David Davoudpour is a man on a mission.
A longtime Atlanta restaurateur, with Lone Star Steakhouse, Church's fried chicken restaurants and others to his credit, Davoudpour is now chairman and CEO of Shoney's, the Nashville-based restaurant chain he bought in late 2006.
Since then, Davoudpour has worked relentlessly to re-establish the concept that Alex Schoenbaum founded in 1947 on the parking lot at his father's bowling alley in Charleston, W.Va.
His quest is indicated in white script on a solid-red background on the flip side of his business card, which reads, simply, "glory days."
"My goal is to return Shoney's to its glory days, when it was the nation's top family dining chain, with more than 1,200 locations," says Davoudpour, who generally shuns publicity, instead preferring the spotlight to be on his company. For instance, he's turned down multiple requests to be featured on the CBS reality TV series "Undercover Boss."
His focus is on reviving Shoney's, which filed for bankruptcy in 2000 and was taken over by a private equity fund before it was eventually sold to Davoudpour's Atlanta-based Royal Hospitality Corp. The new entity is called Shoney's North America Corp.
Shoney's is now down to 170 stores, "but growing again," Davoudpour says — and with some new twists, including the first Shoney's inside a mall, and the new, smaller Shoney's-On-the-Go concept.
"That one will offer everything completely fresh, all within 90 seconds," he said.
Those on-the-go restaurants will be in malls and airports — anyplace where people are in a hurry but still want good food, he said. Of course, Davoudpour is revitalizing and expanding the full-size restaurants as well.
Among the stores that already are in place, renovations and a complete revamping of the menu are underway throughout the chain. Davoudpour is doing it as quickly as he can, but such things take time, he said, especially to get it right. And that's hard for him.
"I'm in a hurry," Davoudpour said during a recent interview at his Nashville headquarters on Elm Hill Pike. "I've got to get the brand going, and I want to take it back up to 1,200 restaurants as fast as I can."
It's a big task, he concedes, but one that he believes is doable. And he said he's committed to it, no matter what it takes — or how much it costs.
"We have the resources we need, and we're completely innovating the brand, based on the original principles that Shoney's stood for: quality, value and simplicity," he said. "We're emphasizing the quality of the food. And one thing we're not getting away from is value. More than 90 percent of the items on the menu are under $10."
The numerous menu changes are more than just new items, such as wild-caught Pacific salmon, high-quality steaks and homespun entrees, such as chicken pot pie. Many longtime favorites, such as the breakfast and lunch/dinner buffets, remain. But the emphasis now is on fresh food — nothing comes in frozen or prepackaged, as it does with many of the other casual-dining restaurant chains, Davoudpour said.
"What you're going to see when you come to Shoney's are great fresh steaks, real black angus beef," he said. "Fresh ground beef, fresh chicken, fresh salads, fresh vegetables. The old favorites are still here, the Slim Jim sandwich, the double-deck hamburger, the turkey club, the fresh strawberry pie, the hot fudge cake.
"But we're getting innovative, too. We have spinach and artichoke dip. Our onion rings are still the same, still hand-breaded, and I challenge anyone to try them, and if you don't like them, I'll pay for them."
Other items include Southern-style vegetables — such as tomatoes and okra, butter beans and sweet corn, Davoudpour said.
"That's as Southern as you can get, and none of it is out of a can," he said. "Our ears are always open to our consumer base to hear what they like to eat."
History of quality
Why take on Shoney's now?
"Just like a lot of people, I grew up eating at Shoney's," said Davoudpour, who spent his childhood in Atlanta. "This brand used to be so good, and it was so popular in the 1950s and '60s, but it's not today. The opportunity came for me to get involved, and I was immediately interested."
Since taking over, Davoudpour has spent countless hours studying the brand and visiting the restaurants, trying to find out what it was that made Shoney's great and discovering where it went wrong.
"This is not a springboard to get another job; this is all I want to do," he said. "I want to restore the core principles and values that Alex envisioned. Unfortunately, he's not around for me to ask questions." (Schoenbaum died in 1996, 25 years after he sold his company to Nashville businessman Ray Danner, also now deceased.)
"I know how much Alex Schoenbaum wanted this to be a success story, not something that would close a few years after he's gone," Davoudpour said.
"But as I study the brand, I continually ask myself, 'What would Alex do?' We're staying true to the basics, but we have created a different look, and we're going full force ahead with that. People familiar with the old Shoney's, I think, are going to say, 'Wow, this is a great look.' But the key is that we believe in what we're trying to accomplish."
A lot of his motivation is from nostalgia, he acknowledges.
"Shoney's is an American icon, and I'm sick and tired of seeing great American icons, one after another, going out of business," he said. "I'm not lying down until this is all done the right way.
"Some things are nonnegotiable: the quality of the food, the value, the friendly service. No gimmicks are acceptable at Shoney's under my watch. And that's not much to ask for my team to perform. If they can do that, I say, you can stay with me. If they can't, I say, respectfully, 'Go somewhere else.' "
Davoudpour also is intent on creating unique restaurants in each community.
"I do not wish Shoney's to be a chain restaurant," he said. "I want each one to be individual. We're not about being cookie-cutters."
He has connected with giant mall operator Simon Properties for the first Shoney's inside a mall, and he's intent on weeding out anyone — including franchisees — who doesn't want to help bring Shoney's back to the top.
"I have to bring in enough able people to help me build it," Davoudpour said. "Without people, I can't do it. I'll show them all the leadership they need, but at the end of the day, they have to perform. They have to make sure the quality, the value, the cleanliness of the restaurant is intact. I will be responsible to my entire team, but I demand responsibility back. The system will weed out not-so-friendly teammates."
Management by consent
He's not a dictator, though, he said.
"In this new environment, I only manage by consent," he said. "I do not wish to manage by force. We are open from 6 in the morning to 11 at night, so I must be able to rely on my people. I show up at 6 a.m. at some of my restaurants, and I eat our breakfast to check for quality. But I can't be there all the time."
Davoudpour also believes fervently in giving back to the community, wherever Shoney's operates. "It's the right thing to do," he said.
Among the believers he's recruited in his quest is Mark Thomas, who bought the Shoney's franchise in Smyrna two years ago.
"He is just a great leader," Thomas said of Davoudpour. "We're glad to have him leading the company. He said he's going to make sure this brand is here to stay, and with him, it's more than just the restaurants; it's also his commitment to the community."
Thomas said that he and other franchisees are pleased with what they've seen so far from Davoudpour.
"I think the marketing is great," he said. "I'm a new kid on the block — I've only been there two years. But in that time, the improvements have been great. In Smyrna, we have remodeled the inside, brought in the new menu and improved the customer service."
As for bringing back the glory days, Davoudpour is relying on lots of help from people who he hopes will be as dedicated to the brand as he is, he said.
"None of this is about me; it's about Shoney's," he said. "I love the Shoney's brand, from my childhood, from my college days. When I started my first restaurant I used to go to Shoney's to get ideas.
"But at the end, we have to realize that we are not in the restaurant business; we're in the people business, and we happen to sell food. It's as simple as that."