Eat'n Park adds bistro concept to restaurant brand

The chain is trying out restaurant that serves both Smiley cookies and beer


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Unlike Kennywood, Eat'n Park has not decided to start serving beer.

Not that the management didn't consider it off and on over the past decade, but beer just didn't seem a good fit for the suburban family restaurant chain where teens often gather in the wee hours.

Instead, customers who want a beer with that Superburger will need to check out the Homestead company's new concept, now under construction along Forbes Avenue in Oakland.

Hello Bistro, as the new place from Eat'n Park Hospitality Group Inc. is named, could be a starter for an entirely new chain of restaurants to help the company move into more urban markets as well as compete with an array of quick, casual chains that didn't exist decades ago.

The first Hello Bistro is slated to open by late June or early July, with a second location under construction by year end. No other leases have been signed, but company officials are looking at sites on the South Side and in East Liberty.

Eat'n Park officials envision building lots of Hello Bistros, in some cases sliding the small restaurants back into urban neighborhoods that the company left years ago when the original model didn't seem to fit there anymore. Even Downtown might eventually get its own Hello Bistro.

"We really wanted to do something that was an extension of the Eat'n Park brand," said Mark Broadhurst, the Homestead-based company's director of concept development.

The quick take is that this will be a place to get a create-your-own salad without a scale to calculate the price, a place to have a burger with a beer or glass of wine, even a place to grab a quick bowl of oatmeal and a coffee in the middle of the afternoon.

At about 2,500 square feet, the new places will be smaller than the average Eat'n Park and won't come with parking spots or even everything on the original chain's extensive menu. Instead, the connections will be more subtle, although there will be Smiley cookies and potato soup (a top-selling item at the original restaurants).

The menu, while still a work in progress, pokes a little fun at the brand memories. An "E'nP Superburger" is described as a "Double decker + American cheese + pickles + lettuce + Nostalgia - (when I was your age story) x Sauce Supreme = A Classic Since 1949."

"This should be a place that makes you smile, too," said Kevin O'Connell, senior vice president of marketing.

The launch timing might seem a little risky, with the restaurant industry still recovering from an economic downturn when Americans ate out less and thousands of restaurants around the country closed. But there have been signs of improvement in the past year.

And fast-casual restaurants, such as Panera Bread and Five Guys Burgers and Fries, have shown strength, with the top 150 chains growing 8.4 percent to $21.5 billion in 2011, according to Technomic Inc., a Chicago-based food consulting group.

For Eat'n Park, developing a prototype that answers the need for speed and also can fit into smaller spaces in populous areas looks like a way to grow market share, even if company officials say their established restaurants have shown sales growth for the past three years.

Part of that growth has been driven by adapting to a public less inclined to spend an hour or more sitting down for dinner out. In the past few years, the company has installed about 30 pickup windows in its iconic restaurants and more are on the way.

Hello Bistro's goal is to serve up a customer's food within a few minutes, even though it promises the burgers are made-to-order.

The new restaurants will also further a diversification strategy launched in 1995. At this point, the company's annual $355 million revenues are pretty evenly split between foodservice operations and restaurants, which include Six Penn Kitchen, a more upscale eatery that opened Downtown in 2005, and The Porch at Schenley, which opened recently in Oakland.

Diversification can be useful for more than new revenue streams. The parent company used some of the cafeterias at universities and businesses run by its Parkhurst Dining Services and Cura Hospitality foodservice operations as test markets for Hello Bistro recipes. And staff came from different divisions to work on the Hello Bistro concept.

The willingness to drop the Eat'n Park name into its menu may help the Hello Bistro project capitalize on a brand entrenched in Western Pennsylvania since the chain's founding in 1949.

In developing the new concept, officials debated referencing the established brand in the new restaurant's name but decided they didn't want a mini-Eat'n Park. That might also have frustrated diners who couldn't get all the same menu items they expect at the older restaurants.

"People have such a powerful association for Eat'n Park and what it is," Mr. O'Connell said.

Mr. Broadhurst, who lives not far from the Oakland restaurant, is well aware of the community's long memory. He still hears from residents of neighborhoods that lost their restaurants years ago. "I get people all the time [saying], 'Gosh, I went to that Eat'n Park all the time.' "

They won't recognize this new place, which will have a salad bar right up front, with a small kitchen behind. Roll-up garage doors will open up to the fresh air and the bustle outside.

Putting menu boards on the wall felt a little too much like a fast-food restaurant, so Hello Bistro options will be listed on a printed menu that customers pick up as they walk in.

The menu won't just be a trimmed-down version of its sister chain. Among other things, the specialty salads -- which range from Apple Almond Crunch to Caribbean Shrimp and a steak salad called Black & Bleu -- will be new.

businessnews

Teresa F. Lindeman can be reached at tlindeman@post-gazette.com or at 412-263-2018. First Published May 24, 2012 4:00 AM


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