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Bob Evans Competes with Retail
Proving that extending menu items into retail doesn’t have to involve a grocery or convenience store, Bob Evans is taking the concept of retail into its own stores.
Bob Evans exeriments with a retail concept called Taste of the Farm.

Bob Evans restaurants, known for their farm-style menu and aesthetic, are trying out a grab-and-go concept called Taste of the Farm in an effort to update the company’s image.

So far, the new concept has been implemented in just one of the chain’s 713 restaurants, near its Columbus, Ohio, headquarters in the suburb of Westerville. Bob Evans representatives say it will likely announce a broader roll out in mid June, after the release of its annual financials.

“We’re evaluating the results and the relevance and we’re going to be deciding in what kind of locations Taste of the Farm would best work,” says Mary Cusick, senior vice president of marketing.

Taste of the Farm, which opened in December, covers 380 square feet of a 5,200-square-foot full-service restaurant, and offers jellies, jams, syrups, cake mixes, and fresh bakery items. It also features an open refrigerated case with a Farm Favorites section of entrées and side dishes along with a Good to Go section stocked with salads, wraps, and desserts.

The idea behind Taste of the Farm is to give Bob Evans customers more reasons to visit its locations, says director of communications Margaret Standing.

“We realize that the way people eat these days is not just by going to sit down in your restaurant,” Standing says. “They want your brand to be reaching out and touching them in different ways.”

Standing and Cusick both say the retail concept is a hit with Bob Evans customers, but declined to release hard numbers ahead of the company’s June financial disclosure.

Elle Chute, whose firm Chute Gerdeman Retail designed and built the Taste of the Farm space, says it has given the location a shot in the arm.

“Evidently it has improved the sales for the whole restaurant,” says Chute, who says a Bob Evans executive shared consumer research with her. “Even the dine-in customers are coming to the store more often per week.”

Chute attributes the uptick to the revamped retail area, which customers must pass though on their way in and out of the restaurant.

“It’s a much more dramatic and welcoming space,” she says.

Whether Taste of the Farm can give a boost to Bob Evans restaurants in the 18 states where the company operates remains to be seen. With sales declines in four consecutive quarters, it is no doubt looking to reverse the trend.

The company, however, says the retail initiative has less to do with economic concerns and more to do with staying abreast of a fast-changing restaurant industry.

We’re looking at this as a growth vehicle, not necessarily driving the needle toward more carryout.”

“It’s really a more contemporary presentation of our brand,” Cusick says. “It’s really important that our brand continues to evolve and contemporize so that’s its relevant to guests today.”

With Steak n Shake and Jamba Juice both having announced new lines of licensed retail products in recent months—easy-to-make meals and make-at-home smoothies, respectively—it seems the restaurant industry has caught the retail bug. While many restaurants have long offered take-away items, Dennis Lombardi, executive vice president of WD Partners, says they have now begun “looking over the fence at grocery and convenience stores.”

“They’re saying, ‘Since they’re encroaching on our turf with ready-to-eat meals, maybe there is a way for us to build our sales by offering convenient-meal solutions,” Lombardi says.

But restaurants considering adding retail concepts to their brands should weigh the benefits “against the energy it takes, the effort it takes, and how it impacts the financials,” Lombardi says. “All that has to be figured out and I think as an industry we’re still experimenting with it.”

Standing says Bob Evans is treating its Westerville location as a “lab” and not exactly betting the farm on its new retail concept.

“We’re looking at this as a growth vehicle, not necessarily driving the needle toward more carryout,” Standing says. “It gets more people into the restaurant.”

Jordan Melnick is QSR's online exclusives reporter.