This year, Sizzler, a steakhouse chain that first opened in California in 1958, celebrated its 60th anniversary. As CEO, I think I can speak for the whole team–especially our franchisees, who are as much a part of this as we are–to say this is just an honor. It’s truly a milestone to have gone through all the things that we’ve gone through and still be at a point that we believe is as relevant and vibrant today as we were 60 years ago when we first started the business.
I’ve been involved with Sizzler for over 13 years.
I actually competed with Sizzler in my prior jobs, so I knew all about the company and their culture, and I had a lot of respect for the brand.
One reason is the loyalty of the guest to the brand. I had never seen such passion, respect and love. I wear the Sizzler logo just about every place that I go. I have it embroidered on about every shirt. I don’t have a tattoo, but I’m pretty close. But it’s because every place I go, there’s a Sizzler story. It doesn’t matter whether I’m in Chicago, New York, Minnesota or California; people see the logo and they tell me a story about their first job, or that their parents used to bring them there, or that they remember the cheese toast. I think this legacy of a connection with the consumer, the consistency has been key. People have always known they could get a great meal at an affordable price.
And that’s an easy tagline to say, but hard to execute. When Del Johnson first started this company 60 years ago, he saw a need for a community restaurant serving great steaks. His intention was to make it affordable, be engaged with the community, and serve great food. Fast forward to today, and we still hand-cut steak in every restaurant.
Along the way, about 35 years ago, we were one of the first chains to add a salad bar because we saw a need from guests. We’ve been consistent in our commitment to the guest experience, and I think that’s what most of our guests appreciate and count on.
We’ve been the place they go to celebrate. Celebration isn’t always because of a holiday; it’s everything from birthdays to anniversaries to going away parties to welcoming new people into the workforce. We became the place that was kind of an affordable indulgence.
Our model caters to everyone.
At Sizzler, you walk in and look at the menu board and pay for what you want up front. We’re fast-casual with a casual dining experience. If you’re in a hurry and you want to get in and out quick, we’re the perfect place to go. But, at the same time, we serve beer and wine, and we have steak and lobster. You can come in and have a bowl of soup and a salad, a glass of wine, and then have a steak and lobster delivered to you.
That flexibility, while still being consistent, has been an important function. And that’s in great part due to the strength of the team. It’s amazing to me how long our employees stick around, and how long our managers stay part of the organization. It’s multi-generational. Some of our older employees’ children are working for us now, so part of their whole family culture is based around Sizzler.
When you combine all of these elements together–people who really love serving guests and love hospitality, and a consumer who’s looking for a place they can feel like they’re important and cared for–you get the hallmark of what Sizzler is all about.
But when I was first hired, the future was more uncertain.
When the recession hit in 2008, it took a lot of people by surprise. I knew that Sizzler’s core values were what was most relevant and valuable to the guests, so we went back to basics. We looked at what made Sizzler great in the early days. We went back to the original cheese toast recipe, we looked at the steak seasoning, we went back to hand-cutting fresh steaks in-house every day. You start thinking about how to change what you’re doing in order to be able to adapt to a changing environment, and what was beautiful about Sizzler is that we just went back to what we were. We had come out of the buffet business, but it’s tough to compete in that market. So we went back to a really great salad bar, great grill items, all at affordable prices.
The brilliance was that the original Sizzler concept was designed to stand the test of time. Rich people will always look for a deal, and people in the middle of the income levels need a deal. The biggest lesson we had to learn was the definition of value. If you have steak and lobster at $21.99, that’s a great value, but not if you only have $10 in your pocket. So affordability became value for us, and we worked to broaden the menu so that no matter how much money you had in your pocket, Sizzler was a place you could come.
But we’ve still had to adapt to the changing consumer, from the baby boomer to the millennial. One time, we were sitting in a room full of baby boomers talking about what millennials wanted to eat and how they wanted to eat, and all of a sudden it dawned on us that we probably ought to bring some millennials on board. So we’ve hired some millennials to the marketing department. We’re trying to figure out, “Geez, how are we going to get people to do Instagram?” And our social media-savvy millennials are like, “What are you talking about? You don’t figure it out. It’s just what you do.” So we just really gave them almost carte blanche to do what they know, to show people we’re not your grandpa’s Sizzler anymore.
We’re also using younger team members to keep tabs on what’s trendy and try to incorporate those flavors into our core food.
For example, we’re in the process of rolling out mix stations, where you can build your own salad with ingredients like quinoa, artichoke hearts, avocado, and sweet Thai chili dressing. We mix it together for you and give it back on a chilled plate, so you almost have a gourmet salad experience. People love salads, so it’s one of the innovations we’ve incorporated to take Sizzler up a notch. Our goal is to elevate this standard dependable experience to the next level.
We try to make most of our decisions in the restaurants, in the kitchens, rather than in the
boardrooms. If you’re trying to figure out how to cook something differently or make it better, you’re not going to figure that out sitting in a meeting room with slides and a presentation. You go to your cooks and tell them what you’re trying to do. Almost every answer we’ve ever needed is in the mind of someone who’s out there doing it every day. Having that connection, whether it’s social media or food trends or just ways to cook or be more efficient, the answers are right there in the restaurant.
We embrace change. But, at the same time, much like playing golf, we try to stay in the fairway. If you stay in the middle, you can get to the hole. It might not be as sexy, and it might not be as quick, but consistency and focus and attention to the execution of the food almost always plays as well as coming up with the latest food fad.
It’s less about adding more, and more about doing a great job of executing the things we have. The more we look at the current environment where there’s so much noise out there with social media, it’s enjoyable to see families sitting in the restaurant and talking to each other and not looking at their cell phones. Multiple generations get together to come eat in our restaurant, and I think that’s about as trendy of a thing as you could possibly have these days.
We want to be the place where you come and enjoy an affordable meal, be with your family, and get a break from all the other noise that we deal with every day, and know that, for at least that period of time, that you’re loved and cared for, and that we want you here. Helping our guests have some real, quality family time together–that’s our biggest agenda going forward.