NASHVILLE, Tenn. — On the back of Shoney's executive business cards is the mantra of new management: restoring the Southern buffet and restaurant chain to its "glory days."
It is the latest attempt to revive the once-dominant comfort food chain, long known for its inexpensive buffets. Shoney's once claimed 1,200 restaurants nationwide. But it has shrunk to 272, including three in the Charleston region, in recent years amid customer complaints of worn-out decor, poorly cooked food and uneven quality.
The Nashville-based restaurant chain's new owner, CEO and Chairman David Davoudpour, said he is determined to bring the brand back.
Since he acquired the company in January, Davoudpour has taken over several underperforming franchise locations and turned them into company-owned restaurants. He has vowed to use fresh, not frozen, meat and fruit products and try to improve service through spot checks of stores and better employee training.
"We want every restaurant to shine," Davoudpour said. "Basically, I want to be the model of excellence."
In the past, some franchisees said they broke the corporate norm to make their restaurants profitable. Part of the problem was inconsistent service and spotty food quality, said Davoudpour, who is also the head of Atlanta-based Royal Capital Corp., the largest franchisee of Church's Chicken stores.
Davoudpour said he wants to set an example for the chain's remaining four-dozen franchisees by running his 61 corporate-owned stores exceedingly well. Davoudpour recently purchased nine underperforming restaurants in Tennessee and Louisiana from three franchisees.
He said he has spent millions of dollars for basic repairs in many of the company-owned restaurants, fixing leaky roofs, upgrading smelly bathrooms and patching holes in walls.
Some franchisees and customers say Davoudpour has his work cut out for him. A sluggish U.S. economy, high gas prices and other factors have created a rough
patch, pushing consumers to slow their spending and dine out less.
"Right now, it's going to be a longer-than-planned journey to get back," said franchisee Bill Emendorfer, who runs two restaurants in Tennessee and Kentucky. "I don't think the new management has had time to implement things that has resurrected the brand yet."
Davoudpour said Shoney's is rolling out new menu items, including mahi-mahi, and revamping old standbys such as the Shoney's ham and Swiss sandwich, the "Slim Jim," by using higher quality bread.
"People have to give us a chance," Davoudpour said. "All I'm asking for is one more chance."
Is it enough?
Frequent customer Daniel Corban, 25, said he's reluctant to order the $7.79 grilled mahi-mahi from the menu partly because of his experience eating what he described as bland grilled fish at a Shoney's buffet in Nashville.
"It was terrible, terrible," Corban said.
He said he "never really opens the menu" because he prefers the convenience of the lunch buffet.
Restaurant analyst Amy Greene of Nashville-based Avondale Partners LLC said it could be a couple of years before Shoney's can have more consistency in its food execution.
"It's very difficult to turn that big — and that old — of a ship around quickly," Greene said.
Davoudpour agrees it will take time for Shoney's to regain its reputation and for franchisees to unite as a team.
"It's a cultural change," he said.
The company has weathered a lot of corporate change this decade. For five years, Texas-based Lone Star Funds owned it. Brentwood-based Centrum Equities, an affiliate of Chicago real estate developer Centrum Properties, planned to buy the chain in 2006 but backed out because it alleged that Shoney's had corporate problems. Centrum sued Shoney's to get back $1.5 million in earnest money, and the case was settled this summer.
Davoudpour's predecessors declined to comment for this article, although many had tried similar strategies to improve the brand with new menu items and better motivation of franchisees. But Davoudpour, who bought Shoney's for an undisclosed price, said he would succeed because: "I don't work for anyone."
Some of Davoudpour's corporate tweaks are winning praise from longtime customers. John Hailey, 28, thanked Davoudpour for what he said was tastier fried chicken on the lunch buffet at one area Shoney's last week. In return, Davoudpour paid for Hailey's lunch.
"It's always good, but it tastes better," Hailey said.
Franchisee Glenn Woodrum, who owns 21 Shoney's in South Carolina, Georgia and Florida, said he sometimes disregarded corporate norms in the past in an attempt to boost his own profits, but now he's looking forward to more continuity from headquarters.
"Any change in the right direction is what we want," he said.