Today the sizzle is back at Sizzler, which is no small feat considering the fact that the chain was forced to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 1996. It was a low point for the 54-year-old company, which once had several hundred restaurants and annual sales approaching $1 billion.
The re-emergence of the company, which was made famous by their salad bars and sizzling steaks, has occurred thanks in large part to a return to the original values of company founder Del Johnson. The man leading that charge is Sizzler’s CEO, Kerry Kramp.
“Sizzler was one of the first fast-casual restaurants,” said Kramp. “It had a nostalgic connection when I came on board full-time as the CEO. I knew that this was a brand that resonated with guests and was relevant to consumers. I thought it deserved the chance to flourish and figure out a way to go into the next 50 years of growth and development.”
Since taking over as CEO in 2008, Kramp has helped to rebrand the once-mighty restaurant chain with a new menu and a renewed emphasis on quality and simplicity. Today, Sizzler has 170 restaurants in the United States and yearly sales of about $300 million. For Kramp, Sizzler’s comeback in recent years is the culmination of experiences learned during more than three decades in the food industry.
“It all started for me when I was 12 years old,” Kramp said. “My grandfather owned a doughnut shop in Ohio and I fell in love with two aspects of the business; people and food. I already had a passion for food, but I found that there was a way to connect that with people.”
That passion drove Kramp through a career filled with stops at several food industry ventures. Notably, he spent time as the CEO of Buffets Inc., which grew from $6 million in sales to $1 billion in annual sales in less than eight years. Shortly after the success of Buffets Inc., Kramp joined Pacific Equity Partners, which owned and operated Sizzler since 2005.
Three years later, Kramp and a new team bet on Sizzler, purchasing the chain from Pacific Equity Partners in the midst of the recession. The team’s bet on the nostalgic connection of Sizzler is currently paying dividends.
“We had a sense that we had become relevant again to consumers and it was based on an old adage of having great tasting food that was memorable and served by friendly people at a low price,” said Kramp.
With that simple formula, Kramp aimed to reconnect former customers with the brand. The team also aimed to rebuild the brand with fresh, quality ingredients that helped to improve the quality of the food and the reputation of the restaurant.
“We decided to embrace the history of Sizzler,” Kramp said. “We had incredible franchisees that had been around for a long time and over time the company lost focus on things like food quality, made-from-scratch dishes and all the elements that make a great dining experience. Our first focus was to look at the menu and bring back quality and fresh-made ingredients. We upgraded and improved the whole food experience so that the food became compelling and memorable again.”
The move seems to have worked.
“When I came in, value, sales and guest counts were trending down,” Kramp said. “Soon after, we had a 20 percent change in sales and guest count. We have had three and a half years of same-store growth as well as guest count growth in the middle of the worst recession in history. We feel that the basics of delivering on that execution are really working.”
Currently, Sizzler can be found in several states, mostly on the West Coast. Kramp said there are hopes to expand Sizzler east, however. The company is currently exploring the possibility of opening stores in Denver, Minneapolis, Chicago, St. Louis and Kansas City.
Kramp attributes this success to the philosophy the company has employed throughout the past few years.
“We know it is a journey and not a sprint,” said Kramp.”We are not looking to do this as quickly as we can, we are looking to do it as right as we can. If that takes a little more time, we are ok with that.”
Regardless of industry, Kramp believes that the lessons of Sizzler can apply to all businesses.
“Trust is built for a business over time, so don’t panic when things change,” Kramp said. “It is easy to panic and start cutting the wrong things, but people will recognize that. Sometimes it may seem like you are saving money in some places that really aren’t the best place to start cutting back.”