The 25-year-old brand has scaled to 23 locations.
For Mark Eason and Hickory Tavern, as is often the case in life, the line wasn’t linear. After a 17-year run at Firebirds Wood Fired Grill, where he served as COO, president, and, ultimately CEO, driving growth from four to 55 units, Eason’s plan was to direct Arkansas-based 7 Brew Coffee with his partner, Jamie Coulter, the founder of Lone Star Steakhouse and once considered to be the largest Pizza Hut franchisee. Coulter, a restaurant vet for nearly 50 years, passed away last June of natural causes.
Eason, an industry lifer himself, whose career began 35-plus years ago at Brinker with Steak & Ale, considered retirement. In 1989, after seven years with Brinker, he began a 10-year run at Lone Star, clocking time as a GM, district manager, and regional VP. Then came five years with Bertucci’s as regional VP and VP of operations, before joining Firebirds in 2004.
So Eason could have hung it up with a deep and accomplished track record. But when Hickory Tavern called, he listened as much as a consumer as a tenured restaurant leader. Eason commuted for 17 years at Firebirds, from his home in Pennsylvania to the brand’s Charlotte, North Carolina, HQ. The hotel he often stayed at was right next to one of Hickory Tavern’s 23 outposts. “It was affordable, it was good, and it was close by,” Eason says of the 1997-founded brand. “And I really liked them.”
He also knew cofounders Brad Smith (now chairman) and Tom Hager through his relationship with Firebirds creator Dennis Thompson. Eason ran through the interview gamut and came on board in December.
He quickly recognized potential. Hickory Tavern, like many chains in its segment, is an experiential brand that supplies entertainment beyond what’s served on the plate. Customers come for the atmosphere, to watch sports, and reconnect. As tired a tag as “back to basics” can be, Eason says, compounding those traits with strengths across all levels was a lever Hickory Tavern could tap into. “I’ve always said in the restaurant, when I was at Firebirds, if we can create another holiday—think about what kind of impact that Mother’s Day makes or Valentine’s Day,” he says. “Here, at Hickory Tavern, we’ve got the Super Bowl. You’ve got NCAA college basketball; March Madness. You’ve got so many different events … there’s opportunities in this niche to have big days that other restaurant chains don’t have.”
So how could Hickory Tavern bring it all together? One place was to start offering features with sporting events. For instance, the brand recently held a photo shoot for St. Patrick’s Day for its corned beef and cabbage dish, with potatoes and carrots. A traditional Irish meal prepared at a good price point. In other words, it’s not just green beer and Guinness at a spot like Hickory Tavern, which boasts a broad and diverse menu meant for all demographics. It serves items from oysters on the half shell (there’s also a baked variety) to peel-and-eat shrimp to cheese sticks to cedar salmon, shrimp & grits, 55-day wet aged ribeye, burgers, wings, tacos, po-boys, and salads.
“Get that message out there to the people,” Eason says.
In the early days, he doubled down on communications and internal store marketing. “To just bring up the awareness that we’re not just a sports bar for this, that, or the other,” Eason says. “And create those events to where people do want to come in and not just watch it on their TVs [at home].” There are 13 handcrafted cocktails, like the Strawberry Lemon Drop Martini, six “wine cocktails” (one example being the Fire Storm Apothic Red Blend, Sailor Jerry spiced rum, lime juice, orange juice, bitters, ginger beer), four margaritas, “Red Bull Blasts,” and “fun-sized shots.” Like food, Hickory Tavern’s liquid lineup is a veto vote buster and one people can’t recreate from their couch.
“I’m one of those guys who likes his big screen TV, too, but it is fun to get four or five guys or couples, whatever you’re into to, to go sit around and share some food and watch a football game,” Eason adds. “The electricity, because we did fill up the restaurants on those nights, everyone is rooting for the home team. It’s exciting.”
Creating this synergy—where the events draw people in, but the service and food exceeds their expectations of what a sports bar should be—began by taking a look at every menu item, Eason says. Not just the makeup, but the presentation. There’s a plan to revamp the front, especially the bar menu so Hickory Tavern’s differentiators are clear at first glance. The chain hired a professional agency to refine its design. “We’re going to figure out what sells and what doesn’t,” Eason says. “There are not many dogs on our menu, when you look at it. Everybody orders a lot of what’s on there. But we’re also looking at some of the old items that we used to sell that we have come off in the past.”
He's picturing more shareables. New wing styles. Currently, the latter come plain or charred, with 12 different sauces. Eason expects to add a breaded wing. Later, potentially some wraps or other handhelds to join the sandwiches and burgers offered. “We’re taking a look, front to back, top to bottom, on all of our menus, and we’re going to revamp them here shortly,” he says.
Much of what Eason has focused on, though, since arriving as CEO, is realigning. He brought in all GMs for a seven-hour session and is working seven days a week to get “everybody congruent and on the same page with where we’re going,” Eason says. “We’re going to circle the wagons.”
“I think everybody is energized,” he adds. “The management teams are all very energized and upbeat about all of these changes. We think we can do more in sales than we currently do just by doing all of these things that I’ve been mentioning.”
Hickory Tavern shut down for a month when COVID hit. As was the case for a bevy of brands on the rebound, some of its survival changes need to be reassessed. Those are imminent fixes. Off-premises has settled to about 15–20 percent of the business. Operationally, from packaging to quality checks, Hickory Tavern has come a long way. Also, working with DSPs. But there’s still runway. “It’s all about execution—that’s what I’m focused on,” Eason says. “The execution of the restaurants, whether it’s in-dining or carryout, and we’ve got strides to make there. It can’t just be a thing you have to do because you have to do it. You really have to focus in on it and have all the tools and systems in place to make it work well.”
A longer-term view will concern growth. Firebirds is a brand that took its go-forward prototypes from 6,700 square feet or so to closer to 5,000. And it was pushing as much, if not more, volume from the smaller boxes. “They’re more efficient, they’re ultra-modern, more updated, fun to go to, they’ve got a great look to them,” Eason says. That’s ultimately where we want to be.”
In reality, this isn’t a bad time to recalibrate on development. The lead times, from site to permitting to actual construction, have ballooned industry-wide. There are labor shortages within this arena just as there are inside hospitality.
“Just getting the equipment you want in there—the toilets, the sinks, everything—everything is on back order. And they’re having a hard time,” Eason says. “… electrical panels, those things were near impossible to get for a time there. At Firebirds, we had bought three or four of them knowing that we were going to build more restaurants. Instead of just buying one, you get four, put them in a warehouse or have them just set aside at the factory so you know you have that stuff ahead of time.”
Eason says the overall target for Hickory Tavern is “probably a two-year leeway.”
“We’re going to start focusing on procuring an architect and start the design process, and then we’re going to get with real estate pretty quickly,” he says. “Because, again, once you find a site, go through the lease negotiations and do all the things you need to do that takes time and start construction and get through, it’s maybe an 18 month to a two-year process.”
Simply, Hickory Tavern can start now and be ready within that window to start growing again.
When it does, Eason knows the brand and its 25 years of history will resonate. If anything, customers have only asked for more in recent years of the chain, known for the perks of its Fan Club membership, social events, and to-go Tailgate Parties. “This is a unique brand,” he says. “We can be better. I think everybody can be better and we’re going to really focus on our execution, which is, I think, the main key. So this brand will allow us to do that. People like us and they want us to be better. We get guest feedback where people were telling us hey, you can be better in this and this and this. I read that. We listening to that and we’re acting on it.”