The legendary casual chain lost its way for about a decade. But it's back, with a familiar, down-home brand positioning and a fresh marketing campaign to get the word out.

In the middle part of the decade, casual dining sat on an inflection point you wouldn’t be wrong to call a crisis. In the third quarter of 2016, only 34 percent of brands in the category reported positive comparable sales, according to industry tracker TDn2K. Casual dining was riding eight consecutive months of declining sales, with traffic growth trending down at an increasing rate since the beginning of the previous year. In 2015, the sector saw traffic fall 0.8 percent. The following year it was 3 percent. Some of the biggest names in the category—Applebee’s, Ruby Tuesday, and Chili’s were mired in steep sales and traffic slumps. The first two were trimming unit counts by the triple-digits.

Much was written about this downturn and what it meant for the future of sit-down chains. And one of the recurring themes threw darts at millennials. A Business Insider headline read, “Millennials are killing chains like Buffalo Wild Wings and Applebee’s.” Eater wrote one bluntly called, “Applebee’s Deserves to Die.” Sitting here a few years later, we know the reality wasn’t so cut and dry—and nowhere near that apocalyptic. In many cases, it just wasn’t true. Look at Olive Garden. IHOP and Applebee’s parent Dine Brands’ CEO Stephen Joyce called the millennial death sentence “false news,” in May. Younger diners weren’t constricting Applebee’s growth, he said. In fact, about half of the resurgent chain’s guest are under the age of 34. “And the last time I looked, those are millennials,” Joyce quipped.

Truthfully, though, the 2016 doomsday reports weren’t entirely off-base. The perspective was simply twisted. Applebee’s and other chains, Chili’s especially, recognized a critical flaw before the wheel snapped off the wagon. From a massive menu cut at Brinker’s flagship to a return to industry-leading promotions driven by scale for Applebee’s, the legacy brands got back to their core and dammed rampant brand drift. The reason they strayed in the first place, however, was—in many ways—millennials’ fault.

Bob Evans’ chief marketing officer, Bob Holtcamp, who joined the brand at the end of January, says a similar thing happened at the 481-unit chain. For about a decade, Bob Evans lost its way, he says. “And they were never able to put real saliency and real purchase intent driving power behind their marketing programs around ‘America’s Farm Fresh.’”

This was a problem facing restaurant marketers across the landscape. Brands looked at demographic megatrends and came away with this urgent thought: We’ve got to reinvent ourselves to fit the needs and desires of millennials who have grown up in a different generation, with different experiences.

“And that’s not altogether wrong,” Holtcamp says, “but I think what happened is that in their quest to try to connect with millennials, it sent them down a path of we’ve got to change everything that we’ve been.”

Recognizable food. High-quality ingredients. Served fresh.

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.

Bob Evans’ off-premises business is up double-digits.

Originated in the heart of the Midwest, Bob Evans’ “America’s Farm Fresh,” adage isn’t just writing on a boilerplate, Holtcamp says. Bob Evans himself was a farmer first before he became a restaurateur. He began making sausage on his southeastern Ohio farm, serving it at a small 12-stool diner he owned in Gallipolis. “Customers crave authenticity,” Holtcamp says. “That’s our whole purpose—not only delivering to the consumer authentic, real farm fresh products, but also cooking things in a rural, country, farm-driven way.”

Bob Evans’ menu strategy doesn’t need to be complicated or flash-by trendy in nature. Holtcamp says its strength remains in putting products in front of guests they can instantly recognize. Then deliver that promise with real, authentic cooking.

“It’s slow roasted. It’s simmered. It’s not microwaved,” he says. “And so we want to bring that to the consumer today. We believe very strongly that consumers are interested in that type of cuisine, made that way.”

Again, Bob Evans’ is a restaurant chain that doesn’t need to be deciphered. “My job is not only to get the organization here to believe in that idea of ‘America’s Farm Fresh,’ but to show them what it truly means, and then just go execute the heck out of it,” Holtcamp says.

Going deeper, he adds, Bob Evans now challenges itself on which menu items fit that bill and which don’t, as opposed to thinking outside those pillars and looking for something off-brand to excite guests. Currently, it comes down to asking questions like, “what new areas need to be built out to demonstrate the message to an even greater degree?”

Bob Evans brought in a local ad agency, one that grew up with the brand and understood its journey, to launch a fresh campaign this summer. It loudly speaks the “America’s Farm Fresh,” positioning, and started with Bob Evans’ Pick 2 Farm-Fresh Favorites featuring soups, salads, and half sandwiches. The brand described it as a “comprehensive, multi-pronged marketing program that focuses on the rich values in which the late Bob Evans himself believed, including hard work, fresh-quality ingredients, and contemporary homestyle meals the whole family can enjoy.”

One of the surest ways to distance your brand from a younger audience and lose your older one is to try to reinvent yourself outside of the company’s space, Holtcamp says. The gut reaction to outside pressure often leads to the opposite, however.

With legacy brands, Holtcamp says, the reality should work this way: Be true to your brand space—your core user—those who might be aging, and the guest will say, yes, that’s my place. I belong here. Secondarily, the millennial and younger consumer who might be going through certain life stages (having children, starting families), where they start using casual dining to a greater degree, they’ll know what they can count on. “They look at the brand and go, yeah, that brand is doing what they do. That’s what that brand is about,” Holtcamp says. “I do think getting back to that is an essential part of the rebirth of the business.”

“We’re trading guests with Applebee’s and Chili’s and Olive Garden just as much as we are with Cracker Barrel and Denny’s or IHOP. That’s an interesting opportunity for anyone in family dining is to look at that and decide how are you going to ensure that you get more of those family occasions, and it’s a great challenge, and one that I believe Bob Evans is positioned best to achieve.” — Bob Holtcamp, Bob Evans CMO.

Another reason Holtcamp is enthusiastic about Bob Evans’ prospects involves something it didn’t possess a few years back: the megaphone of digital. Some marketers might fear it, but Holtcamp doesn’t. “What once was a time when a consumer might stand at the water cooler and speak about an experience with someone else, and that was basically one-to-one communication, maybe one to three people would hear it. But now, if we get our consumers excited about the brand or excited about the experience, they have a pretty big platform to go out and tell everyone.”

From social media to review sites, guests can say they had a great meal at Bob Evans in Springfield, Illinois, and it will live on for years, Holtcamp says.

“It’s great to be a marketer right now,” he adds. “If you do it right and you get those core consumers who love you to speak on your behalf, it just adds to the buzz, the noise around a brand. And, quite frankly, it’s a bit more authentic. It’s not advertising. It’s real humans versus bots talking about your brand. And we love that.”

Holtcamp says Bob Evans will turn up the dial on its digital marketing going forward.

Where does he see the space heading? With all the tools at hand for guests—social media search, reviews, etc.—they’re able to make decisions with a much larger, crowd-sourced pool of information. “And the people who are going to win know how to get their message into those preferred places,” Holtcamp says. “Get in front of those channels consumers are using, and do so in a seamless, authentic way that gets consumers excited about the brand.”

“For us,” he adds, “what it means is we have to, at its very core, when someone is interested in our brand and they’re in search mode for information or an experience, we have to be laser focused on what we deliver and make sure we’re in a position where they can receive us on page one search so that we match our brand to an interest.”

Bob Evans will then layer on a content strategy to excite guests who relate to the chain. Next, feed that with appropriate engagement and dialogue between Bob Evans and the consumer that furthers the story and deepens the relationship.

“Little Bob Evans” is a signal to families they’re welcome here, says CMO Bob Holtcamp.

The family dining chance

Holtcamp believes there’s real opportunity competing in the family dining segment of casual dining. The millennial spending base has proven more practical than past generations. They want entertainment through restaurant occasions. That wasn’t so much the case with Baby Boomers.

“Our concept fits millennials perfectly,” Holtcamp says. “They get Farm Fresh food at a very good, value-driven price.”

The menus are broad. And Bob Evans’ environment is the opposite of pretentious. “Leisure is the name of the game with us,” Holtcamp says.

“We’re trading guests with Applebee’s and Chili’s and Olive Garden just as much as we are with Cracker Barrel and Denny’s or IHOP,” he adds. “That’s an interesting opportunity for anyone in family dining is to look at that and decide how are you going to ensure that you get more of those family occasions, and it’s a great challenge, and one that I believe Bob Evans is positioned best to achieve.”

Bob Evans has an image of a child on its kids menu, “Little Bob Evans,” with a string tie like the chain’s founder used to wear. He’s there to say families are welcome, Holtcamp says. The majority of restaurants have either a big round or rectangular table designed to promote a gathering place. “Kids are kids. If he begins to cry it’s OK. We’re a family dining restaurant,” Holtcamp says.

Bob Evans is still remodeling some stores to get this updated feature into place. It wants to promote a “farmhouse kitchen” feel that encourages socialization.

“The whole value equation really does come down to the quality of the food and the experience over the price, which is essentially the value equation for a restaurant,” Holtcamp says. “I think we do a great job of that.”

Casual Dining, Chain Restaurants, Feature, Marketing & Promotions, Bob Evans