CINCINNATI - Restaurant remodeling and a Tennessee expansion could make it a busy first year for Jason Vaughn, who was announced Thursday as the new CEO of Frisch’s Big Boy restaurants.
Vaughn is a 25-year veteran of the restaurant industry, chosen after a national search by NRD Capital, an Atlanta-based private equity firm that bought the company for $175 million last August.
Vaughn started his career at Yum! Brands, working his way up over 19 years to senior director of operations, accountable for 1,100 company and franchise restaurants. His career included leadership posts with Memphis-based Lenny’s Subs and Wendy’s International, where he led a division with $1 billion in revenue and 21,000 employees.
In an interview Thursday, Vaugh revealed that Frisch’s will embark on a restaurant remodeling program in 2016 that’s based on customer feedback and aimed at refreshing the image of the casual dining chain with 95 company-owned stores and 25 franchise locations.
“We’ll have more news on that in a few weeks,” Vaughn said. “We don’t have all the final numbers in. Certainly we want to keep value engineering in mind and make sure our franchisees understand that we’re thinking of them.”
On the expansion front, Vaughn said Frisch’s is meeting with potential franchisees in Tennessee, with Memphis, Knoxville and Nashville in the mix for new Big Boy restaurants.
Here are excerpts from a 15-minute interview with Vaughn on his first day as CEO:
Q: What’s your first order of business?
A: Continue to listen to our customers. We’ve got a great brand here that’s done so well in the Cincinnati community and beyond. So, the first order of business is to make sure the guest is being delivered what they want. We’re excited about the new promotions coming out and some of the upgrades we have around the new restaurant look, so we’re excited about a lot of things.
Q: What are the new promotions?
A: We just released a new menu item a week or so ago. We’ve got a mushroom Swiss burger that’s just doing fantastic out there. It’s performing very well.
Q: Coke or Pepsi?
A: Today it’s Pepsi. We want to honor our contract. We certainly believe in doing that. We’re going to listen to our guests and what they ask for and what they want, but today I’m telling you that we’re going to honor our contract.
Q: Will Frisch’s grow its number of franchise or company owned stores?
A: It’s going to be a combination of both. In this environment you certainly can grow your base very responsibly and at a great rate by bringing on franchisees. But we certainly want a balanced portfolio.
Q: Does that mean one new store a year? Ten stores?
A: I’m not ready to put out a number. We’re still looking at what the right growth looks like. We certainly want to stay within the same areas. Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana. We’ve been in Tennessee before, so we’re gong to certainly explore those areas.
Q: You’re exploring a return to Tennessee?
It’s possible, yes. We have some scheduled meetings over next couple of months. After that, we should have a game plan going into the fourth quarter.
Q: Your last job was in Memphis. Is that your first expansion city?
A: Not necessarily. I’m originally from Knoxville and I think that’s a great area. The Frisch’s brand can really go anywhere. Memphis would be a great market for it, but Nashville, Knoxville would as well. We don’t have a target city. We’re just looking at target areas at this point.
Q: Why do you think Frisch’s can go anywhere?
A: It’s the diversity of the menu, the quality of the food. When you think about the value. You get a great amount of food for a really fair, marketable price. That’s what attracts people to keep coming back to Frisch’s. They just understand the family can get what they want. They know they can afford the cost of the meal.
Q: Were you a Frisch’s customer when you worked for Yum Brands and Wendy’s?
A: I worked a few years in Ohio with Wendy’s and I’d go to Frisch’s there in Columbus. It was a terrific experience. I remember loving the Big Boy (hamburger) and that hot fudge cake. Everybody should have that hot fudge cake at least once in their lives. It was good family dining. I wasn’t going to get my food in a basket with a paper cup. It was real silverware, real plates, real service. It didn’t cost an exorbitant amount of money to take your family there.
Q: How will Frisch’s compete for labor talent as the job market tightens?
A: It’s creating the right environment where people feel valued, people are trained, people feel like they have a career path to grow. I started out as an assistant manager 25 years ago; I was very blessed to have people around me to help me grow and develop. That’s the thing about the restaurant business: If I have the right culture, the right environment, I can always find a way to find and develop future leaders.
Q: How do you feel about $15 minimum wage?
A: I feel it’s whatever the market dictates. I don’t have what I’d call an artificial boundary. I think people deserve a good place to work with a fair wage for a fair day’s work.
Q: Will Frisch’s continue to sponsor the Nutcracker?
A: Oh, absolutely. When we started talking about working together, they have such a strong commitment to stay in the community and I echo that. The great work (the Maier family) has done over the past 40 years -- we have every intention to keep all aspects of our community involvement, enhance it and grow it and make it better.