Right after I arrived in Charleston, I fielded a call from an aggrieved reader, who wanted 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 Restaurant in the world.
Lately, though, fewer customers have made that mistake about any of the 45 restaurants inside the Greenville-based chain. “Fatz got off track just a little bit,” admits marketing vice president Zac Painter. According to 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 trying to reverse that trend with a brand 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 whatever didn’t pass its “is it Southern?” test, including much of the pop music on its playlist.
“We once had an Asian chicken salad,” Painter says. “It was actually a great salad, but it’s not exactly what a Southern kitchen would serve, therefore we took it off the menu.”
Painter said customers have mostly responded positively for the changes, however, there is a corporate process set up for coping with guests who want their Mediterranean fish or pasta back.
“Someone from our support center or regional manager personally contact(s) them to say, ‘We promise you’re planning to love what we’re doing,’” he says, emphasizing quality upgrades for instance a change to Carolina shrimp and homemade peach preserves; the condiment is meant to reference the converted peach shed which 29 in the past housed the first Fatz.
“From a kitchen perspective, we’re doing much more things in-house, so we needed to streamline the menu so we could be really finest in class at whatever we do,” Painter continues. “We required to get back from what Fatz Holiday Hours was about.”
Fatz isn’t alone in trying to nurse a friendly dining brand back to health. An oversaturated marketplace, interest in local food and the 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 dozens of locations. Earlier this year, the parent company of Carrabba’s and Bonefish Grill announced it absolutely was 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 presented 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 also have to address problems that Mason jars and iron skillets can’t fix. On a recent trip to the Fatz in North Charleston, only 2 of the tables inside the section where I used to be seated were occupied. Within minutes of my arrival, one of the parties received its entrees, including an apparently undercooked steak.