Family Restaurants a Casualty to Casual

Gene_Kasapis_Sr_and_Gene_Jr.jpg&MaxW=620&v=201310071326When Gene Kasapis Sr. opened the first Ram’s Horn restaurant in 1967 in Greektown, family dining was one of the largest segments of the restaurant industry.

Since reaching an apex six years ago, sales at Southfield-based Kasapis Bros. Inc. have been declining, falling from $44.8 million in 2007 to $35.6 million in 2011.

But Kasapis Sr. and his son Gene Kasapis Jr. are hoping a modern restaurant design and an updated menu will become prototypes for change as the once-thriving restaurant chain looks to regain its popularity.

Like many family restaurants, Ram’s Horn has battled increased competition from fast-casual chains, burger joints and sandwich shops — even family-friendly taverns.

The elder Kasapis said sales are slowly getting better, but he also attributed local economic conditions as an added challenge.

“Are we picking up? Yeah. But are we anywhere near we were in 2007? No,” Kasapis said. “Every recession, we come back stronger than before. In our 50-year history, this is the longest recession.”

Kasapis said he has a simple solution for the declining sales: “More people need to get back to work.”

There are 19 Ram’s Horn restaurants, seven of which are corporately owned.

While Kasapis Sr. said he has no plans to begin selling alcohol at any of his Ram’s Horn locations, the chain is fighting back with new menu items and a new décor for its locations in Livonia and Dearborn.

The new layout features open ceilings, new carpet, new lighting and flat-screen TVs.

Kasapis said the new design costs between $300,000 and $550,000 per location, adding that the company will retrofit existing restaurants with the new décor as needed but is in no hurry to do so.

“We are trying to make our restaurants more appealing to younger people,” Kasapis Jr. said. “We have to change with the times.”

Conversely, Joe Vicari, president and CEO of Warren-based Joe Vicari Restaurant Group, which includes four Country Inn restaurants, said he saw a 10 percent spike in sales during the height of the recession at his Country Inn restaurants, but it was short-lived.

“That has since settled,” Vicari said. “Sales from this year over last year have been flat.”

Vicari said average weekly sales at the family restaurants range from $30,000 to $35,000, about the same as when he opened his first Country Inn in 1987.

“When you take into consideration increased operating costs, we should be doing $40,000 or more in sales per week,” he said.

Vicari was once a Ram’s Horn franchisee and owned two restaurants, but said he ended his relationship with the brand in 1997.

“It was good to get involved with Ram’s Horn when they were at their peak,” he said. “I learned a lot about the restaurant business from them, but as I got older and wiser, I wanted to go out on my own.”

Darren Tristano, executive vice president of Chicago-based food industry research firm Technomic Inc., says there is more to deflated family restaurant sales than a stubborn economy.

In fact, Tristano said, sales are declining across the board in the family-style restaurant segment of the industry.

The main culprit, he said, is the emergence of fast-casual restaurants and changing consumer tastes.

“Family dining has been flat for a decade,” Tristano said. “Casual dining, and fast casual dining, hit a growth spurt in 2005 and that momentum has continued.”

Tristano said the fast-casual segment will generate about $35 billion this year while family-style dining will generate about $40 billion.

But Tristano said those numbers can be deceiving.

“Fast casual has been a small segment that is quickly growing, while family-style dining has, on a nominal basis, been flat,” Tristano said. “In fact, when adjusted for inflation, family dining has been down.”

Tristano said family dining peaked in the 1990s, before fast-casual restaurants like St. Louis-based Panera Bread Co. and Denver-based Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. entered the marketplace, which proved more attractive to younger diners.

“What family dining is facing is, you have older generations continuing to age and younger ones that feel too young to go to them,” Tristano said. “There has to be a shift in the category to get relevant to younger consumers. So far, that has not happened.”

Jason Nies, owner of The Hills City Grille, grew up around the Ram’s Horn brand; his father was a franchisee.

Nies said he saw the decline in family dining and decided to stay away from the segment when he began planning the first Hills City Grille, in Rochester Hills.

“I saw that trend going down 10 years ago,” Nies said. “The clientele was getting older and moving on, so I felt like it was a segment that was on the decline versus one on the rise.”

Nies opened the first Hills City Grille in 2007 as more of a tavern than a family restaurant.

But when he opened a second location, in a former Ram’s Horn in Troy, he did so with family diners in mind.

Troy’s Hills City Grille is a hybrid; it serves breakfast, lunch and dinner but each part of the day is geared toward a different segment of the population.

Nies said breakfast attracts older guests, while lunch fills up with stay-at-home moms and business professionals.

Nies said the strongest part of the day is dinner, when young parents with children make up more than 60 percent of his customer base.

After 10 p.m., Hills City Grille turns into a bar complete with live music and craft drink specials.

“Where are families going? They are going to the taverns and places with similar atmospheres. Places that serve beer and wine with dinner,” Nies said.

Nies said he expects sales at the restaurant to reach $1.5 million this year.

“It’s pretty unique to be able to hit all of the dayparts effectively and have a venue that permits that,” he said.

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