Eat'n Park starting from the ground up after decades on Banksville Road

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By the end of the year, the 25,000 Pittsburghers who drive by the Eat’n Park restaurant on Banksville Road each day will be able to describe that spot as the place where the Eat’n Park used to be.

The new place won’t be far away — just down the parking lot from the site that has been cooking up breakfasts, burgers and fish dinners for decades — but management promises the place will represent a generational leap.

The new restaurant will have the same staff and the same menu but it will be built with construction techniques, including skylights to let the kitchen staff enjoy natural light, that aim for the LEED Silver certification meant to honor attention to reducing the impact on the environment.

“It’s time that our building matches the team members and our food,” said Jeff Broadhurst, president and CEO of Eat’n Park Hospitality Group, a Homestead company that operates more than 70 restaurants — and also runs food operations for hospitals, universities and other businesses that two years ago began pulling in more revenues than the restaurants. Last year company revenues hit $403 million, up from $355 million the previous year.

This Thursday, Mr. Broadhurst and his brothers — Brooks Broadhurst, senior vice president of food and beverage, and Mark Broadhurst, vice president of corporate dining and retail development — will bring the shovels to the Banksville site to hold a ceremonial groundbreaking on the new restaurant that will replace one that went up in the late 1960s.

The new Banksville restaurant is a long time coming and a significant investment. It took awhile to work out the deal that adds approximately one acre to the existing 1.4-acre site — a neighboring auto body shop was torn down — and there’s an adjacent cliff that pens in development.

The project is costing “well over $2 million,” said Jeff Broadhurst, and it isn't even the only overhaul planned this year. Eat’n Park plans five remodels (Greensburg and Latrobe locations are on the to-do list), in addition to tearing down the Banksville restaurant and another on Library Road to replace with new structures.

Since 2008, the company has remodeled 27 of its Eat’n Park restaurants and added 41 pick-up windows.

In advance of Thursday’s groundbreaking, Mark and Brooks sat down at Eat’n Park headquarters with Jeff tapped in via conference call from Maryland to talk about the state of the company.

Jeff succeeded his father, Jim Broadhurst, company chairman, in the role on CEO in 2008, but all three sons worked elsewhere before coming back into the family business.

The hand-off to the next generation has gone relatively smoothly. The company cites Scarborough research that shows one in three people in Pittsburgh has been to an Eat’n Park restaurant in the last month. That statistic has held true for the past decade.

“The challenge is frequency,” said Kevin O’Connell, senior vice president of marketing, who was also part of the meeting. A recession, a killer winter and an abundance of competition can chip away at any restaurant’s repeat visits. Market research firm NPD Group reported that midscale/family restaurants nationally last year saw traffic down 3 percent while casual dining restaurants saw traffic dip 2 percent.

Eat’n Park, a private company, says sales in its restaurants that have been open at least a year have risen five years in a row for the important breakfast, lunch and dinner segments. Late-night business still hasn't recovered from the company’s decision in 2007 to go smoke-free, but continued tweaks to the so-called midnight menu are meant to appeal to those looking for a snack.

Updates inside the restaurants have been ongoing. Last year, salad bars that were introduced in the early 1980s got a refresh with offerings like couscous salad and soups made from locally sourced ingredients. Salad bar usage is up 20 percent. It’s the top selling kids’ meal, noted Brooks Broadhurst. Next up are the rollout of some salads that team members proposed.

Experimentation has continued at projects like the Hello Bistro restaurants the company opened in Oakland and on the South Side over the past couple of years. The eateries are smaller than Eat’n Parks, and serve their own particular mix of offerings from beer to Smiley cookies and salads. A third Hello Bistro should be open Downtown by the end of this year, even as the South Side location has been testing a delivery service in a limited way.

Some experiments worked, others weren't as successful as hoped. For example, a wind turbine installed at an Eat’n Park built at the Waterworks Mall near Fox Chapel won’t be replicated on Banksville. “We didn't get quite as much power as we anticipated,” said Jeff Broadhurst.

But skylights that have been added to a number of restaurant kitchens have been a win. “It’s amazing what a little bit of light does to the psyche,” he said.

Meanwhile, overhauls like the one in Banksville must be done with sensitivity to the particular community that’s developed at each restaurant. “Over the years, we've thought that people didn't use certain things,” said Mark Broadhurst, with a laugh. Then a loyal and vocal minority would protest a change because, as he said, “Bob at Whitehall loves that.”

That sensibility might be reflected in the small counter areas created at some remodeled restaurants where diners can watch a large TV screen. It’s not quite the long diner counter of the past, but it offers a place for those who may like to get in and out quickly, maybe having breakfast alone while watching the morning news.

Construction along Banksville Road will be complicated and there will be a short period later in the year when neither the old nor the new location will be open. But the project has been planned to try to minimize the lost time for both customers and the staff.

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

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