model.
“That growth strategy is roughly 50 percent corporate growth and 50 percent on the franchise side,” says Doug Branigan, chief development officer for Black Bear Diner.
Corporate expansion allows Black Bear Diner to retain control over its brand and its expansion. Similarly, finding the right franchise partners allows Black Bear Diner to expand with a similar thought process.
“On the franchising side, we’ve enjoyed the success of partnering with a couple of new multiunit operators who are growing, while also growing with our existing operators,” Branigan says. “We look for multiunit operators, and we still value the owner-operator model in towns where it makes strategic sense.”
Currently franchise expansion is on pace with corporate growth. Although 2017 locations will open in states where Black Bear Diner already has a presence, the company is looking to move into new territory come 2018. Contiguous territories in Oklahoma and Texas are being targeted for corporate growth.
Unlike many other restaurants, Black Bear Diner is not confined to freestanding buildings that conform to a specific appearance, which makes expansion a bit easier. For instance, the company looks for previous restaurant properties it can retrofit. “We’ve converted just about every brand you could ever imagine,” Branigan says.
Black Bear Diner doesn’t necessarily seek out front-and-center locations but rather searches for a spot that works well for the brand. This could mean a prime location on a secondary street. Endcaps in shopping centers can also be viable options. Regardless of the format, the company stays true to its roots and brand identity.
“We have to make sure it’s identifiable as a Black Bear Diner,” Branigan says. “The good news about Black Bear is we have 85 restaurants, and they all look different because we have remodeled restaurants. You don’t see it as a chain restaurant; you see it as a unique restaurant within that community, and we try to position our behavior and our marketing to be a local restaurant.”
The restaurant also works with developers who buy land for build-to-suit models. These options allow Black Bear Diner to grow a little bit quicker than other brands, Branigan adds.
While Black Bear Diner is on track for rapid growth, it’s not about to open new locations just for the sake of it. When entering a new region, the company builds three to five restaurants fairly quickly to cement brand awareness.
Based on the company’s own research, Branigan feels confident in entering those new regions, “but there is some risk involved any time you go in and your brand doesn’t have that great awareness like we do in the western region,” he says. “There’s some work to be done.”
That work involves implementing a marketing plan that will introduce potential guests to Black Bear Diner, its mission, and its cuisine. The restaurant doesn’t do much pre-opening marketing, but rather pushes its engagement efforts once the locations open. Black Bear Diner invests in traditional media—primarily television—to reach new customers.
In fact, the brand often focuses its ad campaigns around sporting events since such events resonate very well with Black Bear Diner’s target audiences.
The commercials themselves lean to the sporty side with a slew of very active black bears: One features a pair of bears biking down the highway. In another, a bear dances at the roller-skating rink, and in yet another, a bear is swooshing baskets across a basketball court.
With a reputation for quality food, excellent service, and a home-style, friendly atmosphere, Black Bear Diner uses marketing more to make a splash and introduce the brand, rather than to educate the public or push a particular promotion.
“I’m not trying to change a perception or change an impression or reposition a brand. The brand speaks to the customers,” says David Doty, chief marketing officer for Black Bear Diner. “Our effort is just to let them know, ‘Hey, here we are.’ The conversion rate is very, very strong.”
Moving forward, Black Bear Diner plans to continue executing at a high level while staying committed to smart, solid growth as it enters new territories.
“I think all of us have confidence that the brand will continue to resonate as we move eastward,” Doty says.