Once the switch flips, Black Bear, known for its jukeboxes, turns the music to easy listening. It was a big change from the typical country and nostalgic beats.
A quick side story: the jukeboxes are famous in Black Bear due to their history. When the restaurant first opened, Dean and Manley worked 38 straight days, open to close, for 16 hours a day without cutting a paycheck. They would instead raid the restaurant’s jukebox on Mondays and pay themselves in quarters. Not surprisingly, Dean and Manley each lost about 40 pounds.
Returning to the present, Dean says they asked the jukebox company to play something “people could relax with.” It was actually too laid back at first. Some franchisees requested more contemporary options and Black Bear adjusted. It’s been a work in process throughout.
To complete the ambiance, operators dim the lighting for dinner.
But the most important element in all of this was food. As Dean mentioned, Black Bear’s “wow factor” wasn’t carrying over to the extent the brand hoped. Patrick Griffin, Black Bear’s director of culinary services, helped devise fresh, savory offerings that meet the industry where it’s headed—with high-level, savory products customers were willing to spend on.
It started with three Carving Station Dinners: Santa Maria Tri-Tip, Smoked Beef Brisket, and Roasted Turkey. Additionally, Black Bear added Pasta Primavera to its Fit and Focused menu, and a roasted half chicken. The brand’s Comfort Food Dinners got an upgrade as well, including the guest-favorite Slow-Cooked Pot Roast, which now includes mushrooms and a rich beef gravy. The Housemade Meatloaf received a potion boost and the taste profile was enhanced.
Another thing Black Bear did to give dinner a signature personality was create exclusive experiences. There’s an All-You-Can-Eat-Fish Fry on Fridays and Prime Rib special on Fridays and Saturdays. And they all begin once the specified dinner time kicks in.
To accomplish these culinary changes, Black Bear had to adjust preparation. The brand starts cooking in the afternoons now rather than putting meat in its Alt-Shaam ovens in the mornings. The meats are carved to order. The half chicken is cooked that way, too.
By cutting down the times it’s available, it’s better quality during dinner, Dean says.
It was key, however, as Black Bear breathed life into dinner, that all of the upgrades aligned with its persona. The items might surprise loyal guests, but they won’t feel like they’ve walked into a different restaurant. For instance, Black Bear serves choice New York strip and ribeye steaks at price points of $15–$17 for 10-ounce options. That value and quality proposition is something Dean says has fueled Black Bear’s growth from the outset.