Saturday, February 7, 2004

Popeyes spices up decor

By John Eckberg
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] Dave Parker, ex-major leaguer, owns the Forest Park Popeye's Restaurant and another in Roselawn with his wife, Kellye.
(Michael E. Keating photo)
Popular food items such as Cajun chicken and tangy Jambalaya, a New Orleans-style decor and sizzling revenues from a still-new Popeyes Chicken & Biscuits in Forest Park means restaurateur and baseball great Dave Parker is on the prowl for new Greater Cincinnati locations for four new Popeyes.

"You can't duplicate this taste," Parker said of the spicy-chicken offerings.

The Forest Park restaurant, an example of what corporate parent AFC Enterprises Inc., based in Atlanta, calls a Heritage Design, was built last year by Parker for $1.4 million. It is the second Popeyes owned by Parker, who opened his first in Roselawn nine years ago.

There is, apparently, still some pop left in the old design, as well. "We call our Roselawn restaurant the Colonel-killer. I think there are something like three KFCs that have gone out of business on Reading Road since we've been there," Parker said.

Forest Park Popeyes customer Jim Froelich of Fairfield offers insight into Popeyes' growing appeal. Froelich had a hankering for some greens for lunch one day this week, so he came to the only fast-food restaurant where he knew for certain he could find the dish.

"You can't get greens just anywhere," said Froelich, 57, who was waiting in line for his second bowl. "Not even at all Popeyes. I'm on a diet, so I've got to watch what I eat, and these greens are tasty."

In the cluttered arena of fast-food dining, any edge can bring a restaurant lines at lunch and idling cars at the drive-through during dinnertime. That's why the Heritage Design is the latest approach for the chain.

At 6-foot-6, Parker still cuts an imposing figure in the dining room and in the kitchen, where he regularly preps food or helps staff with a variety of duties.

"I think people get a kick out of seeing me as a worker," he said.

All new Popeyes restaurants will either be built from scratch with the new decor or undergo a transformation. Gone are staid wall colors and predictable canned music. Instead, the dining area features cheery wallpaper that emphasizes the French Quarter in New Orleans with caricatures of musicians, seafood wharfs and plenty of New Orleans street scenes.

There are slogans like "Nicely Spicy" and instead of canned tunes, the music is upbeat rhythm and blues, Zydeco and jazz. Instead of a drive-through overhang, the canopy resembles a balcony; and other New Orleans scenes are on murals on outside walls.

The kitchen area is engineered to reduce employee motion and heighten speed of service, Popeyes spokeswoman Kim Englehardt said.

"These improvements let us better deliver a higher quality menu to our customers, provide efficiencies for our restaurant operators and create additional brand value for all of our franchise partners," Englehardt said.

For Parker, a former Reds great, the Forest Park restaurant represents the first of what could ultimately be a family-owned chain of six Popeyes heritage-style restaurants throughout Greater Cincinnati. The first Popeyes, at 7131 Reading Road in Roselawn, will undergo the Heritage transformation later this year.

Locations for other Popeyes restaurants might be in the Eastgate area or along Ronald Reagan Highway, Parker said. He prefers rehabilitation rather a new restaurant because it is much cheaper. The Forest Park and Roselawn restaurants have a combined value of $2.2 million, Parker said.

Parker, 52, was attracted to Popeyes about nine years ago when his professional baseball playing days were over.

He wanted to become a businessman, and a broker suggested that Parker open a Burger King restaurant. Before the deal closed, the broker instead directed Parker to Popeyes because, at the time, there were 18 Burger Kings in the region and only one Popeyes.

After developing several Popeyes with a partner, Parker set out on his own last year. About 40 full- and part-time employees work in Forest Park. Another 100 full- and part-time employees work at the Roselawn Popeyes.

Decor redesign is nothing new to the fast-food industry, said Marko Grunhagen, assistant professor of business and a franchising specialist at Southern Illinois University.

"When you're looking at fast food, competition is very cutthroat," Grunhagen said. "And it's in every fast-food category. There is pressure, as is the case everywhere else in retailing, to keep a fresh image. I call it the 'flabbergastic phenom.' It brings a restaurant attention."

National chains do that by having franchisees change the interior design or by adding new menu items. Some diners seek customization of their meal or items that cannot be bought at other chains, he said - like Froelich's second helping of greens. Fast-food chains tend to reinvent themselves every 10 to 15 years to appeal to a new generation of diners.

While Parker once studied opposing pitchers for curves, sliders and fastballs, now he wonders about traffic counts, expressway exits and the number of schools in the vicinity.

"Right here," Parker said at a table in the Forest Park restaurant, "we have nine churches within three miles. There's a Kroger store nearby. The high school is around the corner, and a government center is just down the street."

It is important, Parker said, to reach out to the community by sponsoring Knothole baseball or other youth sport teams. The popular Prime Time Sports Show on WDBZ-AM (1230) has done 12 remote broadcasts from a Parker-owned Popeyes.

"Dave himself is always involved," Prime Time host Wayne "Box" Miller said. "That to me is what makes them successful; he doesn't shy away from cooking, cleaning or cracking jokes. More importantly, they always put money back in the community, supporting Little League teams and various other foundations."

Parker said research always pays off - in baseball and in business. When the Forest Park Popeyes opened last year, it grossed $5,000 to $6,000 a day in its first weeks.

"People tell us how gorgeous it is. The windows give it bright look. At most Popeyes, you stand at the front counter and can't see all the way back to prep area," Parker said.

"But here you can. We want people to see their food being made - we want people to see how well our operation is run."


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