The legacy family dining chain is changing its name, visuals, and potential as it looks to the future.

Perkins’ reintroduction arrives at a time when “service levels are on fire,” brand president Toni Ronayne says. It gained 17 points, year-over-year, per Black Box. Beverage climbed 13 points, ambiance nine, and “intent to return” double digits as food and value hiked 7 and eight points, respectively.

These results support a larger point, says Ronayne, a former managing director of Canada for Little Caesars who joined the 1958-founded family dining brand in February. When she onboarded under new CEO James O’Reilly, who came over from Smokey Bones the prior June, consumer research peeled back a clear directive. “One of the things that kept coming up for us was that guests want the American classics of yesterday in a place that feels like today,” she says.

Spun differently, Perkins wasn’t in need of a total inside-and-out overhaul, but it could benefit from adopting “a new attitude,” Ronayne says.

And so, the brand began moving toward a new brand identity that includes a modern “vintage fresh” restaurant design and updated look, from logo to visual appeal. Also, the legacy chain is changing its name and introducing an offshoot fast casual concept intended to widen Perkins’ growth prospects.

Perkins Restaurant & Bakery will become “Perkins American Food Co.,” the company shared with FSR, a change it announced last week to operators, corporate employees, and stakeholders at its 2024 Brand Conference in Minnesota. The fast casual Express model is expected to launch this fall in Canada.

Perkins developed the rebrand with agency Dunn & Co. and design firm Aria Group. It recently signed a lease in Orlando, Florida, to introduce the new flagship restaurant in December.

Ronayne refers to the interior design as “modern with a timeless ascetic.”

More imminent changes will be visible to customers starting next week through advertising, social channels, the website, and interior signage across Perkins’ roughly 300-unit system. Other initiatives include a revamped menu, expansion of value offerings, and broadening of capabilities, including third-party delivery, off-premises dining, catering, and an upcoming loyalty program.

Ronayne says the wider goal was to consider how the company could reimagine Perkins and, ultimately, family dining, yet marry historic strengths. In Q1, 80 percent of Perkins’ units received average star ratings, or ASR, on Google higher than their guest-facing or lifetime numbers. Food sentiment improved—quality (10 points), flavor (11), breakfast (7), and appetizers (11). So did service sentiment—attentiveness (22 points), speed (21), and friendliness (6), as well as ambiance clean sentiment (6).

Ronayne believes this upward trend revealed opportunity rather than a reason to sit back. Perkins had worked on the bones of its business under new leadership for months and was amping up advertising. It ran late-night campaigns to promote apps and refocused on service, whether it was managers interacting with guests or servers zeroing in on tables. The chain’s average net sales per unit in 2022 was $1.932 million. The previous two years it was $1.8 million and $759,929 (COVID strapped 2020). And a new commercial campaign recently showcased these efforts.

“For us, every indication is that this is the time for Perkins to continue to evolve and grow in ways that potentially we haven’t invested in,” Ronayne says. “And so, investing in the new restaurant designs, investing in the new logo and the brand, is just going to build on the foundation that we’re already working through, which is we’re known for having great operations and being consistent.”

Like O’Reilly said earlier in the year, Ronayne feels family dining, and Perkins squarely in the center, has a chance to emerge as a value play in today’s climate where inflation has squeezed service and sentiment from both sides. It’s a category where spend per guests tends to range between $12–$15. Casual dining is closer to $20. Quick service isn’t all that under that first number anymore. However, Perkins hits the $12–$15 realm while cooking food to order with hospitality in a welcoming environment

That’s the holistic case, Ronayne says, behind why the brand’s scores surged this past year. Couple that with operational and marketing improvements and you grasp the full view of 2023’s momentum.

But you also get a glimpse into why Ronayne sees significant whitespace by dialing Perkins up another measure.

So why “American Food Co.?” Ronayne says it speaks to the brand’s American values and captures a more diverse offering, with potential to keep evolving.

“We’re known for being hard-working people,” she says. “We want to deliver generosity in abundance to our guests every single day. We love the idea of American Food Company because it speaks to our hearty classics, our bakery favorites, and our modern twists. And it’s a nod to our authenticity and who we are.”

“Same soul. New attitude.”

Naturally, bakery isn’t fading despite leaving Perkins’ name. It’s out front and elevated, Ronayne says. “We’ll be able to continue with classics, like pies and Mammoth Muffins that we’ve been known for, but American Food Company challenges us to think about how we can be more innovative and more exciting as we’re serving classics,” she says.

Ronayne refers to the interior design as “modern with a timeless ascetic.” The fast-casual iteration, seen below, she adds, will allow the brand to reach guests from a convenience and value standpoint. Historically, the brand opens units in the 4,000- to 6,500-square-foot range on 1–1.75-acre parcels. This is 1,500 square feet.

Perkins’ fast casual will allow it to rethink development.

Ronayne says it could land in nontraditional as well as traditional sites, with unit-level economics that fit international growth, large cities, small towns (like the Ontario debut) or just, generally, spaces Perkins wasn’t able to consider before. “It opens up a wealth of opportunities for us to really grow the brand,” she says.

The Ontario unit, for instance, is a market that wouldn’t have made sense for a franchisee to make a larger investment in a 6,000-square-foot restaurant.

Travel plazas. Airports. Lounges. These are just some of the possibilities, Ronayne continues. “And then, also, as we think about high-rent locations being able to be a standalone, 1,500 [square-foot restaurant) that can reach guests, cities like New York or Chicago or anywhere operators are looking for a smaller footprint,” she says. “So Express for us is a huge opportunity.”

Perkins recently inked a 10-store deal in California that’s going to be a combination of the mainline and fast casual. “We’re working with them from a real estate perspective to identify what’s the right model for that particular market and then using them to guide our decisions,” Ronayne says.

Perkins’ updated visual ID includes new food photography and, out of the gate, a spotlight on decked-out double burgers. Perkins evolved its entire burger platform in anticipation of the launch—new ingredients, more flavorful builds, and a nod toward the abundance Perkins is trying to present to guests as a value proposition. “It’s a massive burger,” Ronayne says. “You’ve got double patties. But we’re bringing in some freshness through fresh avocado, pickled onions, and marrying some of the flavors consumers are looking for partnered with traditional Perkins items, like tater tots.”

The promo (seen here) is the first example of the brand Perkins will launch in the coming weeks.

As the company began thinking about its tone, Ronayne says, a vision of a “fun friend” emerged. So expect to see humor in advertising and POP as Perkins looks to be “clever and interesting as we go on this journey,” she explains.

“We have the opportunity to be relevant in a way that feels authentic and approachable to who we are today,” Ronayne notes.

Becoming “Perkins American Food Co.” was in the works before Ronayne arrived. Consumer research started in the fall in an effort to better understand Perkins’ guest profile and how it could transform. When she got there in February, Ronayne took the data and started to work with agencies on the rebrand, logo, and design work inside restaurants.

Simply, it’s been a frenetic five or so months.

She says franchisees (the brand is about 70 percent split, with 80 corporate units and the rest franchise run), were “highly engaged and excited” by last week’s reveal. The next phase will be costing out and working with Aria Group on a package for operators to retrofit features. As that develops, logos, uniforms, and digital and marketing materials will roll out. “We’re very invested in the change,” she says. “Not only are we going to renovate corporate restaurants and build this restaurant of the future, but we want to work with [franchisees] and incentivize to be able to make those changes with us.”

Additionally, the upcoming Orlando flagship is going to be the first in-line Perkins unit on the market (as noted, they’ve historically been roughly 6,000 square-foot standalones). It’s a model that’s been proven through the category as brands like First Watch diversify across lifestyle centers.

Ronayne says the store will explore Perkins’ new menu (more to come later) in conjunction with refitted technology—“it will be a place for us to be able to learn and grow,” she says.

While exact details can’t be shared just yet, Ronayne says Perkins is through the process of looking at new point-of-sale systems. Today, customers have to cash out at the front of the house. They’ll be able to do so at the table. O’Reilly, who has a resume in tech-forward leadership at Smokey Bones (virtual brands, drive-thru) and his days as CEO of Long John Silver’s, has a plan for parent company Ascent Hospitality, which also owns Huddle House, to be the technology frontrunners in the segment, Ronayne says.

The aforementioned consumer research identified a couple of core buckets to guide Perkins as it goes forward with the rebrand.

One was Perkins’ most frequent user. This diner shows up at all dayparts and gravitates toward quality, but also appreciates value in a way that doesn’t feel cheap. “He’s not interested in heavy discounts,” Ronayne says.

The other was “Mom on the Move”—somebody who’s attracted to convenience and friendly service. “But both of these guests felt very, very connected with us as a brand and our American values and our American comfort food,” she says.

“American Food Company” is a moniker that enables Perkins to serve multiple cohorts through varied channels. It could even mean CPG or other direct-to-consumer ideas down the line. “We’ve got such great products and such a great foundation,” Ronayne says. “How can we evolve and bring in this new iteration as we go forward.”

“Everything and every decision in our strategy has been intentional and speaking about how we can reach those core guests without isolating some of the guests of today,” she adds. “We feel confident that there’s enough intersection of those users of our brand that we won’t isolate or lose them. Because upgrading the ambiance of the restaurant or having a more modern vibe—those are things that as long as we’re staying true to who we are, we continue to deliver quality value and service, we’re confident that not only will we be able to reach all of our guests, we’ll be able to grow new ones, too.”

One thing that won’t change, either? The “Modern American hospitality” Ronayne says defines Perkins.

“We’ve got the 65-year legacy of being known for service. So that is something that absolutely will not be changing,” she says. “If anything, I think Perkins is the best-kept secret. And we’re in a position where we’re ready to shout from the rooftops for our guests as well as prospective franchisees that we’re ready to grow and we feel very confident that these are the changes that will help us to do that.”

Perkins was acquired by Huddle House for $51.5 million out of bankruptcy in September 2019. The brand had filed for Chapter 11 protection that August. At the time, Perkins had 342 stores in 32 states and Canada. It exited 2022 with 272 restaurants (191 franchised) after closing seven, 11, and 23 net locations over the past three years, respectively. The deal also broke off Perkins’ smaller chain at the time, Marie Callender’s.

Perkins declared Chapter 11 in June 2011 as well, but said it witnessed “dramatic same-store sales increases” from late 2018 onward as it revised marketing and media, and introduced an off-premises program. Huddle House was sold by Sentinel Capital Partners in February 2018 to private-equity firm Elysium Management for an undisclosed amount.

The combined brands, now collectively backed by Elysium under Ascent, said in June it closed its fiscal year, which ended in April, with 46 new signed agreements, a material increase from the prior year—and is firmly in growth mode. Deals would expand Huddle House and Perkins in Canada, California, West Virginia, Alabama, Florida, Texas, Virginia, Louisiana, Georgia, North Carolina, and more. Over the past three years, the company said it has signed north of 100 franchisee agreements that progresses its portfolio to more than 600 locations open or in development.

Casual Dining, Chain Restaurants, Feature, Marketing & Promotions, Restaurant Design, Perkins Restaurant and Bakery