Casual-dining chains are continually finding new ways to attract and hold the ever-fleeting attention of customers. Much was written during the pandemic about how full service was dying, how much brands had to “pivot” (we’re all sick of that word now) to survive, and the never-ending headwinds of supply chain and construction delays, inflation, and the threat of a potential recession looming. But the brands that are winning in the restaurant space have a few key things in common: an elevated omni-channel guest experience, true hospitality, and a commitment to sourcing fresh, high-quality ingredients.
Though it may not be the first brand that comes to mind for those on the east or west coasts, Bob Evans possesses all of those key qualities for a winning brand. But at 75 years old, the challenge has been evolving into the new era and being loud about claiming the head seat of the farm-fresh table.
“It doesn’t just mean a local grower to our restaurant. That’s a really difficult thing to do for restaurants across America; even one-off mom-and-pops … it doesn’t work that way,” says Bob Holtcamp, president and chief marketing officer at Bob Evans. “We have a network of people we believe are part of our America’s Farm Fresh platform. We also use the language, ‘this is where good grows.’ This is where the restaurant can come together with great growers and farmers, [and] partner with them and do great things.”
Let’s wind back the clock a little, because the brand’s founding story in 1948 remains a key piece of the puzzle moving forward. Founder Bob Evans started making sausage on his farm in Southeastern Ohio to sell at a small diner he owned called The Sausage Shop, which had only 12 stools. That evolved into a farm-themed casual restaurant chain that has grown to 440 locations in 18 states—primarily in the Midwest, mid-Atlantic, and Southeast—with approximately $800 million in systemwide sales.
Another aspect that’s core to the brand’s DNA: Evans treated strangers like friends and guests like family. He left a living legacy when he died in 2007. Heartfelt hospitality is woven through the framework of the New Albany, Ohio-based breakfast brand.
Throughout the brand’s 75 years, Bob Evans has stayed true to the farm-fresh mentality of its origin story. The original Bob Evans farm has become a tourist attraction and is located in Rio Grande, Ohio, just a two-hour drive from the brand’s headquarters. A Bob Evans restaurant located on the farm property is open all year round, and thousands gather each fall for the Bob Evans Farm Festival, with family-friendly entertainment, music, crafts, and of course, food.
“We’ve been in [the farm-to-table] space for quite some time. We define that space within the context of our people, our preparation, the products we serve, and who we partner with,” says Holtcamp.
“We slow roast our turkey for six hours, and our pot roast for nine hours. All of our breads are baked fresh every day,” Holtcamp continues. “There’s kind of heart and soul in our preparation, and we believe that’s part of the farm roots and the way rural America kind of works.”
Prior to joining Bob Evans in January 2019, Holtcamp previously clocked more than a decade at Wendy’s, serving in roles ranging from vice president of brand management to SVP of brand marketing. There, he initiated a total brand revitalization program, completely reengineered Wendy’s marketing structure, and directed the brand’s full realignment of agency resources. His time at Wendy’s prepared him well to lead 75-year-old Bob Evans into the future by elevating the brand’s farm-to-table value proposition to attract more families across the country.
This is not your grandparents’ Bob Evans anymore. Or, at least, it doesn’t just belong to them. “A lot of times people think about Bob Evans, they may think Bob Evans caters only to an older audience,” Holtcamp says. But the brand has taken great care to recognize the changing tides of consumer behavior and how newer families choose to dine, and made great strides in adapting offerings accordingly.
“Our number one group, our biggest user is a millennial family, who thinks about food differently than the Gen X or baby boomer family did 20 or 30 years ago,” Holtcamp says. “All of our innovation has been looking at what the needs are of that group and staying relevant, and that means bigger, bolder flavor.
Elevating the quality of its dishes through fresher preparation methods and bringing in new products from farmer partnerships is how the brand “brings this to life,” he adds. For example, Bob Evans changed its chicken platform and made it all hand breaded, done in the restaurant, “which makes for a better chicken experience.”
Prior to COVID, Bob Evans already had a solid off-premises business in place. Though after seeing “the millennial consumer of today thinking about carryout and takeout and delivery in a much different way,” the brand reengineered its website and built partnerships with third-party suppliers, Holtcamp says.
“We built a whole line of family meals to-go, geared specifically to a family that wants a big bunch of chicken or big brunch,” he says. “It was not only understanding what the consumer needed, but also engineering the menu and the operational side for off-premises to fit that consumer.
“That’s really what helped us through COVID, quite frankly; we built that muscle. And at this point, nearly a third of our volume and sales are [still] in off-premises, so we’re very proud of that,” he adds.
A large part of the brand’s comeback strategy has also been reframing what Bob Evans has to offer. A fresh marketing campaign advertises 30 lunch and dinner combinations for $8.99 or less—a remarkable deal especially considering inflation and other industry headwinds in recent years. It was less an idea of discounting and more an idea of not taking price, and showing customers the great value items the brand already brought to the table.
“We looked at our menu and realized, heck, we’ve got over 30 items that are $8.99 or less that consumers can make across our value menus, and even embedded in our core menu. That was a message we really wanted to get out to the consumer. I think a lot of people knew it already, but when you wrap it up that way, it has a nice punch to it,” Holtcamp says.
“We’ve been advertising that in certain markets, and it’s worked really well for us. It’s been a great reminder to guests that we are a great place and have great affordability with good quality food,” he adds. “If it’s not great quality, it doesn’t matter.”
Customizable Pick 2 Lunch Combos start at $6.99, including a choice of soup, salad, or half a sandwich. Meanwhile, Bob Evans’ signature seven Dinner Bell Plates start as low as $7.99. Guests can choose from a variety of proteins, including popular dinner staples such as country-fried steak or hickory-smoked ham, served with two farmhouse sides like mashed potatoes and gravy, green beans with ham, and more.
“I think about consumers’ needs for spicier food or bolder flavor, but at the end of the day, value and affordability are just really key for us, and for the whole industry,” Holtcamp says. “We looked at it and said, consumers aren’t just looking for the lowest price. They love variety and they love affordability, and they’ll determine value.”
The industry as a whole is undergoing a defining moment, where the term “value” is being flipped upside down and out-of-the-box thinking is becoming the norm. The overall experience is queen—which applies to off-premises, too. For example, Bob Evans’ Thanksgiving dinner to-go—where guests can pick up a pre-made meal for the holiday to serve at their events—was up 24 percent last month versus October 2022, Yelp reports.
“At the end of the day, value and affordability are just really key for us, and for the whole industry.”—Bob Holtcamp, president and CMO of Bob Evans Restaurants
Zooming out and comparing to pre-pandemic levels in October of 2019, Yelp searches for “Thanksgiving dinner to go” are up 1,101 percent, and “turkey dinner” searches are up 282 percent. It bears repeating—trends from COVID are sticking around, and consumers are looking for fast, easy, tasty meals, plus new ways to engage with their favorite restaurants and brands.
More consumers are looking at ordering a Thanksgiving meal from a restaurant this year, perhaps because they “don’t want to spend time cooking, and it’s basically the same amount of money because of inflation,” notes Will Degirolamo, senior manager of advertising and B2B communications at Yelp.
Bob Evans has several Farmhouse Feasts available, packed cold and ready to heat ranging from four to 10 people. Slow-roasted turkey, pot roast, and hickory-smoked ham options accompany sides like macaroni and cheese, pumpkin bread, double-crust apple pie, and more.
The brand’s Thanksgiving Hot Family Meal includes a slow-roasted turkey, hickory-smoked ham, house-made bread and celery dressing, cranberry relish, mashed potatoes and gravy, green beans and ham, buttered corn, 12 freshly baked dinner rolls, and a whole pumpkin pie for up to six family members, all for about $100. There are also multiple single-platter options for the holiday, like the Country-Fried Steak and Farm-Fresh Eggs for $12.19 with lightly breaded tender premium beef smothered with country gravy, served with two fresh-cracked eggs cooked to order alongside home fries and freshly baked biscuits.
“We along with the entire industry have seen some prices rise a bit, but we’ve tried to hod that back as best we can, and in fact, our approach to that whole piece is to give consumers even more choice, and allow them to find the best way to create their meal,” Holtcamp says.
“So we look at beverages, we look at add-ons, desserts, appetizers, sides … and we’re looking at a bunch of other things to fulfill that so guests can actually kind of create the check and spend at the level that they want to and still get really, really full,” he adds. “Some people have the ability to spend higher and some don’t, and we want to create those different levels of choice, allowing them to create exactly what they want.”
The Future of Farm Fresh
Beyond helping to evolve the farm-to-table era, Bob Evans is also committed to celebrating the growers and farmers that allow the brand to be in business. In addition to featuring the personal stories of farmers on its website, one of the brand’s bigger partners is the Future Farmers of America or FFA.
“We provide grants to students, allowing them to live out their dreams in agriculture, allowing them to experiment, [learn] how to optimize farming, how to raise bees, how to raise crops in an organic, natural setting,” Holtcamp explains.
As far as future growth goes, Bob Evans is focusing on ensuring it is “perfect in the dining room, because that’s where consumers are,” Holtcamp says. “They’re racing back to dining rooms. And so our part of our growth strategy is shoring up how we are serving the guests with excellence right there in the dining room.”
In addition to growing e-commerce, which has been “a huge growth driver for us,” Bob Evans is looking at maximizing volumes and dayparts within its current restaurant base. Catering has become a newer, short-term growth vehicle, “so you’ll see us push a little heavier on that side of things,” Holtcamp says.
Plus, multiple restaurants are scheduled “to get a facelift” in the upcoming year, which includes updates to both the exteriors and interiors. “We’re constantly updating the restaurants and keeping them current,” he adds. “All of our innovation stems from staying relevant … We want the restaurants to look nice. We want them to represent the quality that the brand is trying to represent, and the restaurant facility itself is a key part of it.”