Restaurant Nostalgia Revives Sales

The 1950s and 1960s were a joyous time, filled with prosperity—unemployment was the lowest it’s ever been at 3 percent. Not to be forgotten are culinary treats such as milkshakes; comfort food entrees; and desserts that did not scrimp on quality ingredients.

Capitalizing on that nostalgia, several restaurants have adopted a 1950s theme, ranging from family-friendly fare at 50’s Prime Time Café at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida, to Café 50’s blue-plate specials in Los Angeles.

Chicago’s Ed Debevic’s, open since 1984, coaxes diners back a few decades, too, with aqua and salmon décor, waitresses in car-hop style outfits, and dishes such as Tater Tots, ice cream sodas, and country fried steak that disappeared from most restaurant menus by the 1980s.

Bob Watson saw how much the vintage vibe pulled at customers’ heart strings and purchased the 5 & Diner chain in 2006. There are now 14 locations of this Worcester, Massachusetts, franchise, in five states.

Tunes from the Beach Boys and Four Tops get customers into a happy mood long before they’ve settled into a Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley booth with malts or Mrs. Cleaver’s Pot Roast. Memorabilia photos line the walls, jukeboxes spit out retro hits, and waitresses wear poodle skirts.

Revamping the chain—honing in on the nostalgic theme—took work, but Watson, the CEO, is pleased with the result. While initially he thought he’d attract senior citizens, younger people fill the booths on most nights too. On average, he says, each 5 & Diner is up between 10 and 16 percent in sales from April 2011.

Even if a restaurant can’t adopt a full-on mid-century theme, there are dozens of ways to temporarily install it. Retro cookbooks from the middle of last century (available at many libraries and antique stores) as well as visits to local historical societies offer inspiration. Online there are also sites devoted to retro foods, such as

Going retro doesn’t have to be a full-time endeavor for restaurants.

On July 15, Tryst Restaurant in Arlington, Massachusetts, will host its second-annual Tower Root Beer dinner, featuring dishes prepared with local favorite Tower Root Beer (a drink that was founded in 1914, then recently reintroduced after a 30-year hiatus).

News leading up to the event is featured on the restaurant’s Facebook page and in the restaurant.

“Root beer is a classic—it’s a drink everyone remembers,” explains chef Paul Turano. “Everyone has a memory from their childhood of drinking root beer.”

Buoyed by the dinner’s success, and noting how the nostalgic approach was a huge hit, Turano added a Twinkie knock-off to the dessert menu last year. This year he added more modern interpretations on childhood sweets, including spicy “Fudgesicles” and Dreamsicle macaroons.

“When you roll out these kinds of things, it sparks something. It lightens the spirit of the place too,” he says. Because they are available in bite-size portions for between $3 and $4 each, dessert sales have soared.

“We flew out of the Twinkies. When you put something like a Twinkie on a menu, the non-dessert eater will buy it,” Turano says. “A blast from the past is really emotional for some people.” Each new dessert is promoted with a picture on the restaurant’s Facebook page and Tweeted, too.

Watson also relies upon social media and email newsletters to retain 5 & Diner customers. Corporate employees update on Facebook and Twitter, and reply to customers promptly. A 3,200-subscriber email list at the Worcester location promotes milkshakes of the month and other special events or menu changes.

“There’s a lot of stress in people’s lives,” says Watson, pointing to the down economy and constant stimulation from handheld devices and social media. “Everything [we do] is predicated on trying to take people back to a simpler time. It seems to bring comfort to people.”

By Kristine Hansen

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