Eric Stenta joined Polly’s Pies nearly five years ago as the brand was transitioning from being a 55-year-old legacy brand to something more relevant. As vice president of operations and chief concept officer, his primary responsibility was to improve food quality and menu diversity and transform the chain from a home-style restaurant to a contemporary brand.
In May, Stenta moved into the CEO role, but nothing changed about his mission. And he’s not doing it alone. Jim Kaa, the former CEO, stepped down to follow his passion for music, but Stenta convinced him to stay part-time because of his CFO skillset. Polly’s also recently added Jim Dufault—who spent years with Bubba Gump Shrimp and Joe’s Crab Shack—as the new vice president of operations.
Each of their experienced minds is focused on attracting millennial and Gen Z consumers. But don’t get Stenta wrong. He knows Chicken Fried Steak is a good menu item and that people love it. He would never criticize that. But that’s not what the younger guest is looking for.
“All of the people, all of our older demographic, they were the families of the 70s and 80s and 90s,” Stenta says. “They were the young moms and dads who were bringing their kids in and now their kids have moved on and out of the house. And grandma and grandpa are still coming back to Polly’s, but we’re not getting those families back. So to continue the legacy, we’re really trying to attract young families and get them to come in.”
In response, Polly’s introduced several new items, like a French Dip Sandwich. Stenta was also on a quest for a quality prime rib that didn’t need to be cooked from scratch, so he partnered with RC Provision, a Burbank, California-based company that produces specialty meat. Some other products include a Philly Cheesesteak, Chipotle Chicken Pasta (with a spicy cream sauce), Cajun Salmon and Chipotle Butter Salmon, Pastrami Sandwich, and an Asian Chicken Salad. All of these items moved into the top 12 of menu mix. In terms of beverage, Polly’s upgraded its beer and wine list, which is a transition for the chain as founders Eddie and Donald Sheldrake didn’t drink alcohol.
This summer, the brand plans to roll out some ribs geared toward dads on Father’s Day and launch a new kids menu.
“We want to be everybody’s neighborhood restaurant—more than just a breakfast place,” Stenta says. “Our biggest opportunity segment is dinner. And so every menu item that we’ve been trying to introduce has been more of an entrée to promote that dinner business. And we’re starting to see some movement there.”
In addition to the menu, Polly’s renovated about five restaurants during COVID. Stenta says the company took some of the “old tiredness” and replaced it with some contemporary glass, paint, table tops, and chairs. The chain also turned up the music and dimmed the lights to convert Polly’s into a dinner business. The younger crowd is noticing, too. Stenta’s daughter, who’s 18, has personally told him how much the changes are working.
“You’re in the building and you see people walk in and they look around and they’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, you guys renovated’ and then you know instantly they haven’t been there in a while,” Stenta says. “And so they get really excited and then they look at the menu and some people are disappointed that their old favorites aren’t there anymore. But that’s always going to happen as you upgrade menus. But we have something for everyone.”
Exterior marketing is playing a role as well. Among Polly’s 13 stores in Southern California, some are called “Polly’s Bakery” and some say “Polly’s Pies.” The chain is in the process of identifying what its uniform name will be—likely something that will broadcast the company’s strengths as both a restaurant and bakery. Because although the brand wants to emphasize the dinner business, it does not want to shy away from its legacy of pie-making. That’s why Polly’s went forward with nationwide pie shipping earlier this year.
The brand can ship anywhere in the U.S., but it’s currently advertising in Texas, Arizona, Nevada, and Northern California.
“I came to work on a Monday and I talked to Jacklyn Mitosinka, who’s our director of brand marketing, and I said, ‘Jacklyn, we got to go. Let’s go with this pie shipping. It’s gonna be a slow build anyway, but let’s start now,'” Stenta says. “And luckily she had done 90 percent of the work of setting things up before COVID that got put on hold because we were going to roll this out in like ’19. We were talking about it.”
The objective is twofold. The brand wants to see where customer demand is across the country, and it wants to lighten the load for brick-and-mortar restaurants during holidays like Thanksgiving when 65,000 pies are sold. More products are being added to the shipping list, such as Cinnamon Rolls, Key Lime Pie, and Cheesecakes.
“The frozen pie angle is a major objective for us because if I can get you to pick up two frozen pies and not show up the day before Thanksgiving and you’ve got what you need, It’s not going to be a pumpkin pie, but it will be the apple pie or boysenberry and you can bake it yourself,” Stenta says. “You can bake it if you’re going to your parents’ house for Thanksgiving, you can get there in the morning and you can bake a fresh baked pie in an hour. So that’s where we’re trying to get to.”
When it comes to store expansion, Polly’s will work on making its current full-service fleet more profitable, which Stenta says isn’t easy in California’s operating environment. In the meantime, the company will explore moving into more affordable quick-service options. Polly’s is deciding between three choices—a pie retail shop that just sells desserts, a concept that serves pies and some of the brand’s top entrées, and then more of a breakfast counter, similar to what you’d see in Manhattan. The chain has already conducted heat maps of where guests are ordering pies, and it found six or seven markets that aren’t close by that may be options for growth.
“There’s a lot of breakfast places that are opening up right now,” Stenta says. “And to be honest, there’s a lot of breakfast places that are a lot sexier than we are. They serve the same stuff pretty much, but that’s what they do. And we’ve got more than that. We want to be more than just breakfast. We want to be lunch and dinner. We know that if we can get people to eat more pie, that’s good for us because we have the best pie out there.”