The 25-year-old brand is targeting coast-to-coast expansion in the wake of COVID-19.
Black Bear Diner is looking to move east as it implements a growth strategy into 2022.
Three more Black Bear Diner locations will open this year, two corporate diners in Texas, and one franchise in California, adding to its 143 units across 14 states.
The brand’s story began 25 years ago when friends Bruce Dean and Bob Manley founded the first Black Bear Diner in the small community of Mount Shasta, California. There were only around 2,500 people in the town, but Dean and Manley set their sights on creating a gathering place for friends and family. And the result was Black Bear Diner.
CEO Anita Adams joined in 2017 and has since fought to fiercely protect what was instilled in the brand by the founders, she says. For chains like Black Bear Diner, known for its hearty breakfast, lunch and dinner, preserving that day one magic throughout growth remains essential.
“It’s high quality. It’s abundant. It's really, we call it the ‘wow factor,’” Adams says. “What's interesting is we sit in our diners, and we see our team members bring food to the table. That's the response from our guests. It's the wow.”
The Black Bear Diner brand is not solely a West Coast-centric concept, something the company has explored throughout expansion. The hospitality experience and authenticity continues to mirror what the founders put into motion 25 years ago, Adams says.
In early June, the company announced a move to bring in a fresh, but familiar face in the restaurant world as part of its goals to expand to the East Coast. Industry veteran Chad Corrigan assumed the role of Vice President of Franchise Sales and Development as Black Bear Diner looks to grow following a strong coronavirus recovery. Corrigan has more than 14 years of franchise development strategy experience, with stints at Jack in the Box, Qdoba, Tokyo Joe’s, and Quiznos.
When COVID first hit, Adams says she and others believed the crisis would be a 90-day phenomena. Of course, it proved far lengthier, shutting down businesses for months and changing the state of office work, consumer mobility, and guest routines as retailers and restaurants knew them.
“The uncertainty was the most challenging, and this is something that none of us have faced in our careers,” Adams says.
Black Bear Diner immediately began thinking about how to support franchisees.
“We felt like we were decisive out of the gate,” Adams says. “Our strategy was really twofold: it was to protect our diner-level management team and then to protect our franchise partners.”
The strategy included abating royalties and ad funds and subsidizing franchises near-term to ensure long-term viability. Adams says looking back, the company wouldn’t do much differently if forced to experience 2020 again. It was paramount to financially support franchisees, but it was similarly important to support them with personal guidance on navigating an unforeseen situation.
“We had very strong relationships with our franchise partners,” Adams says. “And I feel like today, we're even closer. The relationship is deepened, and we're emerging here post-pandemic in a position of strength.”
Black Bear Diner’s efforts paid off. All 143 locations withstood the pandemic and fully reopened their dining rooms, prompting a strong recovery. The company has now exceeded 2019 sales. The success is partly driven by a rise in off-premises business, which initially was not a focus of Black Bear Diner, yet now mixes 20 percent of sales. Naturally, the pandemic sparked a pivot and an investment in technology channels to serve pickup and delivery on a large scale.
The hiring shortage is a lingering pandemic concern that continues to plague the industry, and it’s a challenge Black Bear Diner has met aggressively. The company advertises it’s hiring and offers sign-on and referral bonuses.
“Good progress is being made, but it has definitely been challenging. We kind of joke that the guests have outnumbered us,” Adams says. “The demand and the customers are there so we've asked for a little bit of patience here as we rebuild, but we're confident that we'll get there.”
Pre-COVID, Black Bear Diner was opening 20 diners per year, on average. The pandemic stalled growth, with the brand only debuting six in 2020. But Black Bear Diner is reenergizing its development plans, starting with the new Texas and California locations. Adams says she believes 2022 will welcome the largest class of new diners yet while franchise partners are looking to add to their portfolios.
“We believe there's no reason Black Bear Diner shouldn't have a presence coast to coast,” Adams says.