Competition | January 2014 | By Daniel P. Smith

Local Legends

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Some quick service brands establish legacies through limited regional expansion.
James Coney Island has evolved in its 90-year history to keep up with the times, but one thing that hasn’t changed is consumers’ love for its signature Coney Dogs. James Coney Island
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Ivar’s

Seattle

Seattle icon Ivar Haglund founded Ivar’s in 1938, but it was almost an afterthought to his much bigger project: an aquarium. When the eatery became more popular than the aquarium, the entrepreneurial Haglund reallocated his efforts.

Consistent with Seattle’s laid-back character, Haglund eschewed the stuffy restaurant atmosphere in favor of a more casual, even humorous dining environment. Haglund frequently visited his restaurants with a ukulele or guitar in hand, performing songs like “Run, Clam, Run” and “Hail to the Halibut” from his own songbook. In advertisements, meanwhile, Haglund introduced himself as “Your old friend, Ivar,” a sign of the chain’s folksy charm.

“Ivar worked on entertaining and delighting guests, and he was always pushing the limit of dining and entertainment,” says Ivar’s director of marketing, Kirsten Wlaschin.

When Haglund died in 1985, key managers assumed the reins. Today, Ivar’s remains a privately held enterprise with 24 fast-casual seafood bars, as well as outposts in Seattle’s five major arenas. The concept is best known for its chowder and fish and chips, two dishes that leverage Seattle’s waterfront location.

In Haglund’s absence, Ivar’s has worked diligently to maintain the friendly, familiar feel of its stores. At each of Ivar’s seafood bars—where, according to the company, the typical customer visits once every 10 days—leadership asks each manager and assistant manager to know the name and regular order of his or her 100 best customers, as well as something personal.

“This level of friendly service is critical to our brand,” Wlaschin says.

Using insights from regular customer satisfaction surveys and its purchasing power, Ivar’s recently widened its culinary profile with a rotating fresh catch promotion and an expanded grilled-fish program. Ivar’s also unveiled a more contemporary store format featuring mixed seating options and wood beams alongside a replica of the original Ivar’s neon sign.

“We work hard to understand the delicate balance between relevancy and history,” Wlaschin says.

While the chain remains open to expanding beyond its Washington base, Wlaschin says, that will only happen if the move is right. “We won’t look at a location where we can’t be true to who we are,” she says.

Skyline Chili

Cincinnati

Asking about “the Ways” virtually anywhere outside of the greater Cincinnati, Ohio, area will likely earn someone a quizzical look. Posing the same question within Cincinnati’s borders, however, will point that person in the direction of Skyline Chili, the Queen City’s celebrated quick-service concept and the brand credited with creating Cincinnati-style chili.

Since 1949, the Ways, a nod to Skyline’s signature chili dish and a customer’s desired toppings—shredded Cheddar, diced onions, and beans—has been engrained in Cincinnati vernacular and propelled Skyline’s position as a treasured local favorite.

“For over 60 years, we’ve been delivering a consistent product quickly, which has created an embedded customer base that’s loyal to us,” says Sarah Sicking, Skyline’s director of marketing.

Though Skyline has 131 units spread across four states, 95 of which are franchised stores, its unquestionable home base is Cincinnati. The Cincinnati metro area, population 2.1 million, is home to 84 Skyline restaurants, or about one location for every 25,000 residents.

In addition to the chain’s secret chili recipe, Skyline is also well known for its Cheese Coney, a proprietary Skyline hot dog covered in mustard, chili, diced onions, and shredded Cheddar. Though Skyline expanded its menu through the years and added items such as burritos, wraps, salads, and steamed potatoes, Skyline executive vice president Terry Donovan says, the restaurant’s primary path to relevancy remains the consistent delivery of its two core products: slow-cooked chili and the Cheese Coney.

“We’re going to stay on our toes and move with the consumer, but [menu changes] are not what we lead with,” Donovan says.

From 1986 until 2005, Skyline moved into new territory, including Michigan, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina, first as a public company and then under the hands of a private equity firm. Those units have since closed.

“Burger places might be able to more easily skip geography, but it’s a tougher sell with chili, which is much more regional,” Sicking says.

Since returning to private ownership in 2005, however, Skyline has embraced its local heritage and adopted a contiguous geography expansion plan, targeting two other Ohio cities, Dayton and Columbus, as its next market opportunities.

The Varsity

Atlanta

A downtown Atlanta landmark, the Varsity’s art deco building and curbside service attract millions of visitors throughout the year, ranging from politicos and priests to police and pilots.

“We’re a real melting pot,” says Gordon Muir, president of the Varsity. On a football Saturday at nearby Georgia Tech, the Atlanta institution serves upward of 15,000 chili dogs, 300 gallons of chili, and 3,000 homemade pies from its flagship location.

With little more than $2,000, Frank Gordy founded the Varsity—originally called the Yellow Jacket in honor of Georgia Tech’s mascot—in 1928 in the back of a gas station. The eatery’s chili and hot dogs were an immediate hit, compelling Gordy to purchase an entire city block and construct an 800-seat restaurant on the five-acre site.

“In the Great Depression, that was a real big vision,” says Muir, Gordy’s grandson.

The Varsity now has six stores in and around Atlanta, as well as two units in Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson Airport. Though Muir acknowledges it’s “nearly impossible” for the Varsity to replicate its historic downtown location in other settings, the consistency of the company’s menu and service from location to location—right down to the restaurant’s famous “What’ll ya have?” ordering prompt—allows each Varsity unit to retain tradition while notching its own sense of place.

Muir says the Varsity has also maintained its loyal customer following by doing the same things year after year: making its chili, pie dough, and chicken salad daily; using fresh produce; and serving up its famous frosted orange drink and hand-dipped onion rings like no one else can.

“The Varsity is something that doesn’t change in peoples’ lives,” Muir says. “If you keep your quality and treat people right, those are the standards that keep you going in any generation.”

With various properties in hand, the Varsity plans to slowly open new units in the coming years, including the launch of a new Atlanta-area location later this year.

“We’re just an old-fashioned family business, and we’re in no hurry to get bigger,” Muir says. “We’ll take our time and do things right.”

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