In Decline, Famous Dave’s Turns To Redesign

Alfredo Martel’s first order of business at Famous Dave’s is a redesign.
The newly designed entrance at Famous Dave's.

Famous Dave’s of America Inc. has been overdue for a makeover.

In 2016 alone, sales fell 14 percent in the second fiscal quarter. The Minnetonka-based brand cycled through three CEOs in four years, last October announcing its fourth.

Looking for a reboot, the company tapped Alfredo Martel as chief marketing officer a year ago. “What’s on the menu isn’t the problem,” Martel says. Dave Anderson has won over 700 awards for his recipes since founding Famous Dave’s in 1994. He won the Food Network’s Smoked barbecue competition just last September.

The menu itself, however, was cluttered, colorless and dense. Using the Maple Grove location as a guinea pig, Martel orderd a streamlined edition: more pictures, more colors, easier to navigate.

Then Martel took a step back. The look and feel of the restaurant hadn’t changed in ten years. The Maple Grove restaurant still sported its original mustard yellow exterior, which Martel calls generic—typical of fast casual diners. Instead? Smokehouse gray, a bid for barbecue authenticity. Walls inside were changed to dark grays, light grays and fiery red.

Other updates since last September include puns stenciled on the walls (“Until we meat again”) and staff T-shirts emblazoned with the same (“Our pit masters do it low and slow”). Neon lights were installed—another barbecue staple—and the logo was simplified and modernized. Servers open with a “sauce tour” of the six sauces at every table and describe the food as “award-winning” rather than “yummy,” Martel says.

These changes sound simple, and, to an extent, they are. However, since September, customer traffic has risen. On November 17, sales in Maple Grove were up about nine percent compared to the same period the year before.

Simple, but not easy. Several years ago, a Chicago Famous Dave's restaurant location was redesigned with negative results. This time, rather than gutting the restaurant completely, Martel highlights assets the chain already has: an interactive “Wall of Fame” next to its trophy showcase, a new poster of Dave Anderson and a tone of sassy irreverence.

“Our intent is not to depart from our legacy but to celebrate it and reignite it,” Martel says, meaning: nothing slick, nothing overly technical, no new technology. “Minimalism is trendy now," says Zeus Jones designer Brain Danaher, a creator of the new look, with reclaimed wood and black-and-white walls everywhere from TGI Fridays to Taco Bell. But that was as off-target as emulating a fancy steakhouse with chrome fixtures and leather chairs that would stray from the finger-lickin’ brand. Zeus Jones kept the organizational aspect of minimalism without losing that sense of whimsy. Knickknacks, organized by wall, remain—tin soda advertisements here, old photos there.

The logo still features Wilbur the pig. In fact, one reason Martel chose the Maple Grove location to begin the company-wide renovation was its proximity to Interstate 94, so people driving by could see the new exterior signage and red-and-gray siding.

Another reason: Maple Grove demographics—adults over 35 who have one, two or three kids and disposable income—is the Famous Dave’s market. These customers, in parties of two to six people, know the restaurant and come with expectations.

“People are excited about the results, so we’re probably going to be implementing more of them," says Martel.

Following the Maple Grove success, the Bloomington Famous Dave's location received a redesign as well.