As chief marketing officer Jason Abelkop puts it, Krystal’s challenge isn’t to be old, it’s to be authentic. The brand has that first part covered. On October 11, the 360-plus-unit chain will celebrate its 85th anniversary like it always does—with 50-cent Krystal burgers. This celebration comes at an interesting time, Abelkop says, as younger diners, and particularly millennials, shape and reshape the consumer dynamic. Just growing old and staying open won’t cut it anymore.
“Authenticity is what consumers are looking for,” he says. “Not just, ‘How long have you been around?’ But, ‘What do you stand for?’ And that’s the great thing about this brand. Yes, we’ve changed, and yes, we’ve grown, but at the heart and soul of this company is the product—the Krystal—and it’s the same as it’s always been.”
Krystal’s purpose hasn’t grayed over the years, either. Back in 1932, when Krystal sprung to life on a downtown street corner in Chattanooga, Tennessee, the same year Johnny Cash was born and Amelia Earhart became the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic, Abelkop says Krystal worked hard to serve fast, affordable food in a friendly manner. Today? “We want to have fast, affordable food that’s good and served by friendly people,” he says with a laugh.
And customers have appreciated the consistency. Krystals are 79 cents, every day, all day. The company continues to reinforce this position, especially as competitors fill up dollar menus, introduce discount-based pricing, limited-time offers, and so forth. Krystal, meanwhile, has never gimmicked its value strategy because it’s part of the brand’s fabric.
“We’ve been an affordable value provider for 85 years,” Abelkop says.
There is, of course, the danger of becoming a stale value provider. It’s a proposition that only gets you so far, Abelkop adds. Krystal, though, while remaining steadfast, has also been a model of menu innovation. The brand debuted a restaurant redesign in April that features a brighter color scheme, LED lighting, digital menuboards, and contemproary artwork. In June, the chain unveiled its Sweet & Cold menu to accompany the Hot & Steamy classics.
This included soft-serve ice cream cones and cups, sundaes, Kool-Aid slushies, Caramel Mocha Frost blended coffee, and hand-spun milkshakes. Abellop says the move was a “natural extension” for Krystal and one customers have been clamoring for.
“We do what they ask for. And they asked for shakes and ice cream to go with their Krystals,” he says.
Krystal did it bigger than big in this case. Hundreds of attendees stood on a Saturday in early September as the brand labored away at the Tennessee State Fair. The goal: set a Guinness World Record for the largest frozen beverage ever constructed by pouring its Kool-Aid Green Apple Slushie into a 5-foot-tall regulation drink cup.
Krystal set the record with 255 gallons of Green Apple Slushie. The City of Nashville, in response, proclaimed September 9 as Krystal World Record Day.
Krystal is one of the few restaurant companies in existence beloved enough to warrant its own day in a city’s calendar. Abelkop says it’s a unique customer-company relationship he notices quite often.
“One of the great things is there are very few brands out there, even ones as old as ours, that have the legacy and traditions and memories that our brand has,” he says. “When you talk to consumers directly or through social media, you hear all these stories about our brand being connected to their family traditions, or to football or people’s weddings, or they were in college and came and were exposed to the restaurant for the first time at 2 in the morning. You hear all those different things. We’re connected to our guests in so many ways.”
Before Krystal, Abelkop worked at Ovation Brands, Fiesta Restaurant Group, and Arby’s. Spending roughly two decades in the business has given him an appreciation for the internal day-to-day workings at Krystal. The executive team fills out anniversary cards for every manager. Abelkop says he’s signed cards for employees with 30, 35, 38, 42, and 46 years with the brand.
“And I think you just don’t find that in a normal fast-food company,” he says. “It’s a great part of the brand. It enables us to speak to the consumer in a way that’s a little more familial, a little friendlier, and allows us to be a little quirkier, too.”
In addition to the 50-cent Krystals, the brand is planning a million-dollar giveaway and other prizes. The “birthday blowout” will last six weeks, through November 12, in partnership with Coca-Cola—a company that has been with Krystal since the beginning.
“Were excited about making it to 85,” Abelkop says. “We have to get to 90 soon. We’ll have a lot of fun with it. It’s a good time for us, and it’s a great time for the brand.”