Get ready for a new season of Bonanza. Not the 1960s TV show featuring Ben Cartwright and his sons' adventures on the Ponderosa Ranch, but the steakhouse chain whose concept was inspired by the show 50 years ago. Along with sister chain Ponderosa Steakhouse, which hits the 50-year milestone next year, Bonanza is being rebranded and refreshed for a new generation — one increasingly less likely to know or identify with the TV show, its characters or the Old West themes on which it and Ponderosa were built.

Plano, Texas-based Homestyle Dining LLC owns, operates and franchises 223 restaurants throughout the United States and internationally — 80 percent under the Ponderosa Steakhouse grill and buffet-style restaurant brand and the balance as full-service Bonanza Steakhouses that feature large salad bars. While the service formats differ somewhat, both brands feature similar menus. And both concepts will implement key elements of the company's newly launched culinary and design refresh. On the design side, those elements include new colors, lighting, wall coverings, graphics, menu boards and updated styles of presentation on the all-important cold- and hot-food bars.

President and CEO Tom Sacco, who re-joined the company in 2012, leads the refresh campaign. He headed up operations for Bonanza back in the late 1980s, before the two brands merged under Metromedia Steakhouse Co. That company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 2008 and reemerged in 2009 as Homestyle Dining LLC.

Vowing to preserve the brands' legacies but bring them back to relevancy and profitability, Sacco and his team spent more than a year developing the change strategy, which made its debut at a test unit in Massena, N.Y., last fall. As Sacco describes it, the challenge was twofold: to increase the appeal of the aging brands to younger guests without alienating their older, loyal clientele and to devise a refresh plan that would be financially palatable for the heavily franchised system in a still lackluster economy.

"We had to be very smart economically to make sure the franchisees are successful and could afford to do this, because to convert just one or two stores isn't going to help the system or provide the brand refresh impact that's needed," Sacco says. "We had to build consensus because it's not just offering something to the 25-year-old guest; it's also about making sure that our 55-year-old guests don't feel like we're leaving them behind in this transition. We had to figure out how to move the covered wagon out of the equation without losing the heritage that the covered wagon stood for."

Updated Menu Marketing

One of the most immediate changes guests notice in the new design is the menu boards. "In the old design, we had two menu boards; one when you first walked in, which we called a preview board, and another over the counter where orders are taken. They were old-school boards with a photo of the product and a price," he says. "We replaced the preview board with a couple of large, wireless digital flat-screen TVs that show promotions and menu items and that are easily customizable. If someone is coming in for a 50th birthday or if a family is having a welcome home party for a service member, we're able to put that on the screens and use them as a dynamic communication tool that guests see right when they walk in. Operators that really want to display a great product can take that whole 48-inch screen, whereas before they were limited to an 8-by-14-inch panel on the menu board."

Once guests pass those initial "pre-sell" video screens, they proceed to the newly re-designed menu board. While the old version featured photos of products and prices, as it had for the past 25 years, the new version represents a dramatic departure. The new boards eliminate the photos and group menu items by category, much like customers find in a fast-casual or casual dining restaurant, according to Sacco. "By organizing the menu by category, the new design enables us to market a lot more of what we sell," he notes. "It's a much better and more productive use of our menu-board real estate. It costs 35 percent to 40 percent less than our old boards and highlights at least 50 percent more products."

An eclectic mix of residential/gallery-style frames separates and highlights the various menu categories. Reflecting updates made on the culinary side, these include Light 'N' Healthy; Gold Label and Reserve Steaks; hand-crafted sandwiches, including Black Angus burgers; a section with kids' and specially priced seniors' menu items; "Best of the Rest" (i.e., pizza, giant stuffed baked potatoes, ribs and chicken dishes); buffet; and a featured event section that includes special steak and seafood entrees and highlights new appetizer/side selections such as brisket nachos, cheese fries and chili cheese fries.

Overnight Makeover

While in the planning stages for more than a year, the new look was literally achieved overnight in almost "Restaurant: Impossible" fashion at the Massena Ponderosa unit. Within a matter of hours, the crew removed most of the old Western-themed artwork, gave the dark wood paneling and walls a fresh coat of paint, put up sheets of corrugated tin to serve as distinctive wall coverings in some areas and installed bold, fresh new graphic elements throughout. Servers also came back to work in updated uniforms with more vibrant colors.

"All of the design changes were fast, relatively simple and very cost-effective," notes Dave McDonald, senior vice president of purchasing, distribution and quality assurance, who served along with Sacco and chief marketing officer Jon Rice on the internal design team. "And they all support and promote the three key words that form our new strategic mission: fresh, quality and flavor."


To that end, darker, dated wood finishes in the old design were refreshed with warmer, brighter earth tones. Old wood paneling was painted what McDonald describes as "roasted-red pepper red" and trimmed in "espresso brown." Walls feature light colors above corrugated tin on the lower half and sport large photos adding pops of color and imagery of farm-fresh ingredients. Similar graphics, paired with the mission-critical words fresh, quality and flavor, appear on large banners hanging from the ceiling over the dining room.

Big Graphics, Fresh Impact

"Throughout the restaurant we now have large-format food shots," notes Rice. "Some show individual products that we might feature on the menu, such as strawberry pie; some are back-of-the-house photos showing foods being prepped and some of the fresh ingredients that go into, for example, various pies and cakes on our dessert bar. Others show freshly prepared salads, fruits and other items that might go into some of the cold bar dishes. We even have holiday shots and environmental shots simply showing nice farm images but in a more contemporary way than our old ranch photos. They make a big impact when you walk in and help to create a fresh environment that supports our rebranding strategy but also continues to clearly state who we are."

The images aren't intended to promote specific menu items, Rice adds, but rather to convey brand messages and create a mood for diners.

The photo strategy represents one of many cost-effective design solutions that help create a fresh new look for the brands, one that puts a strong focus on food quality and freshness. The wall-mounted photos are embedded in styrene so they're durable, washable and staff can easily change out the images just by unscrewing a few grommets that secure them to backboards.

They are also affordable: McDonald estimates that all of the art required for one restaurant unit — roughly 12 pieces, a mix of 4-by-8-foot and 3-by-3-foot images — totals approximately $600. "Because of the photo technology that's out there now, we can afford to replace and refresh the artwork throughout the year," he says. "These aren't stock images; this is Jon's team photographing our food or representative products — steaks on the grill, bakery ingredients, etc. We're producing it, so it's really very efficient and affordable."

Blending Old with New

While the various design changes add up to a fresh new graphic identity for the brands, some elements of the old look remain. For example, no changes were made to the restaurant's footprint or layout, and existing seating and flooring remained in place, as did most of the existing lighting. The existing food bars were retained, but were refreshed with new lighting and new presentation styles (see sidebar).

"If some of the old components were complimentary to what we were doing, we kept them," McDonald says. "We're trying to transition from the old legacy to where we are now without leaving our legacy behind. We're not going to forget that we have a western ranch-oriented heritage."

"We tried to stay away from changing out tables and chairs and that kind of thing on this go-round," Sacco adds, "because we couldn't value-engineer that as much as we could some of these other things. The furniture is durable and fits in well with the new design. Down the road I'm sure there will be a new table and chair design, but in our research our guests weren't saying that the tables and chairs weren't relevant; they were saying the restaurant didn't feel relevant."

While the redesign strategy is still in its test phase, with the first completed unit open just a few months, Sacco and his team say the results so far are overwhelmingly positive. "We're consistently getting in the high 90th percentile on the fact that they're going to dine with us more often," Sacco says. "They love the changes that have been made and we've never seen numbers like this. We're pretty comfortable with and excited about where we're headed."

Project Team

  • Tom Sacco, President and CEO
  • Jon Rice, Chief Marketing Officer
  • Dave McDonald, Senior Vice President, Purchasing, Distribution and Quality Assurance
  • Karla Tuma, Creative Designer


  • HQ: Plano, Texas
  • Segment: Steakhouse/Buffet
  • No. of Locations: 200-plus domestic and international
  • Average unit size: 5,600 square feet, 175 seats
  • Refresh highlights: Brighter colors/rich earth tones; tin wall coverings; big food and farm photos; updated food bar presentations, eco-friendly plateware, new staff uniforms
  • Refresh timeline: 33 percent of units to be converted by end of 2014; all units to be converted by end of 2015
  • Savings per unit (new look vs. old): $20,000 to $30,000


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