Kings Family Restaurant chain gets a makeover

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A menu refresh is underway at Kings Family Restaurants, a sit-down chain that has served its turkey club on the same type of square, white bread since it was founded in 1967.

Now that sandwich is being served on a multigrain bread more in keeping with the times. After the change was made last June, sales of club sandwiches rose 300 percent, said Chris Whalen, president of KCS Management, the White Oak holding company that operates the 32-store chain.

Kings is for sale. The company's 80-year-old founder, Hartley C. King, is looking for an exit strategy after a planned sale in 2010 fell through for lack of financing.

Kings Family Restaurants revise menu offerings

Kings Family Restaurants, hoping to appeal to a broader demographic, have introduced new offerings to their menu. (Video by Nate Guidry; 3/9/2014)

But a restaurant chain with relatively steady, though not rising, sales; building stock that needs remodeling; and a loyal, yet not rapidly growing, customer base needs to demonstrate it's a valuable proposition that could do more with the right type of investment.

What to do? Add some excitement to the food, throw new energy into the marketing effort and prove that Kings can thrive.

"We're not dead," said an enthusiastic Mr. Whalen, showing off a table full of new food items at the company's original North Versailles location last week. "We've got an organization that's hitting on all cylinders right now."

Pittsburghers will be hearing about Kings and its food through a new television advertising campaign that just launched, but the work began a year ago when the staff began coming up with new menu items and revving up established ones.

"We were doing more of what everybody else does," Mr. Whalen said. In a market well stocked with places for families to eat out at a time when families are being more careful about how often they dine out, that wasn't a recipe for gains.

A recent report from market research firm NPD Group Inc. found that most of the restaurant industry hasn't entirely recovered from the Great Recession, with only one segment -- the fast casual group that includes chains such as Panera Bread -- showing more people coming through last year. In the midscale/family dining segment that Kings falls in, restaurant traffic fell 3 percent last year, continuing a slide of several years.

"Overall, restaurant customers are trading down, forgoing some of their visits to full service places while increasing the number of visits made to fast casual concepts," said Bonnie Riggs, NPD restaurant industry analyst, in the early February report.

Kings sales dipped more than 5 percent from $54 million in 2011 to $51.2 million in 2012, according to Technomic Inc., a Chicago food consulting group. That coincided with the closing of two locations -- one in Cranberry and one at the Waterworks Mall on Freeport Road -- that dropped the company from 34 total restaurants to 32. Mr. Whalen said the closings were triggered by lease issues.

Menu changes have continued since last June. A familiar thin slice of meat loaf has been switched out for a thicker, double-glazed version, sending sales of the dish up 200 percent. And a mini-Reuben sandwich on a pretzel bun took just weeks to shove mozzarella sticks out as the top-selling appetizer.

The pretzel bun sliders have since evolved to include other varieties from a Black Angus burger version and a Rachel with turkey and cole slaw to a new fish sandwich for Lent.

Across the menu, much of the bread was replaced by versions supplied by Cellone Bakery and delivered five days a week. The company has revamped a macaroni and cheese dish, even cooked up a meatloaf cupcake piled high with mashed potatoes. "The idea is we're different. We're not the same Kings. This is about fun," said Mr. Whalen.

Speaking of fun, the chain's longtime agency, Smith Brothers Agency on the North Shore, created a new cast of characters for Kings. Using the new tag line "Feed Your Taste Buds," the new marketing features four actors who represent different tastes -- Sweet, Salty, Tart and Spicy.

One of the actors is a student at Carnegie Mellon University, while the others have done comedy or improv, and they're all signed to a one-year contract, said Cliff Rankin, group account director for the agency. A lot of spots have been made already -- the campaign is scheduled to run 42 weeks -- but more are possible.

"It's an aggressive media buy," said Mr. Rankin.

To keep the pipeline of new menu items rolling, starting next month the company will begin featuring items dreamed up by students at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh as part of a contest held late last year. "We wanted these young students with all the imagination in the world and the culinary background," said Mr. Whalen.

Meanwhile, more than a few of the company's restaurant buildings look a little tired. Three remodels were done last year, with three to five planned this year. "If we could do them all, it would be great," Mr. Whalen said.

That's the kind of thing that an investor would presumably help with. Ideally, the hope is to find someone with Pittsburgh connections who would appreciate keeping the management team and the 1,800 employees.

The purchase would bring with it a loyalty rewards program that the company counts has having more than 300,000 active members. Mr. Whalen said Kings sends out more than 120,000 emails a week as part of the rewards program and a program for children.

"We would love to find someone local in Pittsburgh who wants to keep Kings local and invest in us."

Teresa F. Lindeman: or at 412-263-2018.

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