Soon after I arrived in Charleston, I fielded a call from an aggrieved reader, who wished to know why I never wrote about her favorite restaurant, Fatz Café. I explained that I focus primarily on locally owned, independent restaurants, which only upset her further. She’d always thought the Fatz in North Charleston was the sole Fatz Menu in the world.
Lately, though, fewer customers are making that mistake about some of the 45 restaurants within the Greenville-based chain. “Fatz got off track a little bit,” admits marketing vice president Zac Painter. In accordance with Painter, Fatz responded for the recession and ensuing drop-off in casual dining traffic by diluting its homegrown Southern character.
“We became everything to everyone, because everybody was fighting over every share of stomach there was,” Painter says.
Now Fatz is attempting to reverse that trend with a new menu featuring freshly made buttermilk biscuits, pimento cheese-and-bacon jam dip plated in a skillet and Mason jar cocktails. The restaurant’s also done away with something that didn’t pass its “is it Southern?” test, including much of the pop music on its playlist.
“We used to have an Asian chicken salad,” Painter says. “It was a great salad, but it’s not what a Southern kitchen would serve, so that we took it away the menu.”
Painter said customers have mostly responded positively towards the changes, there is however a business process in place for dealing with guests who want their Mediterranean fish or pasta back.
“Someone from the support center or regional manager personally contact(s) these to say, ‘We promise you’re planning to love what we’re doing,’” he says, emphasizing quality upgrades such as a change to Carolina shrimp and homemade peach preserves; the condiment is supposed to reference the converted peach shed which 29 in the past housed the very first Fatz.
“From a kitchen perspective, we’re doing a lot more things in-house, therefore we needed to streamline the menu therefore we may be really finest in class at what we do,” Painter continues. “We needed to get back from what Fatz Hours Today was about.”
Fatz isn’t alone in seeking to nurse a casual dining brand back to health. An oversaturated marketplace, interest in local food and also the rise in popularity of fast casual restaurants, like Chipotle, have devastated the casual dining sector. In 2016, Logan’s Roadhouse declared bankruptcy, while Ruby Tuesday and Bob Evans each closed a large number of locations. Earlier this coming year, the parent company of Carrabba’s and Bonefish Grill announced it had been shuttering 43 outlets.
“It’s been rough,” Painter says. Other chains are experimenting with rebranding in hopes of turning customer demographics within their favor. A 2014 Morgan Stanley study showed that casual dining’s “core customers” are eaters between the ages of 50 and 68, which may explain why Cracker Barrel recently rolled out Holler & Dash, an exposed brick-and-cold brew cplgty kind of concept. “We developed Holler & Dash to leverage our brand strengths, more particularly our Southern roots,” a spokeswoman told AdWeek.
Still, aging restaurant chains must also address problems that Mason jars and iron skillets can’t fix. On the recent holiday to the Fatz in North Charleston, only two of the tables within the section where I was seated were occupied. Within minutes of my arrival, one of the parties received its entrees, including an apparently undercooked steak.