Bagger Dave’s slide: After multiple closings, missteps, burger chain goes into holding pattern

February 18, 2016
GARY ANGLEBRANDT
February 13, 2016 8:00 a.m.
Crain’s Detroit Business
http://www.crainsdetroit.com/article/20160213/NEWS/302149989/bagger-daves-aims-to-beef-up-outlook-after-closings-missteps

If the past year is any indication, the future of Bagger Dave’s Burger Tavern is anything but in the bag.

The Southfield-based restaurant chain suffered the indignity of two rounds of restaurant closings in 2015. The first came in August, when parent company Diversified Restaurant Holdings Inc. shuttered three locations, all in Indiana, gnawing $1.8 million in writedowns off the corporate books.

Then in December, eight more locations closed, at a loss of about $10.7 million for writedowns and other costs. One of them was its downtown Detroit location. The others were in Indiana.

The Detroit restaurant had been open for two years. One of the Indiana restaurants didn’t last 10 months; two more barely made it to the one-year mark. The oldest of the Indiana restaurants, the one in Indianapolis, was just 3 years old.

Anyone looking for more upbeat signs than these should avoid cracking open Diversified’s quarterly reports of the past year.

The reports start rosily enough. The first, released in March, predicted between 47 and 51 stores by the end of 2017. (There were 24 at the end of 2014.) These numbers steadily fell in subsequent reports. By the time November’s third-quarter report came around, the company had stopped making any predictions at all.

“We will not commit to any further development of Bagger Dave’s,” the company said in the report, released seven weeks before the December closings.

That doesn’t mean the company had given up on Bagger Dave’s. It opened five last year, including one in Centerville, Ohio, as recently as November, its first in that state. Another is set to open near Cincinnati in late March. But that and the 18 Bagger Dave’s (16 in Michigan, one in Ohio and one in Indiana) that survived the closings — and employ 670 people — will be the last for the foreseeable future.

This is a marked about-face for a company normally hell-bent on growth. It opened six Bagger Dave’s in 2014 and seven in 2013. And that pales to its Buffalo Wild Wings franchise operations, the largest in the country. Last year alone, Diversified added 20 more restaurants, 18 of which came from the $54 million purchase of Buffalo Wild Wings restaurants in the St. Louis area. That brought the number of Buffalo Wild Wings locations under its umbrella to 62.

From the end of 2011 to the end of last year, Diversified increased the total number of its restaurants across the two brands from 28 to 80. This year, though, it plans to add just three — the Bagger Dave’s near Cincinnati and two more Buffalo Wild Wings locations.

Familiar taste

Bagger Dave’s has struggled before. Sales took a hit after Diversified embarked on an aggressive growth plan in 2012, opening or buying 16 stores across its two brands. It listed on Nasdaq the following year.

The pace distracted management from everyday operations, and it was the Bagger Dave’s side of the business that took the hit in sales.

To mend things, Diversified beefed up Bagger Dave’s marketing, launched a corporate training program, brought in an employee-assessment firm and began hiring professionals from national chains such as Red Robin. It brought in consultants from the Disney Institute to go over employee retention and recruitment and rolled out new menus — the first one in early 2014 and another last year. The final rollout wrapped up last September.

It included adding more burgers and removing sandwiches that weren’t selling well, switching from a two-patty burger to an 8-ounce one and adding a grilled chicken breast sandwich. Fries are included in the price of a burger instead of added on. The menu’s marketing pitch changed to tell customers about certain points of company pride, such as how it uses prime rib and sirloin in its burgers and carefully sources its food.

“I’m much, much more connected to Bagger Dave’s now,” CEO Michael Ansley said last April in a Crain’s interview.

Things appeared to pay off. In a conference call for last year’s second-quarter results, Ansley said sales at Bagger Dave’s stores open at least two years had increased 2.5 percent compared with the same quarter a year earlier and 4 percent year to date.

Ansley talked about encouraging positive signs showing in things like Facebook “likes” and “net promoter scores,” which measure customer satisfaction. Investments in technology — tabletop ordering tablets, a mobile app, a gift card program, a “RockBot” jukebox app — promised to further brighten the picture.

Nevertheless, Ansley had to acknowledge struggles. “Despite the positives, we fully appreciate the missteps we have made in the past with respect to the brand,” he said.

One initiative has proved costly. Management was determined to maintain a base staffing level at Bagger Dave’s restaurants, even if sales were low. This policy was done to bolster service and coax repeat visits out of customers.

But this, along with minimum wage increases, pushed up the company’s year-on-year compensation costs by more than 25 percent in the second quarter of last year. This came on the heels of a $2 million spike in compensation costs that brought its tally for 2014 to $9.2 million.

Minimum staffing practices like this are rarely used in the restaurant industry, said Darren Tristano, president of Technomic Inc., a Chicago-based restaurant industry research company.

“There’s nothing financially efficient about it,” he said. “You end up with staff standing around.”

In a conference call on Nov. 5, Ansley and CFO David Burke expressed frustration with the slow pace of results. Burke described Bagger Dave’s as a “Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde concept” because of the changes it had undergone.

There were signs of improvement coming out of investments in the menu and training, but “you don’t see an immediate impact in sales from that,” he said.

The financial picture

Diversified’s breakneck growth comes with a heavy capital burden.

Estimated capital expenditures last year were about $30 million. It spent $36 million the year before.

The buildout of a Bagger Dave’s costs $1.1 million to $1.4 million, according to company financial statements. A new Buffalo Wild Wings costs $1.7 million to $2.1 million. Updates to older restaurants cost between $50,000 and $1.3 million.

A listing on Nasdaq in 2013 raised $31.9 million. But much of the company’s expansion has been financed by debt. Total debt rose from $61.8 million at the close of 2014 to $123.9 million at the end of September, pushed up because of the acquisition of the St. Louis stores.

The company’s share price opened at $2.57 the day the closure of the eight stores was announced. The stock was trading just above $1.50 last week.

A pair of lawsuits last year further strained finances. The two cases, brought by the same attorney, alleged employees who work for tips were made to do the work of non-tipped employees who earn a higher hourly rate. The settlement and related expenses cost the company $1.9 million.

For the first three quarters of last year, Diversified booked a net loss of $6.6 million, compared with an $85,000 profit for the same period in 2014. The company lost $1.3 million overall in 2014. The company does not believe it made a full-year profit in 2015. (Annual results are expected to be released in March.)

Preliminary financial estimates for 2015 show revenue growing 34 percent to $172.5 million from $128.4 million in 2014, in line with the company’s guidance.

Same-store sales increased 2.8 percent at Buffalo Wild Wings and 1.3 percent at Bagger Dave’s from 2014 to 2015, but they decreased 7.8 percent year-over-year in the fourth quarter at Bagger Dave’s and increased just 0.8 percent at Buffalo Wild Wings.

The Buffalo squeeze

Bagger Dave’s menu refresh included adding more burgers and removing sandwiches that weren’t selling well.

The 18 Bagger Dave’s stores that remain don’t appear to be on much better ground.

The eight stores shuttered in December generated $5.5 million in revenue, or $687,500 per restaurant, through the first three quarters of last year and had a pre-tax (EBITDA) loss of $600,000. But the other 18 locations brought in $14.1 million, or $783,333 per restaurant, and had a pretax profit of $700,000. That comes to less than $52,000 per restaurant on an annualized basis, a growth rate of 5 percent.

The revenue per restaurant on an annualized basis comes to $1 million, well below the target revenue per store of $1.7 million, the goal stated in a presentation to investors in January.

A profit margin of 5 percent is low, especially for company-owned stores, Tristano said. Franchisee-owned stores typically hit at least 10 percent because of the fees to the franchisor they must pay.

“They’ve got to be doing better than 5 percent to pay down their debt,” Tristano said.

The obvious question that arises is, were the closures enough?

All Bagger Dave’s restaurants are company-owned. (Plans to franchise the brand several years ago were scrapped.) With a massive Buffalo Wild Wings operation cranking away, the Bagger Dave’s “baby brand,” as Ansley has called it, has had a hard time getting the attention it needs.

Diversified has a contractual obligation with Buffalo Wild Wings Inc. to open 42 restaurants by 2021 and has 15 more to go. The company says it’s ahead of schedule.

Ansley also points out that failing to make that obligation bears only a weak cost: Diversified only has to pay Buffalo Wild Wings $50,000 for each store it does not open — far less than the millions it costs to open one. “With our relationship with Buffalo Wild Wings, I doubt they’d charge us the $50,000,” Ansley said.

In any case, the moves Bagger Dave’s has made demonstrate the pressure on Diversified to stay focused on the much stronger Buffalo Wild Wings side of the business.

“In the year ahead, we plan to focus our resources primarily on growing our BWW portfolio, which represents the overwhelming majority of both our revenue and adjusted EBITDA,” the company said in its third-quarter report.

The move toward Buffalo Wild Wings is smart because it’s a more proven brand than Bagger Dave’s, which is “a good brand but not that broadly differentiated,” Tristano said.

“The reality in our industry is that there’s no shortage of optimism. We hear about these ambitious goals, but very rarely do we see brands meet those goals.”

The response

Last year’s closings, which included one Buffalo Wild Wings restaurant in Florida besides the Bagger Dave’s spots, were the first for the company. But they were a long time coming.

“Bagger Dave’s has given us some fits,” Ansley said in an interview. “We knew we had issues with it two years ago. We made a lot of changes — I can’t even count the changes.”

These changes came too quickly and were confusing for guests and employees. “We were too aggressive. That was the problem, and we learned it the hard way,” Ansley said.

Casual dining chains face intense competition throughout the country, not just from each other but also from fast-casual restaurants like Chipotle Mexican Grill and Five Guys Burgers and Fries. The parent of the Max & Erma’s chain closed eight metro Detroit locations in January.

To counter this trend, Diversified needs to do a better job of marketing Bagger Dave’s by doing things such as telling people of premium ingredients that are mostly sourced in Michigan, Ansley said.

He also is heartened to see interest in properties of the shuttered locations. This includes the one in downtown Detroit, which has garnered “a lot of offers,” he said.

The company is holding the line on the minimum staffing levels that have driven up compensation costs. “There will be a little deleveraging from” the minimum staffing levels that drove up compensation costs but “nothing substantial,” Ansley said.

No more Bagger Dave’s locations will be closed, Ansley said. If the prototype stores do well for the rest of the year, “then we will start expanding again,” he said.

The 18 remaining Bagger Dave’s restaurants are profitable, said Ansley, who is especially encouraged by the performance of “prototype” stores. These stores have the new menus and have been redesigned to be smaller and “hipper.” They are in Grand Blanc, Birch Run, Grand Rapids, Chesterfield Township and Centerville, Ohio.

The three analysts who cover Diversified’s stock are encouraged. They express concern at the company’s debt but agree that the Bagger Dave’s changes are on the right track.

“We think much of the ‘noise’ of the past few quarters is behind the company and management can focus on restaurant operations,” wrote Mark Smith, analyst at Minneapolis-based Felt & Co.


Loyalty Programmes Drive U.S. Restaurant Visits

May 16, 2013

Smart restaurant operators have always endeavored to take care of their most frequent visitors. That may have taken the form of a server simply knowing her customers’ names and whether they took cream in their coffee. Some restaurant managers kept a Rolodex or card catalog of customers, with notes about favourite tables, anniversaries, kids’ names and other key data points. These are still valid tactics, but they require staff and managers with a keen sense of hospitality and a long memory.

Punch cards put the loyalty programme into customers’ hands. Customers carry a card that gets signed, hole-punched or stickered each time they make a purchase. The customers need to keep coming to get that 10th sandwich for free.

Restaurant loyalty programmes evolved with the digital age, and swipe cards or keychain fobs replaced many punch cards. Today these programmes collect valuable data on consumers’ purchases and behaviours, what they like and when they visit. Online and smartphone-based programmes are even more convenient for consumers and enable more data collection on the part of operators.

Consumer Insights on Loyalty Programmes
Current restaurant loyalty programme participation rates in the United States suggest that opportunities are going untapped, and there are lessons to be gleaned for U.K. operators as well.

Technomic’s recent “Market Intelligence Report: Loyalty Marketing” found that while only about one-third of consumers (36%) say they participate in a restaurant-based loyalty programme, 72% say that if the restaurant they visit most often offered a programme, they would sign up. This indicates that there is opportunity for more restaurants to offer loyalty programmes. It is possible that some of these favourite restaurants do have loyalty programmes already; here, the opportunity exists in building awareness about the programme and its benefits.

The prevalence of restaurant loyalty programmes and consumers’ willingness to participate begs the question of why someone would be reluctant to join. Consumers say they are concerned about privacy, and they demand to know how their personal contact information will be used.

  • Fully 70% of consumers say they would be more inclined to sign up for a rewards programme if they could be guaranteed that the restaurant would not pass along their information.
  • Two-thirds of consumers want to know how restaurants intend to use the personal information provided.
  • Forty-six percent say they are concerned about receiving spam or junk mail after signing up with loyalty programmes.
  • And 39% are concerned that restaurants might share their personal information with others.

Technomic asked consumers specifically which personal information they would be willing to provide to join a loyalty programme. While 60% would share an email address, only 43% would provide a home address and only 30% would provide their phone number.

At the same time they explain what their loyalty programme’s rewards are, restaurants should let customers know what they will do with their information. Such transparency can help build trust, which is a good step toward building an emotional connection.

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Base: 1,000 consumers age 18+
Consumers indicated their opinion on a scale of 1-6, where 6=agree completely and 1=disagree completely
Source: Technomic 2012 Market Intelligence Report: Loyalty Marketing

Operators will also want to consider who their customers are—or who they are trying to attract as customers. Our research has found that the more income consumers make, the more likely they are to participate in restaurant loyalty programmes. This may be because higher-income groups want to be recognised for the money they are spending.

However, don’t neglect “aspirational” diners, those who go out to eat at restaurants that are just out of their reach for most occasions but are used for special occasions. These consumers may not be your key demographic, but they add up, and you would miss them if they didn’t come at all. Programme tiers could offer different rewards to different customer groups. Aspirational members may be attracted to a reward that simply makes them feel included, such as an offer to try a new menu item and give their opinion. It would tell them that even though you don’t see them every week, you value them and their input.

Developing Programmes That Lead to Loyalty
Technomic recommends three steps to moving toward emotional connections.

  • Set up a loyalty programme, offering enough of an incentive for customers to provide personal information.
  • Use the data gleaned from those users to provide compelling and relevant rewards.
  • Speak to what is important to them to build real loyalty.

Initial communications should focus on free or discounted food or beverages or other giveaways. As the following exhibit shows, the relationship will probably begin as a materialistic one, dependent on regular coupons and discounts and immediate benefits for signing up. Being invited to sign up by the restaurant’s staff or being welcomed by one’s favourite restaurant are incentives that begin to build the relationship between the consumer and a favourite brand.

loyalty_chart_2_450

Base: 358 consumers age 18+ who participate in restaurant loyalty programmes
Source: Technomic 2012 Market Intelligence Report: Loyalty Marketing

Customers don’t want to have to work hard—or at all, really—for their perks. Even when they are willing to sign up for a loyalty programme, they want restaurants to make it as painless as possible. Seven in 10 consumers (71%) would be more likely to sign up for a programme if perks were “effortless,” 59% don’t want to have to print coupons, and 39% don’t want to have to carry a physical card in order to receive loyalty-club benefits.

loyalty_chart_3_450

Base: 1,000 consumers age 18+
Consumers indicated their opinion on a scale of 1-6, where 6=agree completely and 1=disagree completely
Source: Technomic 2012 Market Intelligence Report: Loyalty Marketing

Compared to other consumers, loyalty club members are more likely to be active social media users. While 53% of all consumers “like” restaurant brands on Facebook at least occasionally, 62% of those who participate in restaurant loyalty programmes do the same. Similarly, 19% of all respondents read and/or write restaurant reviews on sites like Yelp, but 29% of loyalty-club members do so. This speaks to the importance of two-way communication with frequent diners.

To successfully communicate with frequent diners, operators must also speak the correct language and use the correct medium. Fully 78% of consumers who have smartphones and participate in restaurant loyalty programmes use their phones to access information or discounts from the programme. It’s no surprise that younger people use their smartphones more often than older consumers. It’s interesting, though, that a majority of consumers 45 and older also use their smartphones to access their loyalty programme. Savvy loyalty-programme operators will use this information and input from their own members to determine the best means of communication.

loyalty_chart_4_450

Base: 230 consumers age 18+ who have smartphones and belong to restaurant loyalty programmes
Source: Technomic 2012 Market Intelligence Report: Loyalty Marketing

Loyalty Membership Drives Restaurant Visits
The good news for restaurants with rewards programmes is that a majority of consumers who participate in loyalty programmes are likely to decide which restaurant to visit based on whether they are a member of that restaurant’s programme. And, just as higher-income consumers are more likely to join such a programme, they are also more likely to base their decision on where to eat on their membership.

Being in a loyalty programme does appear to put the restaurant in consumers’ consideration set, which helps get them in the door. It’s a good first step toward building those emotional connections.

loyalty_chart_5_450

Base: 358 consumers age 18+ who participate in restaurant loyalty programmes
Source: Technomic 2012 Market Intelligence Report: Loyalty Marketing

Darren Tristano is Senior Managing Director of Technomic Inc., a Chicago-based foodservice consultancy and research firm. Since 1993, he has led the development of Technomic’s Information Services division and directed multiple aspects of the firm’s operations. For more information, visit http://www.technomic.com.

Examples of Successful U.S. Restaurant Loyalty Programmes

Incorporating Social Media
Dunkin’ Donuts held a competition to award the title of President of Dunkin’ Nation. Members earned points for checking in via FourSquare and Facebook, and then selected the winner from among the top visitors.

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Offering ‘Important’ Rewards
Understanding customers creates the ability to offer rewards that customers find important. For example, la Madeleine’s Card for the Cure speaks to the core values of the chain’s regular clientele, who are mostly women. The loyalty card costs $35 up front, and gives the customer 10% off all purchases for a year. Additionally, 1% of sales goes to Susan G. Komen for the Cure. The card can be renewed annually for $25.

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Making Consumers Part of the ‘In Crowd’
Some successful programmes appeal to consumers’ psychological need to be part of the “inner circle.” The Greene Turtle Mug Club enables the chain’s customers to purchase their own mug at their local Greene Turtle restaurant. The mug is assigned a number and stays on display in the unit until the member comes in and orders a beverage. The company boasts that there is an average of 1,000 members per unit.

greene_turtle_275