Introduced October of last year and since launched to corporate locations in Miami and a couple in Texas, the menu focuses on customization, bold flavors, and, of course, ribs.
It kept the classics—Onion Loaf, Baby Back Ribs, and Kickin’ Shrimp—updated others, and then brought in completely new choices, including a revamped dessert menu.
Perhaps the most vivid change is a small plates menu called “Bones & Bites” that allows customers to mix and match. Rogers’ favorite item is the Buffalo Ribs, which are pork ribs coated with Ritz cracker breading, fried, and tossed in a Buffalo sauce. Another bold iteration is the Pork-Strami ribs. Rubbed with a five-spice blend and marinated for 48 hours in house-made pastrami seasoning, they’re brushed with an agave mustard glaze. Bison Meatballs and Pepper Jack Shrimp Poppers are two other non-rib additions. Another popular menu boost has been the Lamb Ribs with plum-tarragon glaze, which are well known to Tony Roma’s Malaysian audience, and the Boneless Beef Short Rib.
Rogers says the chain did post-menu research as well to track progress. “What has the shift been in acceptance for these products from a guest standpoint? We can certainty look at sales but we wanted to know if we really upgraded the menu,” Rogers says. “And that research showed that we upgraded the menu pretty significantly.”
The top-scoring item was actually the Not Your Mom’s Fried Chicken. It’s deep fried chicken in waffle batter that’s topped with gravy. Three entrée salads were also added: Chicken Caesar, The Grilled Shrimp Salad, and a steak salad.
Design wise, the I Drive restaurant is hardly recognizable. There’s a massive indoor-outdoor space, private dining rooms, an open dining room, expanded bar with 20 taps of beer and new cocktails, fresh colorful plateware, and updated glassware, including beer goblets. Polo shirts have been replaced by chef coats. There are all new light fixtures. The entire space is crisper, bolder, and more current.
“When you’ve got restaurants that have been around for 25–30 years, it’s not just putting in a new menu. You’ve got to touch everything. The hardware and the software, Rogers says. “Change the uniforms. Change the plateware. Change the look and feel of the restaurant if you’re going to be impactful.”
That’s why, Rogers says, the company is asking franchisees to update their restaurant if they want the new menu. And, without question, many of them do.
In fact, that six-year drought ended in mid-April when Tony Roma’s announced it signed a development deal for West Palm Beach, Florida. A week later, T&J Food Groups I, Inc. revealed they would be opening in Tennessee. The brand also inked a deal to break into the Nicaragua market.
“We weren’t having much interest as far as growth prospects with potential franchisees,” Rogers says. “That has changed dramatically with this new restaurant, with this new menu. It’s starting to create some great energy for us.”
“It takes time to change a mindset and a brand and a menu,” he adds. “But we’re moving along that path.”