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When CEO David McDougall asked his store managers what one thing could be done immediately to help turn around the struggling Back Yard Burgers restaurant chain, one came back with a quick: "Just bring back the seasoned fries."

The previous management had done away with the popular item, and it was such an egregious error that many regular customers stopped coming in, said McDougall, who took the helm in early 2013 as the Nashville-based company was emerging from bankruptcy reorganization.

McDougall knew it would take more than reintroducing one menu item to get the burger chain back on track, but it was a place to start.

But bringing back the seasoned fries plus other initiatives he and his team have undertaken in the past year and a half have led to 15 straight months of same-store sales gains for the 68-store chain.

"We focused on food quality, customer service and restaurant appearance to get us going again," said McDougall, a longtime food-industry executive who's been involved with companies ranging from the full-service restaurant chain Denny's to snack-food operators such as Cinnabon.

"No question, this is a very competitive business," he said of the hamburger segment, which accounts for one-third — about $75 billion — of the nation's total annual restaurant tab. "We're making headway, but in this environment, it's tough."

A cut above

Back Yard Burgers, founded in a country store in rural Mississippi in 1987, has made its mark by offering Black Angus burgers that are a cut above the quality of typical fast-food operators such as McDonald's and Burger King, McDougall said.

"We distinguish our product by cooking on an open-flame grill, and everything is fresh, not made elsewhere and brought in," he said. "Even with the challenge of today's higher beef prices, we don't compromise on quality, and we use no fillers."

The burgers come in a variety of styles, with special offerings appearing on the menu periodically, such as the Prime Rib Burger — with a half-pound of meat — that was a popular item this past spring. Somewhat less successful is this month's Pastrami Burger, but the chain will be trying new ideas to keep customers engaged, McDougall said.

Back Yard's burgers are supplemented by such items as the popular Blackened Chicken sandwich — also fire grilled — along with hand-dipped milkshakes (a popular flavor is peanut butter), the seasoned fries, varieties of waffle fries, fried pickles, fresh fruit cobblers, and a new item, onion rings.

Customers appreciate McDougall's turnaround efforts, but they're especially keen on the return of their favorite fries.

"I come here several times a month," said Jacob Andrews, 26, of Franklin, who was eating lunch Tuesday at the Back Yard location in Franklin's Center Point Place. "What I like most about it is the seasoned fries. They took them away for a while, and I stopped coming here."

His favorite sandwich, for now, is the Blackjack Burger, with Creole mayonnaise and pepper jack cheese.

Jessica Mumma, 29, of Nashville drags a bunch of her co-workers along when she goes to the Franklin location for lunch "at least once a week," taking advantage of a two-for-one meal coupon she gets in the mail, she said.

"Today, I got the Chipotle Burger, which is now my new favorite," she said during her Tuesday lunch visit. "But the seasoned fries are my other favorite. I actually stopped eating here when they took them out."

McDougall sees Back Yard fitting into the burger landscape as sort of a McDonald's-meets-Five Guys place, with quick-serve, not fast food. The stores have a big drive-through business, along with a robust dining room crowd.

"Our customers are very savvy these days," he said. "Today, it seems that everybody is a foodie. So we have to make sure the quality is consistent."

He's always on the lookout for little touches that can make a subtle impact on customers and help drive more business — such as the larger straws Back Yard has introduced in the Nashville restaurants to go with its milkshakes. They're about a third of an inch wide, and can easily handle the cookie chunks in the Oreo shakes.

Rethinking growth

The chain, now owned by Nashville-based Pharos Capital Group, had 180 stores at its peak. Of the 68 still open, 22 are company-owned, and the rest are franchisees. They're in 14 states, but concentrated in Tennessee, Mississippi, Missouri and Kentucky.

Its headquarters was in Memphis until 2008, so there are 15 stores there, and five in the Nashville area, all company-owned.

Now that sales are climbing again at a rate of about 9 percent a month for company stores and 4 percent for franchisees, Back Yard is looking to resume expansion.

This time, though, the chain will be more careful about where it puts its new stores, and most of the growth will be through franchises, said Steven Beagelman, CEO ofSMB Franchise Advisors, which is coordinating the effort.

"I knew the brand from the Midwest, and I have been impressed with its turnaround," he said. "We're helping to relaunch the franchise side of the business, in select markets. Given the chain's past rocky relationships with some of the franchisees, it's not an easy task."

"But franchisees today seem to be a lot happier than they were three or five years ago," Beagelman said. "And the burger business is still very hot. Five Guys has grown to over 2,000 locations in a very short time. We have realistic expectations, though. Let's get a few new franchisees, and make sure they make money. The last thing we want to do is put stores out there that aren't successful."

Depending on the location, a Back Yard franchise store can run from $600,000-$1 million, he said.

"It's not easy to reinvigorate a brand," Beagelman said. "But Dave (McDougall) has done a lot to get the company going in the right direction. Franchisees are optimistic about the future now."

Back Yard Burgers

Founded: 1987

Locations: 68, including 22 company owned

Sales growth: 9 percent a month for company-owned stores; 4 percent at franchises

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