The brand is looking at Las Vegas as it prepares for a bold future.

Eric Wyatt gathered NORMS managers at a leadership event in Arrowhead, California. This wasn’t just GMs: service managers, kitchen managers, and support center employees flocked to hear the legacy chain’s new executive. “You can’t just flip a coin and land on the other side,” says Wyatt, a former SVP of ops at CKE Restaurants who also held senior roles at Panera, Starbucks, and Yum! Brands. “It takes time. It takes focus. It takes making sure you understand the priorities, and you can’t have 50 of them.”

While Wyatt had a deep list of tasks to get started on following his February appointment as CEO, he began with the broader view. NORMS has been around 74 years. Los Angeles native Norm Roybark opened a small 24/7 diner—one of SoCal’s first—in 1949 near the famed Hollywood corner of Sunset and Vine. The brand’s vibe hasn’t changed all that much since: good, quality food at a reasonable price, served any time somebody needs it. That’s a common tale in family dining today. Wasn’t so much so in 1949. For perspective, IHOP was founded (also in L.A.) nine years later. NORMS predates Denny’s 1953 inception, which likewise sprung to life in the Golden State (L.A’s Lakewood community).

A big part of Wyatt’s presentation, he recalls, was to let NORMS leadership group, at every rung of the ladder, understand the brand was about to evolve, grow, and develop into an organization nimble enough to find a new generation of loyalists. “I think it’s also super important for us to make sure that we retain the legacy of the brand with some of our familiar menu items,” he says. “But we have to evolve and change it, too, because we’re trying to attract new customers.”

The effort at NORMS—to modernize its concept while also honoring it—goes well beyond the plate.

Wyatt says he likes to talk about brand building as a three-legged stool where each part is interdependent, yet holds up the entity itself. And it starts with people. This past year, NORMS brought in Wyatt, but also VP of operations Leo Thomas, who was Wyatt’s first leadership hire. Thomas’ 40-year foodservice career included stops at Starbucks, Denny’s, and Taco Cabana owner and Jack in the Box franchisee Yadev Enterprises, where he oversaw 54 TGI Fridays locations and three Marco’s Pizzas. His tenure at Denny’s, as VP of ops, included managing 225 locations.

Additionally, NORMS added a third district manager. Wyatt says, before the ball could roll, the company had to get to the right number of above-store leadership in place to support a 23-unit chain with designs to scale. 

Then began the process of better deciphering and tracking performance, as well as the customer. NORMS linked with feedback management platform Tattle to complement its Black Box Intelligence data. It added Steritech for quarterly third-party audits in addition to in-house ones. “These might sound like fundamentals, blocking and tackling things,” Wyatt says, “but these are the things that we’ve accomplished in the last seven months, which is a fairly significant pace.”

Wyatt adds he’s mindful of going too quickly. But the results speak for themselves. NORMS is having what he’d call one of its best years—even pre-COVID measures—in terms of financial performance. “And while it might not all be coming from sales, we’re getting super smart around managing the middle of the P&L,” Wyatt says. “Chef [David Cox] has done a nice job in purchasing and providing a menu that really complements what our food costs should be.”

P6 might just have been NORMS best period to date in terms of beating budget. Regardless of specifics, though, strong underlying trends are giving the company confidence to think bigger.

Alongside opening another California store, NORMS is taking aim at Las Vegas. Wyatt predicts the brand will arrive in early summer 2024 or so. It’s going to be a “significant change,” he continues, and perhaps a signal of things to come. The unit will be 24/7, of course, but there will also be beer and wine and maybe liquor. Also, potential gaming at the counter, like video poker or slots. “We’re just really looking to put NORMS Restaurants on steroids out there, in a positive way,” he says, “because we believe that’s what will resonate with locals and tourists.”

“And I think there’s room for at least four or five more locations when this one does well as we know it’s going to do,” Wyatt adds.

Gambling at the counter feels like a chance to redraw the diner playbook. Generally, counter seats are relatively sparse. This would solve that and potentially lift traffic throughout the night. “It’ll truly provide a 24/7 experience in the café or in the dining room. It’s not going to be a casino; it’s going to be a diner,” Wyatt says. “But we want to give a nod to where we’re at.”

The store will take NORMS famed Googie architecture (dramatic angles, bright colors, and futuristic touches) and amplify it. New lighting. Even bolder palates.

But going back to the notion of “blocking and tackling,” Wyatt came to NORMS with a long track record in building blocks. In addition to the posts mentioned earlier, he clocked time at Corner Bakery Café, Boston Market, L. Brands, and Mobil Oil Corporation. He got right to bolstering NORMS’ training structure.

And one thing you’ll see now, too, is technology out front. Wyatt says he was asked recently whether, like some of his peers, he plans to invest toward “invisible technology,” so the customer doesn’t see what’s going on. NORMS wants the opposite effect. “We’re just getting caught up,” Wyatt says. “I want people to see that we’ve got tableside payment available, if we’re going to go that route, or we’re going to have a waitlist leaderboard where today we’re doing it on paper.”

Wyatt came to NORMS with a deep background in operations.

NORMS Restaurants
Wyatt came to NORMS with a deep background in operations.

It’s a mindset that circles back to the manager conference. Wyatt’s goal for NORMS’ is a melding of core equities and buzz. The same brand, but something worth checking in on to see what’s changed.

This all comes together in front of guests. NORMS, no matter what, Wyatt says, won’t walk away from its bigger, better, breakfast positioning. But it launched a B.F.D. option (budget friendly deal) that runs $6.99 or $7.99. “People go, ‘whoa, what’s that,’” he says.

Ingrid Martinez, NORMS VP of marketing, says the value lever will always be there for the brand. Yet it’s started to work on the other end of the barbell to give loyal and new guests a reason to ladder up, options like new benedicts and other premium offerings that start at roughly $13.49. One example being the Cali-Cado Benny—two toasted English muffins, grilled tomato, fresh avocado, two poached eggs topped with hollandaise, bacon and green onion. Served with a choice of hash browns, black beans or fresh fruit. Or the El Benedicto—two sope shells, chorizo, mixed cheese, two poached eggs topped with salsa verde, hollandaise, green onion, and cilantro. The brand is testing wagyu burgers and enchiladas, and just keeps turning the innovation calendar, Wyatt says.

As the above menu names suggest, NORMS is digging further into its core base, which is the Hispanic customer. It added Horchata and Jamaica (free refills) as part of an Aguas Frescas beverage lineup. “But we still have lemonades and milkshakes and we’re promoting that to our loyalty app and doing some discounting,” Wyatt says. “And I do think, if you’re going to see something that’s really underutilized today that we’re going to blow up it’s our loyalty app.”

NORMS’ updated 24/7 Rewards program offers a point for every $1 spent (100 points equals $10 back). There’s instant payback where a guest gets a free SoCal breakfast sent within 24 hours of signing up. Exclusive offers are pulsed throughout the year and NORMS enabled order and pay from the app, as well as the ability to redeem coupon codes on orders and receive 25 bonus points when somebody refers a friend. For those not ready to take the rewards leap, the NORMS National Email club gives away a stack of three hotcakes for joining. 

Either way, how NORMS leverages data is key, Wyatt says. It hasn’t marketed one-to-one in the past and had a tendency to surprise users with deals that didn’t reflect their spending habits. “Send them something that they actually get,” Wyatt says. 

“It’s really about simplicity,” Martinez adds. “How do you execute things a lot easier for the guest, where it’s a lot easier for them to utilize or earn points? Nut now there is a word in the industry called gamification, which has become how often do you come instead of waiting the usual loyalty programs where, oh I have to spend $100 and I receive this. What are some of the things that you’re able to get way before that still gets you to come in more frequently?”

Martinez says NORMS conducted a brand assessment to get a sense of its customer base after COVID. Did it shift? Who was lost and gained? Furthermore, who is NORMS core diner in the wake? “And who do we want to go after?” she adds. “That study really gave us a very good pillars for us to work on. One of the things we’re talking about is what is the NORMS voice? Because NORMS will continue to be NORMS, but how do we fit into a new territory? So if you think about it, In-N-Out is In-N-Out, even when they go to Texas, they are still a SoCal brand. How do we make sure people know the voice and the persona that NORMS is, and really focus on our pillars: Great food. Great value. Great service.”

NORMS connected with El Segundo-based Moontide on the agency side, a company with roots in the Hispanic community, to solidify its approach.

Speaking more broadly, however, Wyatt says coming to NORMS introduced him to a unicorn culture within the space. They just recognized an employee with 40 years on the job. There are GMs and system managers with three-plus decades of experience. At the conference, NORMS handed out special pens as tokens for tenure, which, Wyatt says, played volumes “in terms of how loud we are about how important it is for people to be stay with us.”

One of his tenets of leadership is to enable divisions to run their functions and grow through trial versus being micro-managed. “The people side continues to be the most important piece,” he says. “Without people you can’t get the customer, and without customers, you can’t drive the business results. That always has been, always will be, my priority.”

Casual Dining, Chain Restaurants, Feature, NextGen Casual, Norms