Kern’s time at Smashburger and California-based Outback franchisee Cerca Trova, he says, taught him the value of checking in systemwide. He’s currently on a listening tour, making calls, visiting venues, and trying to gauge the temperature of the system.
“Is there a greater opportunity to franchise? That’s something that’s certainly worth a discussion,” he says. “There’s just a lot that’s out there. But I do owe it to the teams out there to travel, get in restaurant, and just listen to what needs to be fixed. And the list, I could say it’s a scroll and there’s a lot of things that I might think are out there, but you can only digest so much. Is it three or four things and how do we stabilize some of our restaurant support center so that they’re truly servicing the field folks out there?”
The result might sound cliché but it’s also not meant to be complex. The growth and broader vision of SPB needs to also align with what’s happening at the store level, he says. “And that’s running really great restaurants,” Kern reiterates. “When you start to grow and look at all the things moving—a corporate office into a new place—there’s lots of things that come along with that and sometimes you’ll lose sight of what’s the reality.”
Kern says he’ll begin by surrounding himself with “the best and the brightest.” One concurrent move being the appointment of CFO Jessica Hagler, former VP, CFO, treasurer, and secretary of J. Alexander’s. Kern says Hagler “knows the tenets of keeping everything above board and really being able to manage the insights and being transparent to everybody within the organization.”
“That’s really part of that people focus,” he adds. “Get the right people that are experts in what they do and it benefits the entire organization, and it particularly benefits each one of the concepts that we have.”
This nuanced vision of SPB as parts of whole, but pieces that pull from a center of power, is core to Kern’s vision. It’s going to flash in coming weeks as consumer sentiment rides whatever chapter comes next. SPB operates value-centric brands and it runs upscale ones.
“A Logan’s guest was being squeezed by earlier, mid this year, of gas prices. It’s just a much different way of talking about a [J. Alexander’s] consumer who’s coming in that door,” he says. “I think it’s mostly recognizing that all of these brands are different. There’s going to be different strategies and tactics to weather the storm, or take advantage of hey, revenue is strong on the J’s side, let’s remodel and reenergize where we can when we’ve got some cash flow coming in so we’re reinvesting in those concepts so we’re constantly set up for the future.”
Kern’s leadership has been inspired over the past 25 years by mentors such as Smashburger co-founder Tom Ryan, who helped developed Pizza Hut’s stuffed crust. That’s where he learned to meld flavors and put F&B center to development, Kern says.
His people-first approach looks to former Red Robin CEO Denny Post, now co-president of Nextbite, who also came up through the marketing ranks.
And you can see the influence taking root at Logan’s. Earlier in the year, the brand simplified its menu and enhanced value. It also rolled multiple ghost concepts as carryout and delivery bumped to more than 20 percent of sales and launched a new loyalty program and app.
These upgrades are still in motion, but the focus, Kern says, needs to zero in on the quality within each unit. “That food, and making sure that this menu is absolutely the best and not trim it back in terms of quality and yes, we’re always focused on food costs,” he says. “But it can’t come at the expense of why people come into Logan’s. That’s certainly getting back to a menu and an LTO and getting a little bit more news and energy around that is vital.”
Kern says Logan’s will refocus branding and energy and amplify the bar. “And then,” he adds, “truly trying to understand and bring to life what a roadhouse is.”
One thing that could help is an upcoming reboot of the 1989 “Road House,” which will star Jake Gyllenhaal.
“How do you get that Patrick Swayze attitude turned to 2022 and beyond?” Kern says of the original. “The energy, I think, is something that you’re starting to see is coming back to Logan’s. You want to have a destination where people are having a good time. Food is a little bit of that. Certainly remodeling. But not a full changing of what it is. Focusing on the bar, shining it up, making sure our signage packages are all accurate and are turned on and we’ve got landscaping. Just the basic things.”