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Business Observer Friday, Aug. 6, 2010 12 years ago

Home Cookin'

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A national restaurant chain has found some good eats on the Gulf Coast. Turns out those customer service platitudes have real value.
by: Mark Gordon Managing Editor

The Gulf Coast has been good to Bob Evans — in spite of the recession.


In fact, three of the home-style restaurant chain's top performing stores are in Sun City, Bradenton and south Fort Myers. Those stores each won the chain's coveted Restaurant of the Year award last month, recognition given to only six of the chain's 569 stores.


Plus, the Sarasota Bob Evans, just off of Fruitville Road, won the award last year.


The award is based on a combination of factors, including revenues, profits, customer satisfaction and employee retention. The publicly traded firm doesn't break out individual store sales, but Securities and Exchange Commission filings state that the average annual sales per restaurant was $1.8 million in 2009.


Tom Radakovitz, general manager of the Bradenton store on State Road 70, says his store has increased sales each of the last three years. While Radakovitz cites his staff's teamwork and all-out customer service approach as key factors in the award, he also recognizes another edge: Sheer competition.


“When the Fruitville store won, that really motivated our team,” says Radakovitz. “We said we could take it from them — and we did.”


Still, why do three-egg omelets and chicken-fried steak platters seem to sell better on the Gulf Coast than just about anywhere else the $1.75 billion company has a restaurant?


Even the company's head spokeswoman is somewhat perplexed to explain why some of the chain's Gulf Coast stores outperform almost all the other restaurants, including the 49 in Florida. The three other stores that won the 2010 award are in Illinois, Indiana and Ohio, areas where Bob Evans has a heavy branding and marketing presence. The company is based in Columbus, Ohio.


“We have great leadership in Florida,” says corporate communications director Margaret Standing. “It's a real top-down effort.”


Radakovitz, a Chicago native fond of using restaurant industry catch phrases, orchestrates the effort at the Bradenton Bob Evans. His favorite sayings include “yes is the answer, what is the question” and “the most important part of the uniform is the smile.”


Radakovitz also says the cliches of teamwork — there is no “I” in team — and a selfless attitude remain a great antidote to the recession. He sees the results of that approach in the store's regular customers, such as one man who calls the restaurant his version of Cheers, and a couple who eats breakfast there five days a week. He also sees it in how severs help out busboys and busboys help out in the kitchen.


“We really strive on customer service,” says Radakovitz. “That is what everything we do is based on.”


The employees at all the stores that won the award are due to receive a $100 bonus from the company. And Radakovitz plans to go one step further and give all of his 42 employees a beach-day party, where he intends to fly in Italian sausage from Chicago and do the cooking himself.


The general managers from all six award-winning stores also received personal awards, including 100 shares of Bob Evans Farms stock (symbol: BOBE; recent share price: $26.22). The general managers will also be taken on an all-expenses vacation to the Bahamas.


With all the rewarding going on, Radakovitz is left with another challenge: To maintain the success. So far, three months into the new fiscal year, he says the store is ranked fifth in the chain in sales.


“We want a repeat,” says Radakovitz. “It has never been done before.”

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