Soon 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 which i focus primarily on locally owned, independent restaurants, which only upset her further. She’d always thought the Fatz in North Charleston was the only real Fatz Restaurant in the world.
Lately, though, fewer customers make that mistake about any of the 45 restaurants in the Greenville-based chain. “Fatz got off track a little bit,” admits marketing v . p . Zac Painter. Based on Painter, Fatz responded to 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 is,” Painter says.
Now Fatz is attempting 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 a lot 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 just what a Southern kitchen would serve, so that we took them back the menu.”
Painter said customers have mostly responded positively for the changes, however, there is a corporate process in position for dealing with guests who want their Mediterranean fish or pasta back.
“Someone from our support center or regional manager personally contact(s) those to say, ‘We promise you’re going to love what we’re doing,’” he says, emphasizing quality upgrades such as a switch to Carolina shrimp and homemade peach preserves; the condiment is supposed to reference the converted peach shed which 29 years back housed the 1st Fatz.
“From a kitchen perspective, we’re doing far more things in-house, so that we had to streamline the menu so that we might be really finest in class at what we do,” Painter continues. “We needed to get back to what Fatz Hours was approximately.”
Fatz isn’t alone in seeking to nurse an informal 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 lots of locations. Earlier this 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 testing rebranding hoping turning customer demographics within their favor. A 2014 Morgan Stanley study indicated that casual dining’s “core customers” are eaters between 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 also have to address problems that Mason jars and iron skillets can’t fix. On the recent visit to the Fatz in North Charleston, only 2 of the tables in the section where I used to be seated were occupied. Within minutes of my arrival, among the parties received its entrees, including an apparently undercooked steak.