Why Chipotle’s Southeast Asian chain couldn’t make it work

March 16, 2017

imrs

By Becky Krystal
https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/going-out-guide/wp/2017/03/11/why-chipotles-southeast-asian-chain-couldnt-make-it-work/?utm_term=.7c03019833f5

All 15 locations of ShopHouse, the Southeast Asian fast-casual restaurant owned by Chipotle, will close on March 17. The closings, first reported by Nation’s Restaurant News on Thursday, left fans distraught.

But it was easy to see the move coming after Chipotle announced in October that it was halting investments in the brand. Instead, the burrito giant’s spinoff aspirations will focus on two other endeavors: Pizzeria Locale and Tasty Made, a pizza joint and a burger place, respectively. “We just didn’t believe that ShopHouse warranted continued investment,” Chris Arnold, a spokesperson for Chipotle, said in an email.

ShopHouse, which opened its first location in 2011 in Dupont Circle, offered customizable rice, noodle and salad bowls inspired by the cuisines of Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia and Singapore. It represented a glimmer of hope for diners interested in something different and at least marginally more nutritious than what was served at most fast-casual chains.

But selling Southeast Asian cuisine proved to be a losing gamble in an industry dominated by burgers and sandwiches. The top 10 quick-service and fast-casual brands, as ranked by U.S. sales in 2016’s QSR 50, an annual list published by industry publication QSR magazine, don’t include any restaurants serving Asian cuisine. The list is topped by the likes of McDonald’s, Starbucks, Subway, Burger King and Taco Bell.

Even when QSR broke out supposed “ethnic” brands — the label is a bit of a stretch — the results aren’t that impressive. Taco Bell was ranked at No. 5; further down the list are Chipotle (12), Panda Express (22), Qdoba (34), Del Taco (37) and Moe’s Southwest Grill (43). Only one Asian concept made the top 50: Panda Express, a chain perhaps best known for its fried, sticky orange chicken, which is a far cry from ShopHouse’s grilled steak seasoned with fish sauce, or its sweet and sour tamarind vinaigrette.

Those Southeast Asian flavors were unfamiliar to many Americans. Darren Tristano, president of market research firm Technomic, said that when the brand launched, he believed the biggest challenge would be getting consumers to see that Southeast Asian cuisine wasn’t outside the norm. “When your core focus is on that, it just makes it very, very difficult,” he said. He points to Mexican, Italian and Chinese as the big three when it comes to popular international flavors, while Japanese and Greek make the cut to a lesser extent.

In an interview last year with The Post, ShopHouse brand director and co-founder Tim Wildin said he wanted to work with traditional Asian ingredients, noting that Thai flavors in particular had a universal appeal. He acknowledged there was a bit of a learning curve when customers complained the food was too spicy. But there wasn’t necessarily a need to “Americanize” the food, he said, just a need to communicate better.

ShopHouse probably could have improved its communication in at least one other way, said Sam Oches, editorial director of Food News Media, which produces QSR magazine. He said the brand didn’t do enough to promote itself as innovative and unique, which is ironic given the way Chipotle was able to establish a reputation as a trailblazer in the industry.

ShopHouse was “pretty ahead of the curve,” Oches said, adding that Asian fast-casual restaurants are now increasingly popular with millennials.

In the last five years, several have opened in Washington, including Buredo, SeoulSpice, Maki Shop and Four Sisters Grill. Had ShopHouse debuted now, or even just a few years later than it did, it would have entered a market still lacking immediate competitors but perhaps one more receptive to its food. Oches expects that 10 or 15 years from now, the top 10 quick-service brands may not look too different from today, but the rest of the list will likely include more concepts serving Asian cuisine, which are just now scaling up to compete.

ShopHouse may also have partially been a victim of Chipotle’s greater struggles. Following outbreaks of food-borne illness at its restaurants, the company has seen a sharp decline in sales. From 2015 to 2016, revenue dropped more than 13 percent, to $3.9 billion, according to the company’s most recent earnings report, released last month. The decrease in net income was staggering, from about $476 million in 2015 to around $23 million in 2016. “It’s startling how far their fall from grace has been,” Oches said of the brand he described as once being the most bankable restaurant company in America.

[A year after food safety scares, Chipotle has a new set of problems]

Jettisoning ShopHouse may be at least one way the burrito chain is attempting to trim the fat and refocus on its core business, especially considering that, at the time the company announced it was pulling back on ShopHouse, Chipotle chairman and chief executive Steve Ells said that the concept “was not able to attract sufficient customer loyalty and visit frequency to make it a viable growth strategy.”

While ShopHouse only launched a small family of locations, the expansion might have actually made success more difficult to achieve, Technomic’s Tristano said. ShopHouse may have worked best as a single location or limited regional chain, he said, especially as the fast-casual market matures, with possibly not enough customers to go around.

Instead, the brand was diluted between two coasts, with eight locations in the Washington area, five locations in California and another two around Chicago. Had it been able to establish itself as a major player with good recognition in one region, it could have performed better, Tristano said.

But the locations also speak to the demographics that prompted Wildin to pick Washington for the first ShopHouse: urban, diverse, young professionals. Limited appeal, in other words, was baked into the concept before it was barely off the ground.


10 Nuggets For $1.49? Here’s Why Fast Food Is Ridiculously Cheap Right Now

April 1, 2016

Venessa Wong
Buzzfeed News
Feb 29, 2016
http://www.buzzfeed.com/venessawong/why-fast-food-is-ridiculously-cheap-right-now#.gnYqPoN15

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The country’s largest fast food chains have been showering customers with deals after years of losing out to newer, higher-end chains. And now, in a battle for customers who remain loyal to old-school fast food, the big chains are engaged in a brutal price war.
Fast food companies have always targeted lower-income consumers. What’s different now is that these customers are expected to benefit from lower gas prices, falling unemployment, and rising minimum wages, according to research by investment bank Cowen and Company. And as low-income consumers find more money in their wallets, commodity prices are no longer shooting upward as they did in recent years.
As “forecasts for key restaurant commodities including beef, chicken, pork, dairy and wheat are in-line to below long term averages,” restaurants are particularly eager now to take advantage of the lower costs to boost traffic to stores, said Cowen’s report.
McDonald’s announced that starting Feb. 29, customers could pick two of four “iconic menu items” — a Big Mac, a 10-piece order of Chicken McNuggets, Filet-O-Fish or a Quarter Pounder with Cheese — for $5. This deal replaces the even lower-priced McPick 2 deal launched in January, in which customers could get two items — McChicken, McDouble, mozzarella sticks, or small french fries — for $2.
Meanwhile, Wendy’s has been offering a four for $4 deal. Value monger Burger King has an even cheaper five for $4 promotion, as well as an ongoing two for $5 sandwich deal, and 10 chicken nuggets for $1.49. Even Pizza Hut has a $5 “flavor menu.”
“All the major chains have jumped on the dollar pricing in an effort to maintain share against competitors,” said Darren Tristano, president at restaurant consultancy Technomic.


Panda Express Branches Into Pizza, Salads

February 16, 2016
by Leslie Patton
Bloomberg Business
February 11, 2016 — 4:00 AM CST
http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-02-11/u-s-chinese-food-king-panda-express-branches-into-pizza-salads

Grupo Gigante Buys Office Depot de Mexico for $690 MillionPanda Express, which built the largest Chinese-restaurant empire in the U.S. over the past three decades, is hedging its bet on Kung Pao chicken by buying stakes in companies that sell everything from pizza and salads to cheesecake.

Panda Restaurant Group Inc., a privately held company run by billionaires Peggy and Andrew Cherng, has started investing in small restaurant companies, recently taking stakes in Pieology Pizzeria and Just Salad. The two chains have 111 outlets combined — a fraction of the 1,757 Panda Express restaurants — which is one reason they gave the deeper-pocketed company a seat at the table.

Panda Express plans to make additional minority-stake investments in growing fast-casual and fast-food chains, according to Peggy Cherng, co-chief executive officer of the Rosemead, California-based company.

“We are able to share our experiences with a young restaurant chain, and we are able to help them grow,” she said in an interview. “Along the way, we’re also learning from them.”

Delivery Tips

From Just Salad, for instance, Panda Express picked up tips about delivering hot food swiftly to customers. The Chinese-food chain is testing the service in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas and Houston, and will soon roll it out in San Francisco and Portland, Oregon.

Panda Express may not operate on anything close to the scale of McDonald’s or KFC, but in the world of fast or casual Asian food, it rules. U.S. sales climbed 15 percent in 2014 to $2.28 billion, outpacing rivals Noodles & Co. and Pei Wei Asian Diner, according to Technomic Inc., a food-service consulting firm. Its share of the domestic fast-food market increased to about 0.9 percent in 2014 from 0.4 percent in 2005, Euromonitor data show.

The company has succeeded with its Americanized version of Chinese fare by slowly but steadily adding stores over three decades, said Darren Tristano, Technomic’s president. Panda Express made the cuisine easily available — and familiar — by starting out with quick-serve outlets in shopping mall food courts, then expanding to stand-alone restaurants.

Beyond Malls

Now it has spaces in airports and supermarkets, too. The signature dish is orange chicken, and the company boasts that it sold 67.9 million pounds of the tangy boneless bites in 2014. Other popular menu items include grilled teriyaki chicken and broccoli beef.

Andrew Cherng, Peggy’s husband, opened the first Panda Express in the Los Angeles suburb of Glendale in 1983. Andrew, who was born in China, got started in the business a decade earlier, opening a Panda Inn restaurant in nearby Pasadena with his father. Peggy, meanwhile, is a native of Burma, now known as Myanmar. The Cherngs have a net worth of at least $2 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.

It makes sense for the Cherngs to spend some of their fortune on new ventures, said Malcolm Knapp, president of consulting firm Malcolm M. Knapp Inc. and founder of the Knapp-Track restaurant index.

“This is their world,” Knapp said. “They know how to evaluate restaurant concepts.”

Uncle Tetsu

Panda has also put money into chains outside the U.S., including Japan’s Uncle Tetsu and Ippudo. Uncle Tetsu, which sells cheesecake and other sweets, has a location in Canada and will open its first U.S. unit in March, in Honolulu. The first U.S. Ippudo, a ramen-noodle shop, is opening in Berkeley, California, in June.

For Pieology, where sales tripled in 2015 to about $100 million, the deal with Panda will “continue the acceleration of growth,” said founder and CEO Carl Chang. Neither company would disclose the terms. Pieology has 84 stores, aiming to open 137 this year and as many as 120 annually for the next five.

Just Salad, with 27 restaurants, sold Panda a stake of about 33 percent for an undisclosed amount. The chain opened its first Chicago location in 2015 and will have as many as five more by year-end, said Nick Kenner, the co-founder and CEO. Sales increased more than 30 percent in 2015, and his goal is to surpass $50 million this year.

“We weren’t looking for an investor to tell us what our menu should look like; we don’t need help with that,” Kenner said. “What we needed help on was developing a national infrastructure.”

The Cherngs, whose U.S. Panda Express units are 95 percent company-owned, can teach their new partners how to expand, Knapp said.

“They have a lot of knowledge,” he said. “The benefit for them is they make money.”


The chips are down for Chipotle, but not for long

February 11, 2016

by Todd Wasserman
Campaign
http://www.campaignlive.com/article/chips-down-chipotle-not-long/1383083

In 2013, Chipotle released a haunting animated video featuring a scarecrow that observes the horrors of automated farming. Set to Fiona Apple’s rendition of “Pure Imagination,” the ad went on to win CAA Marketing a Grand Prix at Cannes the following year.

Before the Cannes judges weighed in, though, Funny or Die did with a damning parody changing the tune to “Pure Manipulation” and offering a cynical analysis of Chipotle’s marketing. “We can say what we want. In our world of pure imagination,” went the lyrics. “Just pretend we’re your friends. It’s what we want you to believe.”

Funny or Die’s blistering critique did little to hurt Chipotle’s appeal. Instead, several incidents of food-borne illnesses over the past few months have exposed the chasm between the chain’s brand promise and the realities of running a large-scale restaurant operation. It’s safe to say, at least, that Chipotle won’t be trumpeting its “food with integrity” mantra for a while or criticizing rivals for their factory farming practices.

Because of its healthy financials and sheer size — the company’s market cap is around $14 billion — few expect Chipotle to go the way of Chi-Chi’s, another Mexican chain that closed its doors in 2004 after it unknowingly perpetuated a hepatitis A outbreak that killed four people.

That prognosis for Chipotle, however, assumes that the worst of the crisis is over. Going forward, Chipotle will source more of its food from major suppliers, mooting a prime differentiator from other fast-food chains. The company is also planning to launch a new branding and PR campaign to woo back its Millennial base. Already, a burrito giveaway designed to appease customers after the chain closed its doors briefly Monday for companywide safety meeting has overshadowed concerns about food-borne illnesses, at least on social media. (Reps from Chipotle and agency GSD&M could not be reached for comment.)  Experts predict that Chipotle will likely end up in the clear.

The damage so far
Almost 500 people have gotten sick from Chipotle food since last June, 20 of whom were ill enough to be hospitalized. One such customer, Chris Collins of Portland, Ore., experienced bloody stools and excruciating pain after ingesting E. coli 026 from one of Chipotle’s chicken bowls. At one point, his doctors feared kidney failure. Though that never came to pass, Collins was still weak and “emotionally shaky” in December, according to a cover story in Bloomberg Businessweek.

Such stories have hurt Chipotle’s bottom line and brand image. In early February, the chain said sales at established restaurants fell by a third in January. That news followed a 15% drop in the fourth quarter of 2015. At this writing, the company’s stock price was down about 42% from its 52-week high.

On the brand side, Chipotle’s image has gone from positive to negative. YouGov’s BrandIndex, which surveys 5,000 consumers online every day, rates brands on a buzz score that ranges from -100 to +100, with zero being a neutral position. For most of 2015, Chipotle’s buzz score was around +10, but in January, that sunk to -29 and was at -27 at this writing.

“Chipotle has been playing catch up on this crisis from the start,” says Ted Marzilli, CEO of BrandIndex. “The brand was slow to respond to the initial incident. [It has] just not been able to get out ahead of this crisis, and fairly or unfairly, is paying the price in both public perception and decreased sales.”

The six-month rule
Despite the challenges though, few people see this as a fatal blow to the chain. In a research note to clients, Wells Fargo analyst Jeff Farmer cited previous incidents of food-borne illnesses at other national chains to demonstrate same-store sale declines can be cut in half six months after the incidents occur (assuming that there are no more incidents). Farmer added that same-store sales of such affected companies can also rise 12-15 months after the incident.

In an interview with Campaign, Darren Tristano, president of Technomic, food industry consultancy, cited the same rule. “Our research indicates that in six months, most consumers forget about these food-poisoning issues that come up,” he said.

The Blue Bell Effect
In Chipotle’s case, that’s a pretty safe bet. Jonathan Bernstein, a crisis PR expert, says that Chipotle has built up so much good will with its branding efforts that it can withstand this major PR setback. He compared Chipotle to Blue Bell, the ice cream brand that is so beloved by its fans that many were able to overlook a recent outbreak of listeria linked to the brand.

“Customers’ loyalty to a brand can make a huge difference in overcoming even food illness-related crises and people really stuck with Blue Bell a long time after many would have done the same — given a choice of other ice creams,” he said. “With Chipotle, they created such good will before these problems that although that’s been eroded, it’s not terminal at this point.”

Rebeca Arbona, executive director at Interbrand, unconsciously echoing Funny or Die’s critique, noted that brand loyalty is based on a relationship that mimics real friendship. “You have many impressions and interactions,” she said. “That works in your brain like knowing a person. If you know a person really well and you like them, you’re going to forgive them a lot.” Arbona said that she was surprised, for instance, that Toyota not only weathered its 2009-2010 slew of recalls — issues that were linked to the deaths of some consumers — but has nearly doubled its brand value since then.

That said, Tristano said that it’s likely that some customers will never return to Chipotle. Most will though. “Younger customers will return,” he said. “They tend to be more trusting and more brand loyal. If we look at this, it is clearly a setback for a brand that has had nothing but success in the industry.” The fact that this happened to a brand whose credo is “food with integrity” is ironic, Tristano said, but won’t prompt the masses to label it hypocritical.

Fixing the brand
As Marzilli noted, Chipotle didn’t deal with the crisis effectively at first. Though the company closed 43 restaurants in the Northwest after the E. coli outbreak that affected Chris Collins became public, some 234 customers and employees contracted norovirus at a Simi Valley, Calif., location in August. That same month, some 64 people in Minnesota fell ill from salmonella-tainted tomatoes.

It wasn’t until Dec. 10 that Chipotle CEO and founder Steve Ells appeared on the “Today” show to apologize to customers who had gotten sick from eating at the chain. On the operations side, Chipotle hiredMansour Samadpour, head of IEH Laboratories & Consulting Group in Seattle, to overhaul the company’s food safety efforts. Among the changes: More food will be prepared at commissaries, rather than on site, undercutting Chipotle’s “food with integrity” mantra since often the food won’t be local and fresh. Food will also be given high-resolution DNA-based tests, a measure that will weed out smaller suppliers who can’t afford that expense. On the PR side, Arbona said closing all the stores for a few hours was a good move. “It was a symbolic act,” she said. “They were hitting reset.”

Allen Adamson, a branding consultant, said that Chipotle will have to ditch its previous brand communication, which struck a lighthearted tone and presented a somewhat holier-than-thou image related to food quality. “You want to see the CEO on screen talking about what they’re doing, not an actor saying ‘Trust us,’ ” Adamson said.

Bernstein said Chipotle should focus on transparency, training its personnel in the new food safety protocol and setting realistic expectations “that they’ll do their best to prevent illness, but particularly with norovirus, it’s not always possible.”

What might be fatal, aside from more outbreaks, is any communication that smacks of arrogance. As we’ve seen in recent years, consumers will overlook safety issues, even ones that result in deaths, as long as the company doesn’t talk down to them. As a counter example, Arthur Andersen, the financial consultant, was drummed out of existence after it got caught up in the Enron scandal in 2002. While that was a huge blow, execs at the company exacerbated the damage by behaving arrogantly during a Justice Department grilling. “They got tried in the court of public opinion,” Bernstein said.

Chipotle is unlikely to make the same mistake. “Ultimately it comes down to humility,” Bernstein said. “If they can express sufficient humility, people will forgive them.”

Read more at http://www.campaignlive.com/article/chips-down-chipotle-not-long/1383083#AVGB4yq6reisiIhh.99


Go Greek

February 10, 2016

Restaurant executive Nick Vojnovic joined Tampa-based Little Greek Fresh Grill in 2011. Photo by Mark Wemple

Restaurant executive Nick Vojnovic found a novel way to beat back a mid-life crisis after he moved on from a decade-long gig running sports pub chain Beef ‘O’ Brady’s.

Forget the convertible or the Harley. Vojnovic went back to school. He enrolled at University of South Florida, where he earned an M.B.A. in about 18 months, mostly in weekend classes. At 51, and already with a degree from Cornell University’s famed hospitality school, Vojnovic says he learned a lot from the experience — both in life and academically. “It was humbling,” says Vojnovic. “My 13-year-old daughter had to show me how to make up a power point presentation.”

Five years later, Vojnovic, 56, is back in his comfort zone, helping upstart restaurant franchise operators go from the toddler stage to something more mature. Vojnovic is doing that with Tampa-based Little Greek Fresh Grill. The concept, founded by entrepreneur Sigrid Bratic in 2005, is authentic Greek food in a fast-casual setting.

Little Greek is on a big run under Vojnovic. It has gone from four locations in 2011, when Vojnovic partnered with Bratic, to 25 by the end of last year. And system-wide sales have nearly doubled since 2013, from $7.4 million to $14 million in 2015.

The chain also recently picked up some national industry notoriety. Restaurant News named it a breakout brand, and more recently, national foodservice research firm Technomic named Little Greek one of its six franchises to watch in 2016. “Little Greek Fresh Grill is a fast-growing concept in an under penetrated fast-casual Mediterranean growth segment,” Technomic President Darren Tristano says in a statement. “The experience and knowledge of its leadership team, speed to market and accelerated success put Little Greek in a strong position to be a category leader.”

Vojnovic, with his M.B.A. and his on-the-job leadership experience at Beef’s and Famous Dave’s barbecue chain, is more cautious than the complements. That’s because growing too fast is one of his biggest takeaway lessons from Beef’s. The chain grew from 30 locations and $16 million in annual sales to 270 chains doing $250 million a year in sales during his 12 years at the helm, from 1998-2010. The downside to that fast growth is it led to a litany of issues, from poor store openings to underprepared staff to back-office slowdowns.

The goal is to open up to seven Little Greek stores in 2016. Locations include Lakewood Ranch in east Manatee County, Riverview in Hillsborough County and Kennesaw, Ga. Vojnovic says he intends to make sure every location focuses on all of the company’s five core values, which include passion, integrity and constant improvement.

On continuous improvement, Vojnovic has many items on his to-do list. It includes better training systems so employees can be more efficient; streamlining food purchasing and other costs to lower expenses; and instituting a process of audit and store visits to bring uniformed quality control to the chain.

Vojnovic also addressed an external challenge: Greek food has a certain turn-off level to people who don’t know the culture and flavors. One step there was to put the American version of the food first on the menu followed by the Greek words, such as spinach pie (spanakopita.) “People can be intimidated by gyros and souvlaki,” says Vojnovic. “We Americanized the menu.”

Going back to his Beef’s lessons, Vojnovic does more to share financial metrics with franchisees and managers. For example, each franchisee has access to daily sales data so he can spot trends quickly. And all franchisees share profit and loss figures on a regular basis, to come up with ideas and get in front of problems.

“I’m a big believer in constantly trying to improve yourself,” says Vojnovic. “(But) I’m working harder at this than I thought I would. We still have a long way to go.”

By the numbers
Little Greek Fresh Grill
Year Revenues Percent Growth
2013 $7.47 million
2014 $10.47 million 40%
2015 $14 million 33.7%


Consumers pick top restaurant chains

January 28, 2016
635886546846667948-papam.jpg6 a.m. CST January 19, 2016
http://www.argusleader.com/story/news/business-journal/2016/01/19/consumers-pick-top-restaurant-chains/78945800/

Some restaurants with a presence in Sioux Falls were among the winners of the Consumers’ Choice Awards from industry research firm Technomic.

It surveyed consumers about 138 restaurant chains and 60 attributes.

“It’s important to point out that it’s the consumers who rated the chains and selected the winners,” said Darren Tristano, president of Technomic. “In essence, the award is from the customers themselves.”

The winners are:

• Food quality, quick-service category: Papa Murphy’s Take ‘N’ Bake Pizza

• Food quality, fast-casual category: Firehouse Subs

• Food quality, full-service restaurants: Bonefish Grill

• Intent to return, quick-service: In-N-Out Burger

• Intent to return, fast-casual: Rubio’s

• Intent to return, full-service: Cheddar’s Scratch Kitchen

• Provides value through service, quick-service: Chick-fil-A

• Provides value through service, fast-casual: Jimmy John’s Gourmet Sandwiches

• Provides value through service, full-service: Cracker Barrel Old Country Store

• Socially responsible, quick-service: Ben & Jerry’s

• Socially responsible, fast-casual, Chipotle Mexican Grill

• Socially responsible, full-service: Seasons 52


Long John Silver’s plans reboot just in time for Lenten fish fries

January 26, 2016

Christmas comes in February for seafood restaurant chain Long John Silver’s, which is launching a reboot of the iconic brand in 2016.

Pittsburgh is front and center for the new Long John Silver’s because of the region’s large Catholic population, the third largest nationwide, according to CEO James O’Reilly. Lent, the 40-day season of penance and avoiding meat at meals, starts Feb. 10, bringing with it boom sales for the privately held, Louisville, Ky.-based company.

“There will always be ups and downs in the restaurant industry, but it’s all about delivering consistency to customers,” the 49-year-old Mr. O’Reilly said. “The time of Lent for us is what Christmas is to retailers.”

Pittsburgh and the surrounding five counties have between 500,000 and 600,000 Catholics, according to Pittsburgh Catholic editor William Cone. The newspaper is preparing to publish its annual list of parish fish fries Jan. 29 in preparation for the start of Lent.

“It’s probably one of our most popular issues,” Mr. Cone said. “People wait for it all year.”

Mr. O’Reilly was in Monroeville Thursday for a daylong meeting with about 50 operators of its 17 corporately owned stores in the Pittsburgh area and some franchisees from outside the region. He planned to discuss the staffing increases at the restaurants — 300 new jobs are planned — and improvements to stores and parking lots.

One thing that won’t change much is Long John Silver’s menu, which has been criticized in recent years as unhealthy for its fat and sodium content. National Public Radio once called Long John Silver’s food a “heart attack on a hook,” but some meals have since been discontinued, as was the use of trans fats.

Baked fish options have always been available from the chain and one dinner has just 600 calories, Mr. O’Reilly said. What’s more, consumers can build meals with even lower calorie counts.

Having healthier options is key, said Darren Tristano, president of Chicago-based marketing research outfit Technomic Inc. But consumers aren’t thinking of healthy eating when eating out.

“Quite frankly, consumers are looking for fried food,” he said. “Indulgence away from home is what they’re looking for and it’s also often very affordable.”

Mr. O’Reilly, who came to Long John Silver’s in March 2015 from hamburger chain Sonic Corp., takes over the reins at a difficult time as consumers have been shunning traditional fast food in favor of restaurants selling healthier fare. Long John Silver’s, which has about 1,300 stores nationwide, also has had changes in leadership.

Mr. O’Reilly replaced Mike Kern, who served as CEO for three years. Mr. Kern was part of investor group LJS Partners LLC that bought the restaurant chain from Yum! Brands Inc. in 2011. The company was founded in 1969 and did not disclose sales figures or the cost of the store upgrades, which are being carried out nationally as well.

Consumers will continue to seek out Long John Silver’s food, partly because there are few other places that focus on fried fish, said Warren Solochek, president of the food service practice at Port Washington, N.Y.-based NPD Group Inc. New paint, lighting and other planned store improvements aside, the challenge for Mr. O’Reilly will be to keep the restaurant name in the consumer’s mind.

“What are they going to do to be top of mind?” Mr. Solochek said. “And he may have a plan to do that.”