Mark Eason holds to a well-worn restaurant adage: Marketing drives trial, and great execution drives frequency. And the reality was, Hickory Tavern wasn’t doing the latter all that well when the 35-year industry vet and former Firebirds Wood Fired Grill CEO assumed the top post last December. So the brand hit pause.
But let’s fast forward to a week or so ago. Eason saw an online review pop in that he copied and sent around to the company. A guest, who had come in for lunch with a friend, started off with a line that would keep any operator wide-eyed into the early hours: “[I] wanted to see if things had changed …”
As the feedback portends, Hickory Tavern has been anything but quiet of late. The brand recently dialed up marketing and hired a local company in Charlotte, North Carolina, called nez&pez, to frame what’s happened since Eason came on board, when he elected to revamp a popular regional eatery instead of retiring. The agency landed on a catchphrase—“The New Making it Right Menu.” And Hickory Tavern has quickly gotten the message out, from articles in the Charlotte Observer to digital and more.
Here was the rest of the customer’s review:
“… and they have. From the greeting at the front door, a big wide smile, and a big personality, to the wait staff that served our lunch, everything was great, and the food was definitely quite a few notches up from my last visit. Keep it up and I will spread the word, thanks for the great lunch.”
“That’s the kind of feedback we’re getting now,” Eason says, who adds guest feedback is at an all-time high and repeat visits accelerated within the first month of change.
The story Hickory Tavern is telling at this juncture has been a year-plus in the works. The first thing Eason directed at the 20-unit brand was to clean each location, back of house, front, and organize everything. Then, the focus turned to Hickory Tavern’s menu.
The casual chain, which was founded in 1997 by Brad Smith and Tom Hager—a pair Eason knew through Firebirds creator Dennis Thompson—hired Shaping America’s Plate, a company out Orlando that’s worked with organizations like Disney, the NBA, the Culinary Institute of America, Darden, and Firebirds.
The company’s registered dietitian, chef, and CEO Pam Smith, and Cliff Pleau, its culinary innovator and chef, examined each detail and devised a lineup around two key points: One, options and flavors shouldn’t cut corners or compromise, or as Hickory Tavern puts it, “making what has always been right even better.” The second was to simplify preparation to ensure consistency for guests and make employees’ lives easier.
Eason says leadership came in and shut down a restaurant in Huntersville, North Carolina, and remodeled it. They lived “four or five months” in the kitchen working on every item. Hickory Tavern spent three weeks with a temporary menu to sell old product and bring in the new, as well as gain practice with fresh techniques. Then, on August 28, Hickory Tavern rolled the overhauled offering company-wide. “An entire new menu in one day,” Eason says. “I know it’s only 20 restaurants, but it’s a pretty big feat because of all the changes that we made.”
“It’s been met with favorable response, overwhelmingly,” he adds.
Walking through some of the changes, the Pow Pow Shrimp got a sauce upgrade and broccoli was added (it’s tossed in spicy aioli, topped with scallions and toasted sesame seeds). Plate presentation improved. Previously, Hickory Tavern’s Crispy Mozzarella was store bought and resembled the frozen, “little hot dog looking” products you see in grocers. It’s now fresh, breaded in-restaurant, and served alongside balsamic marinara.
Panko-breaded Onion Rings joined. Eason points in particular to a Seared Ahi Tuna appetizer that comes out rare over broccoli slaw, scallions, and toasted sesame seeds, and is drizzled with “red dragon sauce.” It’s a sushi grade item seasoned and prepared to order. “I’d put our tuna dish up against anybody’s,” Eason says.
Critically, Hickory Tavern had to take another look at its wings. They were nestled into the menu before; they’re at the very top now. Wings were cooked from a raw state out of the bag, for 18 minutes, in a fryer. Beyond how long that took to fulfill, the consistency was shaky. Today, Hickory Tavern cleans the wings, seasons, bakes, pre-cooks, portions out, and it only takes two to two-and-half minutes to prepare. “And they’re crispy on the outside and tender and juicy on the inside,” Eason says.
Having that leeway in prep time also enabled Hickory Tavern to offer wings three ways—flash fried, charred, and adobo dry rubbed.
Additionally, the past method beat up fryers. The two-minute cook times allow fryers to be segregated. So fish go in one, fries another, wings in the third. “We’ve extended our shelf life on the shortening and everything else is better because of it,” Eason adds.
Right below wings on the menu are burgers. Hickory Tavern overhauled to two smashed beef patties on a brioche bun. It’s a significant departure from the 8-ounce, big thick patties the chain prepared previously. Understandably, you often had employees finding short-cuts. Some would even pre-cook burgers to get ahead.
With the current approach, though, it’s two 4-ounce smashburger patties that take four versus 12 minutes to cook. “You get double cheese and double the crunch on the outside of the burger patty,” Eason says. “It’s just a better burger.”
And it’s about the science of food as well. It’s not just flavors and tastes and presentations, Eason says. “How do you make mozzarella sticks? How do you make this sauce? We had 30 sauces we were using and most of them came from a jar,” he notes. “Like our marinara now that goes with our cheese sticks. That’s homemade marinara sauce. That’s not something that came out of a jar. It’s delicious. It’s way better. And it’s like that with all of our sauces now.”
Hickory Tavern revisited its bar as well with help from Brittenn Cocktail Productions, LLC under the collaboration of Hickory Tavern’s director of marketing and beverage, Tammy Lucich, and Britten’s CEO, Stuart Melia. Brittenn’s client list runs from Genghis Grill to Delta to O’Charley’s to Uncle Julio’s, Torchy’s Tacos, Boston’s Pizza, and more.
Hickory Tavern didn’t have its beers on the menu. It handed our 8.5- by 11-inch pieces of paper that would get wet and stick to tables. So it put all of its beers on tap, cans and bottles, and spirits on the back of menus. It has a scan as well where customers can see optional available beers. Then, each signature cocktail was amended. It took seven, eight, or nine steps to build a drink. Now, it’s three. Hickory Tavern purchased new glassware for every store—wine and cocktail glasses. It augmented the wine list, too.
In September, Hickory Tavern rolled happy hour as a solidified company initiative instead of a scattered approach. Due to regulations, happy hour at North Carolina stores presently run all day, every day, in the restaurant and bar. Southern Carolina restaurants can hold it from 4 to 6:30 p.m.
Elaborating on simplification, Eason offers tacos up as a case. Hickory Tavern had four options that took somewhere between 20 and 23 steps to build. What it did was create a base on the taco, which is the same on all four—broccoli slaw, roasted corn salsa, cheddar jack cheese, tomatoes, scallions and chili lime crema, plated with a side of fresh salsa. Toppings, whether it’s beer-battered cod or blackened pulled chicken (also available in buffalo) or citrus shrimp or shaved ribeye, simply get placed atop and sauced accordingly. Four steps. Hickory Tavern followed by offering the tacos as wraps as well (two tacos or one wrap, all served with a side).
Like the wings and burgers, the cook times slid dramatically—from 18 to two-and-half minutes. “All this stuff that we’ve done, it’s more prep intensive in the morning,” Eason says. “So we’ve had to bring on one more person to get all of the proteins done. But once they’re done, the line setup, guys are not running around. It’s not a heroic effort to try to go out and build this food.”
In truth, it’s an adjustment that’s taken some getting used to. Employees aren’t conditioned to have this kind of time, Eason explains. Hickory Tavern can serve hot French fries in four minutes. If the burger takes as long, they can get dropped in tandem. If you have wings and somebody wants fries, however, cooks have to wait a bit to drop the fries, etc.
“But I go into a restaurant now and sit down and I’ll order six wings and, in about five minutes, I’ve got wings in front of me,” Eason says.
Along those same lines, the quicker drink steps mean servers run out cocktails as fast as food moves. Wine, in another example, has glasses now with an “HT” logo that makes pouring a precise act. There’s 6 ounces at the bottom of the logo and 9 ounces at the top. No guesswork. More consistency.
“This menu revitalization has been overwhelmingly applauded and is proving impactful for our business and guest satisfaction,” says Tammy Lucich, Hickory Tavern’s director of marketing and beverage.
With everything mentioned, Eason bolstered efforts through staffing. Director of training Stephanie Turcotte was promoted from within. As was regional chef Steven Augustine, who was working at one of the restaurants. Three regional managers are new. Eason says the wide goal was to attract employees who had experience with the systems and processes being unrolled. “We’ve been going out and getting general managers who have been general managers for 12 or 15 years somewhere else. That know systems and procedures and that’s where we were lacking,” Eason says. “If it’s systems and procedures, it’s the same thing, you do it every day. The only difference is the guests who come into the building. We throw a party at lunch and we throw a party at dinner. We just have different people coming in. But we need to do the same things consistently every day when it comes to food and service.”
For Eason personally, he recently bought a house in Charlotte (he also lives in Pennsylvania and used to commute back in the Firebirds days). When he started at Firebirds, his youngest was 6. He’s now 26. And so, Eason these days spends most of his time in Charlotte, getting into restaurants, working with regional managers, and overseeing what he’s passionate about.
As experience taught him, you often run into an 80–20 split when a restaurant system isn’t humming, meaning 80 percent of your issues stem from 20 percent of locations. That felt true at Hickory Tavern. And not every employee or leader bought into change. “I keep telling them, hey, if you want to leave and go work somewhere else for another restaurant chain, you’re going to have to do checklists in the morning to make sure that your kitchen is squared away and buttoned up and your front of house is neat, clean, and organized and ready to go for lunch and dinner,” Eason says. “Some of them didn’t buy into that. And they pretty much left on their own. They just said no, this isn’t for me, I’m not going to do it, which is fine.” That’s where the experienced hires of late are coming in.
Yet the majority of stores are fully onboard, he adds. They’ve taken feedback and tried to lift the tide. Hickory Tavern implemented what it calls “picture-perfect food.” There are pictures on lines with what each plate is supposed to look like. Employees match it before they send plates out. “We’re paying attention to those details now that we weren’t before,” Eason says.
Hickory Tavern has invested in giving back as well. The company teamed with The Independence Fund, a nonprofit dedicated to helping catastrophically wounded veterans and their families, on a Freedom Burger where $1 of each is donated to the organization. It’s carrying this focus toward Memorial Day, Veteran’s Day, and other activations where it can partner with service members and local communities.
“The entire Hickory Tavern team is excited by the smiles we are seeing, the repeat visits, and the positive feedback from our guests,” Lucich says. “This menu revitalization has been overwhelmingly applauded and is proving impactful for our business and guest satisfaction. Customers speak, we listen. Better yet … well, just you wait. We’re just getting started.”