Nothing compares to the charred taste of a burger hot off the grill, and that’s what Back Yard Burgers does best.
Since 1987, Back Yard Burgers
has served some of the best quick casual food available in the South and Midwest. However, standing the test of time comes with its challenges too. According to David McDougall, the current success the company is experiencing wouldn’t exist without the four-year period when survival seemed bleak.
McDougall, CEO of Back Yard Burgers, joined the brand in early 2013. He was familiar with the concept and knew that it had long been known for its great tasting 100 percent Angus beef, but he underestimated just how far the franchise had fallen.
“We really went through some tumultuous times,” he said. “There was a window from 2008 to 2012 where the brand lost relevance—we were getting our lunch eaten by the competition.”
Instead of focusing on what separated Back Yard Burgers
from the pack of fast food chains, the company began to copy other brands.
When the franchise decided to offer lower priced menu items, it created confusion for its customers regarding what the brand stood for. One of the most popular food items, seasoned fries, was replaced completely, leaving franchisees and customers scratching their heads.
As times changed for Back Yard Burgers, so did the positive sentiment it had spent 20 years building. The changes didn’t sit well with consumers, and as profits began to plummet, so too did the morale among franchise owners.
“People were hard pressed to make money. Relationships between corporate and the franchisees were strained,” McDougall said. “Nobody was on the same page and the brand lost its way in regard to food quality. The fundamental things that were responsible for our success were gone and that was nearly catastrophic for the brand.”
When McDougall was hired by Back Yard Burgers in January 2013, he worked quickly to rebuild confidence and trust among all stakeholders.
“The first thing I did was get out and talk to the customers, talk with the franchisees, the general managers and the field operations team,” he said. “I believe in the phrase ‘seek to understand before being understood.
McDougall also met with the founder of Back Yard Burgers, Lattimore M. Michael, to learn as much as he could about the brand.
“It was beyond valuable gathering information and fact finding—getting his perspective was important,” McDougall said.
When he met with GMs and franchisees, he asked what they could do to immediately improve sales and it was a near unanimous decision: bring back seasoned fries. Within three weeks, the fries returned to menus at all Back Yard Burgers locations.
“We wanted to show both franchisees and consumers that we were dedicated to moving forward and doing it quickly,” he said.
McDougall said a return to greatness was based on a three-prong strategy: Unit Level Economics , building trust among franchisees and going back to its roots of serving great-tasting food. Through the process, Back Yard Burgers revamped its culinary and marketing strategy, conducted targeted focus panels and worked closely with its franchisees and GMs to reinforce the importance of their inclusion as the brand moved forward.
“Now, after nearly 30 consecutive months of positive same-store sales, we are financially in a much better position from a cash flow and profitability standpoint,” McDougall said. “We’re in a position where we can focus on new growth, and have developed a new store design for both new restaurants and remodels of existing ones. . We’re in a much better place now.”
The burger segment is a competitive market, but Back Yard Burgers has rebranded itself and looks to the future while remembering how it got there.
“All companies go through trying times. You learn you must be resilient and understand you have to be able to change ,” he said. “If you’re not innovating and looking to the future for how to do things differently—be it technology, menu items or something else—you’re going to be hard pressed to stay competitive.”
McDougall said relationships with franchisees have improved considerably, and consumers are returning to the brand they know and love.
“We’ve listened to our customers and we intend to keep them happy,” he said. "We have our niche and success is tied to ensuring customers are happy, they come back often and sing our praises."