David Anderson, the founder of Famous Dave’s BBQ, believes that barbecue is America’s way of celebrating. But offering even the stickiest St. Louis-style spareribs and Georgia chopped pork doesn’t guarantee business success—not even if you’ve been smoking award-winning ‘cue for twenty-five years. Famous Dave’s BBQ closed twenty-two locations in 2017, according to Nation’s Restaurant News. Sales were down 1.5 percent. When CEO Jeff Crivello took the reins in November, he knew he had his work cut out for him.
Crivello grew up in the Chicago area enjoying the sweet smoke of Dave’s ‘cue and Famous Dave’s BBQ catering. In 2012, he bought a large part of the company with his business partner. “I followed the story from the beginning. From the changes—or the lack thereof,” he says, referring to how the dining world evolved but Famous Dave’s BBQ didn’t.
American barbecue may invite celebration, but not everyone eats celebratory food regularly. Customers were coming in every few months, not every other day, and profits fell, lost to empty restaurant space. Forbes notes that younger customers want shorter meal times and Instagram-ready restaurants. But some of the 130 Famous Dave’s BBQ franchise locations hadn’t had facelifts in twenty years. And while Famous Dave’s BBQ catering shows potential for growth, spaces can’t meet demand.
“When I came in I said, ‘I want to move fast, I want to fail fast, and I want to keep moving,’” Crivello says of his hitting the ground running. In less than six months, he’s tackled all angles of production. He’s shrinking the massive 6,500 square-foot spaces in hopes that a 3,500 square-foot prototype will be roomy enough for Famous Dave’s BBQ catering production and drive-through windows. Even smaller locations will produce only delivery. New menu additions like burgers, pizza, and vegetable dishes offer every-day options and faster eats. And redesigned dining rooms with a playlist of new-age country music curated by Anderson himself welcome younger crowds. “It’s very young and hip. You can tell there’s a new energy,” Crivello promises.
Of course, you don’t entirely wipe out legacy with a redesign. Crivello’s used several company-owned stores as test sites. Their Coon Rapids, Michigan, spot has played home to twenty-plus new items. Some sell like hot cakes. Others sit cold. A side of brussels sprouts tossed in bacon with an onion glaze is a huge hit. But an appetizer of brussels sprouts skewers wrapped in bacon then flash fried and served with a sweet soy glaze, not so much. While the jalapeño-studded mac and cheese on the old menu didn’t appeal to kids, the simpler Dave’s Cheesy’ Mac & Cheese goes down easy. The sweet potato soufflé with pecans and charred marshmallows is a big hit as well. Soon, they’ll launch a by-weight lunch bar. Relatively new to ezCater, they’re keeping an eye on which Famous Dave’s BBQ catering items travel particularly well. “We’re getting closer to a menu that works,” Crivello promises. Only then will they expand nationally.
It’s a lot of risk in a short time. “When you have a legacy restaurant system and thousands of employees set in that legacy way, it’s a heavy lift and hard to make a titanic shift into evolution,” he says. Some franchise owners might be averse to change. “We’ll always have great barbecue,” Crivello promises. He’s ready to bring it to the next generation. Famous Dave’s BBQ 2.0 will make sure that happens.
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