When Deborah Shapiro joined the roughly 30-unit Black Angus Steakhouse in October 2021 as vice president of growth, she saw a 58-year-old chain with good bones.
Sales were steady week-over-week, no matter the promotion. She attributed this to the steakhouse’s loyal customer base and employees. At the same time, growth means more, not hitting the same mark every time. As a new executive responsible for marketing and merchandizing, Shapiro set out to change this trajectory.
“You need to find a way to grow sales, but we need to do it in a way that we don’t alienate the current audience when we bring in the new audiences,” says Shapiro, explaining her mindset. “So that was the very first thing that I noticed was that if we are going to grow this brand, the first thing we need to solidify is making sure we retain the current customers while we are growing the brand.”
Her first initiative was employee and guest advocacy, ensuring Black Angus honored those who’ve been a part of the brand for decades. The company spoke with these longtime customers and workers in a focus group setting to identify new core values. The results were quality, consistency, family, value, and heritage.
Out of those pillars, “family” appears to hit home the most. Servers have been invited to guests’ weddings, and some customers have even gotten married at the restaurant. Consumers also use the brand to celebrate their anniversaries every year.
“When I go around to the stores and I ask all the employees the same questions like, ‘What’s your favorite part about being part of Black Angus,’ if I were to video it and show you an answer, everybody gives me the same answer—it’s all about being a part of this family,” Shapiro says. “The people who they work with are their favorite part about Black Angus. Their customers, and the people that they work with, they feel like our family.”
Another targeted change was updating the physical appearance of restaurants, which have had the same décor for decades. Shapiro sought the lowest hanging fruit in terms of how best to freshen the look. For instance, the chain is putting up new pictures, but from the original photographer, fulfilling the brand’s goal of not disrupting its heritage. Some guests love the pictures so much they request to sit next to them. The company is also placing white paint over wood to provide a more shiplap look. In other cases, restaurants have stucco walls, in which case white accents will be added.
However, Shapiro wants to make it clear, Black Angus isn’t taking away uniqueness. Like the units in Arizona that use shellacked cowboy boots as dividers.
“They’re going to look together as a family,” Shapiro says. “We’re not taking away their uniqueness because they were all built a little bit differently. But we are keeping them together in like one family so that you do recognize the pictures for example. The same 25 pictures are going to all stores. So you feel that sense of like, ‘Oh I know where I am.’ But then some stores have gathered a few fun, quirky pictures. We’re not going to take those down.”
As for the menu, Black Angus knows it will never alter some parts, like the Campfire Feast (sweet molasses bread with one appetizer, two entrées, four sides, and one dessert). But there is room for creating excitement, such as quarterly seasonal experiences involving a cocktail pairing dinner. In early August, the chain hosted its Tequila Dinner Experience nationwide. The meal involved a $49.99 three-course offering and three cocktails featuring top-shelf tequila. The brand previously had a bourbon dinner, and a wine version is expected for October.
For promotions, the company decided to switch its Summer Grill combo (steak, two additional proteins, two sides, and a slice of watermelon), to a value bundle so customers didn’t have to bring a coupon—attracting the younger demographics. Additionally, in light of inflationary times, Black Angus is offering a $20.22 Ranch Hand Plate that includes grilled ribeye steak or grilled salmon with broccoli and wild rice. The deal, running through September 1, is in conjunction with stores extending hours back to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 9 p.m. Sunday.
“Between the hours of eight and 10, especially those of you who work a full day, us closing at nine was a hindrance for them coming to us,” Shapiro says. “But that was our pandemic hours. Now that we’re back open to 10, we’re celebrating that, ‘Hey we’re here for you working America.’ You can get a steak dinner for 20 bucks, which is unheard of nowadays. You can’t get a steak dinner for $20.”
Shapiro also wanted Black Angus to stand out as a “memorable experience company.” She refers back to the 1980s when restaurants had DJs and live music every weekend. Customers began calling it “Square Cow Fun Bar,” harkening back to founder Stuart Anderson’s original branding, which was a square cow’s head inside a square frame. The celebration returned in April in honor of Black Angus’ birthday, with live music, bartenders wearing Square Cow shirts, a 1964 retro dish, and Square Cow coolers.
The steakhouse received an overwhelming response, so it decided to make it a recurring event every Friday night.
“It’s been steadily bringing in more counts each week,” Shapiro says. “People are coming to expect it. So the goal’s obviously to grow sales, but the actual program was spawned by customer request.”
Building its off-premises channel, the company in February launched Black Angus Meat Market where guests can digitally order fresh meat, steak sauces and seasonings, T-shirts, platters, samplers, and a barbecue grill kit. In the fall, Black Angus will release a meal kit. Customers can either pick up the items at a restaurant or have them delivered. In January, Black Angus updated its Meat Market website to be more interactive, like being able to save a menu item to view later.
Toward the end of September, the brand will launch a new app and loyalty program that allows frequent customers to bank points and have access to exclusive offers.
Also, in June, Black Angus created another website to facilitate nationwide, two-day shipping. The hand-cut meat is Cryovacked, frozen, and shipped with ice packs so the product keeps its quality. All of this occurs out of the Brentwood, California, location, which has enough of a loading dock and production area to service two-day shipping for the entire company. If business becomes larger, Black Angus will look into adding another facility.
“As we grow back the brand, we actually are looking to revive some of our old footprint, especially where we have loyal guests,” Shapiro says. “And so a lot of this purchasing behavior that we’re going to start seeing on our nationwide shipping will actually help us identify where people are excited and want to be able to get our meats again.”
To reach customers at the grocery store, Black Angus is partnering with Daymon, a private brand development solution, to find copackers that can take the steakhouse’s sauces, seasonings, and dressings and mass market them. The restaurant is also working with Evolution USA, a global licensing and brand management agency, to develop a line of licensed consumer products, like a cast-iron skillet.
Since Shapiro’s tenure began, Black Angus’ average customer age has moved from 60-plus to 40-plus. Traffic is growing, and so are sales—around $500,000 more per week.
Good bones, indeed.
“What’s key is, making sure you have a mindful thought when you’re doing both purchasing and marketing,” Shapiro says. “Merchandizing and marketing falling in lockstep is very important for the growth of a brand. That’s what we’re trying to do and just basically get the message out that we’re still there to support our current customer, but we also have all these new, fun, innovative, modern things that we’re doing.”