In the case of Bob Evans, founded 1946 in Rio Grande, Ohio, Holtcamp says, the chain went from “the true 'America’s Farm Fresh' to just another restaurant chain.”
“You looked at the menu at Bob Evans, you looked the décor at Bob Evans, you looked at the communications from Bob Evans, and you went, gosh, if you didn’t have a Bob Evans logo on it could have been insert any other brand here.”
This was a cautionary tale unfurling at casual chains across the country. Bob Evans pulled out the brand’s distinction trying to appeal to all generations. What didn’t help, either, Holtcamp says, is the challenged economic climate. Sales pressures led Bob Evans to think it needed to toss aside the playbook in favor of examining its brand strengths even closer. “The fact that they weren’t doing so well sent them down a path of let’s try this, let’s try this, let’s try this,” Holtcamp says. “And they made so many changes, and the consumer went, ‘I don’t even know who you are anymore.’”
Bob Evans’ grip on its core slipped—that North Star brand positioning. And just like Applebee’s and Chili’s discovered, its original DNA was actually very appealing to millennial customers. It wasn’t outdated. This being the idea of “America’s Farm Fresh,” Holtcamp says.
Bob Evans was sold in January 2017 to Golden Cate Capital, which also owns California Pizza Kitchen, for $565 million. The company had 523 units at the time. Bob Evans dealt the restaurant side of its business and committed to its packaged foods division. Heading into the blockbuster news, Bob Evans Restaurants’ same-store sales declined 1.8 percent in the previous quarter.
At the time, the company said, Golden Gate Capital would allow the restaurant segment to be more focused and zero in on its heritage, anchored by the resources and experience of a private-equity firm with deep roots in the business (it purchased Red Lobster from Darden in 2014 for $2.1 billion).
Holtcamp, who previously served as CMO at T. Marzetti Company for five years and clocked more than a decade at Wendy’s, his last role as SVP of brand marketing, says he was “incredibly bullish” about the Bob Evans opportunity.
It’s a brand with substantial guest affinity, just waiting to be harnessed. “I was really encouraged by what I believe the brand, the Bob Evans brand, could become once again,” he says.