However you want to define the present economic backdrop, it’s clear value is on the mind of restaurant consumers. McDonald’s has talked about it recently, how it’s earning trade-down from higher-income groups and working to hold that guest. So has Wendy’s. Applebee’s, long a champion of this universe in casual dining, recently told investors the percentage of guests selecting from limited-time and value offerings hiked from 15 to 19 percent, quarter-over-quarter.
Gregg Nettleton, president and COO of FAT Brands-owned Ponderosa & Bonanza Steakhouses, says the restaurant category has seen it all before. Customers ladder down as wallets tighten, with one of those stops being family dining and buffets. Yet what’s worth considering today is how the parameters of “value” have adjusted after years of COVID-saddled hits. “What is the customer looking for? That’s not the same value that was looked for in the past,” he says. “It’s not just price.”
Nettleton’s high-level goal is for customers to walk out of his restaurants satisfied. If that happens, “then you’ve hit all of those,” he says. “You’ve hit the value, you’ve hit the quality, and you’ve hit the experience.”
In other terms, as other data points have shown, customers might be dining out less frequently these days, but they’re still spending and being selective in how they do so. They want to feel like the experience was “worth it,” and that’s often a reality more nuanced than straight price.
In July, Ponderosa and Bonanza unveiled new buffet offerings that drove across American flavors (the offer ended in early September). This included California Strawberry Salad, New Orleans Bourbon Chicken, Tex Mex BBQ, New England Clam Chowder, Philly Cheesesteak Casserole, Florida Orange Chipotle Pulled Pork, Nashville Hot Fried Chicken and Boneless Wings, Kansas City BBQ Baked Beans, Iowa Corn Pudding, and Georgia Peach Cobbler.
Nettleton says the menu was inspired by the chains’ roots—Ponderosa and Bonanza were founded in 1965, and 1963, respectively—but also by the idea customers view value as a discovery, and something they can’t do at home. “What we try to do is keep providing new news, interesting news, new flavors,” he says. “Not polarizing, but still within that comfort realm of who we are.”
The response materialized on a couple of fronts. The chains are reporting double-digit sales increases, year-over-year, on Easter, Mother’s Day, and Father’s Day—marquee celebrations where restaurants historically play a recurring role in peoples’ lives. Interestingly, and going back to the value point, Ponderosa and Bonanza offer premium buffets at a higher price ($15.99) for these events.
“It costs a little bit more but there’s more of a selection and it makes it what it’s supposed to be—a special occasion,” Nettleton says.
Both chains more broadly, which FAT Brands acquired in late October 2017 for $10.5 million, closing the acquisition of Homestyle Dining LLC, continue to comp positive year-over-year. It’s a journey that, like all buffet chains, pushed through the wringer during COVID’s early months. By June 2022, comp sales at the brand were up 30 percent versus 2021 and 40 percent quarter over quarter. Nettleton says families, in particular, raced back once they could, some traveling as much as an hour to spend time at the buffet.
Ponderosa and Bonanza are a long way removed from those stories, when it began offering disposable gloves and switched service utensils every 20–30 minutes. It also temporarily transformed into a full-service model where servers brought food out from the kitchen—a decision that raised labor costs but was necessary to stay tethered to customers.
“I think when you came out of the pandemic, one thing we realized and I think leaders realized this across the industry, that as people ventured out, the dining experience had changed a little bit,” Nettleton says. “And I think the key for us, and some of the other leaders, was the fact you had to be adaptable. And you had to adapt to the new customer, the new things they were looking for. At first, it was just coming out. And then it was coming out to really get an experience and to experience new flavors, plus the old comfort food they had before.”
As the recent buffet lineup shows, and going into 2024, Nettleton says Ponderosa and Bonanza will be strategic about offerings. “It’s price plus the flavors I referenced before plus the experience,” he says. “You’ve got to go out and feel comfortable and feel like you’re getting a good quality meal.”
It’s been roughly two decades since Ponderosa moved into the buffet segment. It was originally created by Dan Blocker, who played Eric “Hoss” Cartwright on the Western TV series Bonanza (Ponderosa was the name of the ranch on the show). It’s had its hurdles over the years. Old parent company Metromedia Steakhouses Co., who acquired Ponderosa in 1988, adding Bonanza a year later, declared bankruptcy in 2008.
After division S&A Restaurant Group was forced into an involuntary Chapter 7 liquidation by its lender, GE Capital, in August 2008, and shuttered over 300 company-owned Bennigan’s and Steak & Ale restaurants, parent Metromedia headed to Chapter 11.
The company emerged from the proceedings the following October as Homestyle Dining LLC, with 256 company-owned and franchised locations. There were north of 700 in the late 1980s.
Ponderosa and Bonanza had about 110 units collectively, including franchises, when FAT Brands—then just three concepts—came in. The brand’s franchise website has the current figure at 36 franchised stores and one corporate unit.
Nettleton says Ponderosa will always stick with the buffet. “There’s been such traction with that,” he notes. It’s an effort worth the price of differentiation. You generally have anywhere between 85–125 items and a number of products that have to be prepared each day to fulfill that promise to the customer, Nettleton says. “But I think that’s always going to be there,” he says. “I don’t see the model reversing around. Everybody who comes into this industry, this segment specifically, looks to return to more on the grill and less on the buffet. But you are what you are. What you have to do is strategically leverage who you are with those items that matter most to customers.”
Nettleton admits the supply chain was a winding grind during COVID. The brands made some changes to recipes based on what was available. Again, though, it was a lesson in adaptability that’s endured.
He says Ponderosa and Bonanza are receiving franchise interest outside the U.S. as well as some from within. “It’s a little bit of a challenging concept to grow with a buffet because you’ve got a number of competitors out there,” he says. “But I think when you’ve got the positioning that we have and you have the quality food that we have, the reputation follows you. And when the reputation follows you, it generates that interest. Just like last year, we’ve got interest in the pipeline.”
Nettleton adds they’ve found a four-wall model that’s unit-level economics work. It also sees some whitespace in the real estate field given it targets 4,500–5,000 or so square-foot boxes since the company needs room to back up its buffet positioning. The sites moving quickest these days tend to be more in the 2,000–3,000 range as operators leverage growth off-premises and try to cut down fixed costs.
“We’re still excited about the brand,” Nettleton says. “Our franchisees are doing very well coming out of the pandemic. There’s been a return to the brand where buffets and some of those steakhouses, depending on the geography and the industry, they suffered during the pandemic.”
“But I think the industry has bounced back well,” he adds. “I think we bounced back even stronger than the rest of the players in the industry. So we’re still excited about this brand. We like the performance. And what we really like is the smiles on the guest when they come in and they say, ‘hey that was good.’ We’re very bullish.”