Huckleberry’s will expand further in California and move into the Midwest and potentially even the Southeast in the next few years. Another location is opening in Austin, Texas, later in 2022. The restaurant typically searches for areas with retail and large daytime populations. Boxes range from 3,500-4,000 square feet and could fit into freestanding spaces, endcaps, inline, and second-generation outlets.
Graber and his team will open the first company-run Huckleberry’s in Escondido, California this year, as well. The 5,000-square-foot restaurant will include the chain’s first-ever kitchen display system, which will be tested, tweaked, and eventually rolled out to the franchise system.
“Well we don't want our franchisees to have all the fun,” Graber says. “We want to get in on the action as well and we think it is a great way to introduce Huckleberry’s to a brand-new market by going out there and doing it ourselves. I don't think there's any doubt that when you do it yourself, you will have some learnings, although we're in such great contact with our franchisees. They tell us what works and what doesn't work, and so ultimately, we just like the model so much that we want to go out and do it ourselves.”
“I think it's telling our franchisees that we’re right there with them even though we've been with them the whole time,” he adds. “And I think it's a great way to introduce us to new markets. And I wouldn't be surprised if we went to other new markets with company-owned restaurants as well to sort of break the ice for the consumer.”
In terms of how shifting consumer preferences have affected operations, Graber says Huckleberry’s decided early into COVID that it wouldn’t change anything that it wasn’t willing to live with post-pandemic.
The mindset has kept the brand intact, with certain “turns of the dial” like paying more attention to takeout and delivery spaces. Off-premises ranges anywhere from 10-20 percent among Huckleberry’s footprint, and Graber expects those channels to remain a significant part of business. But long-term, he doesn’t believe the mix will rise any higher, because at its core, Huckleberry’s is about the “totality of experiences” in the dining room.
Consumer trends agree with the CEO’s sentiment. Dine-in visits at breakfast increased 51 percent in September through November, compared to 2020, when on-premises traffic was down 55 percent, according to the NPD Group.
“Breakfast is very experiential,” Graber says. “It's an opt-in daypart, which is why we like our niche because we're unique and you can sort of escape your everyday life by going inside there.”
Graber says Huckleberry’s isn’t immune to macroeconomic challenges hitting the restaurant industry, and the chain is responding by planning ahead and keeping an open line of communication with vendors and franchisees.
The key is to not overreact or do anything to hurt the brand’s name, the CEO notes, because COVID and “crazy” inflation won’t be permanent. If that means slowing down a bit, that’s OK for Graber.
“I’ve found that by focusing on the here and now, each guest at a time, each place at the time, the rest takes care of itself,” Graber says. “We don't want to get too far ahead of ourselves and watch the future so much that we forget about today. And yet we know there's planning that needs to occur for the future, so growth is exciting, but growing sales within our own restaurants is maybe even more exciting because that means that we're having success in existing restaurants. The unit growth will take care of itself if we do that.”