Restaurateur John Sparks was looking for a name for his new restaurant concept when inspiration struck in 1964 in the form of a group of youngsters meeting after football practice. With helmets in hand, Sparks thought the group of happy youths looked like a football huddle as they talked and laughed with each other. It was then that Sparks got the idea to name his new restaurant “Huddle House,” hoping that the name would let guests know they had found a warm, inviting place to huddle up. Today, with dozens of locations spread across numerous states, Huddle House continues to provide its guests with good, comforting food served in a friendly, welcoming atmosphere.
CEO Michael Abt says the formula for the success of Huddle House is very simple, and it’s one that has kept the company and its network of franchise partners successful for more than 50 years. “I would say [the concept] is a warm, friendly, inviting 24-hour, any meal served all-day concept that is an integral part of the community and is generally owner-operated,” Abt says.
Although Huddle House faces some stiff competition from chains such as Denny’s or IHOP, Abt says the engagement of its franchise partners goes a long way toward creating a different feel that guests love. “We are a fairly large regional chain that I don’t think feels like a chain when you go into one of our restaurants,” he says, noting that many of its national competitors may have larger menus but feel more corporate or impersonal. “They’re strong businesses, but they just have a different feel from Huddle House.”
As the company enters its second half-century, Huddle House continues to look for ways it can improve its service and open up new opportunities for expansion across the country. Abt says the company is dedicated to modernizing its restaurants and menu, but not at the expense of the friendly atmosphere that has been the Huddle House hallmark.
The menu at Huddle House is centered on good old-fashioned comfort food with a Southern slant. Abt says Huddle House is a firm believer in breakfast being the most important meal of the day, with waffles, french toast and omelets taking center stage. The breakfast menu also includes breakfast platters as well as unique offerings like stuffed hash browns, which feature breakfast food favorites layered between crispy hash browns.
Lunch and dinner options also stay close to the tried-and-true comfort food model, featuring the famous HuddleBurger as well as Southern fried chicken tenders and country fried steak. Abt says Huddle House recently hired a new corporate chef to introduce more “craveable” menu items and give guests more variety. “I think we’ve done a really good job of extending our menu a bit and improving some of the existing products on the menu,” he says.
Just as important as the menu at Huddle House is the warm and friendly environment created at each restaurant. Abt says this is the direct result of how involved and dedicated each of Huddle House’s owner-operators is. Because they are local, he says, it’s easy for them to create deep bonds with their regular customers and to be heavily involved with community groups and events. One of John Sparks’ ideals for Huddle House was to make each restaurant a central gathering point for the community, and Abt says its engaged owner-operators make that possible.
Although being in business for more than 50 years speaks to the timelessness of Huddle House’s core concept, there comes a point at which longevity can work against a restaurant chain unless it is proactive. “One of the primary challenges that we’ve addressed over the last three years has been our older facilities,” Abt says.
With many of the chain’s restaurants housed in older buildings, Abt says Huddle House understood that it needed to keep them updated or else they would eventually have a negative impact on guests’ perception of the brand. That’s why Huddle House introduced an incentive program to encourage its franchise partners to remodel their locations and bring them in line with the company’s modern concept. Abt says franchise partners receive a $20,000 cash incentive once their restaurants are remodeled, along with another $5,000 earmarked for local marketing efforts.
Abt says the remodeling initiative already has been a big success, with remodeled locations reporting same-store sales increases of approximately 14 percent. Huddle House will end the fiscal year with nearly 40 percent of its locations having been remodeled, and by the end of the next fiscal year Abt says more than half of its stores will have been remodeled. The company reports that its franchise partners are seeing their remodeling efforts recoup their expenditures within two years.
Huddle House also is working to support its franchise partners by strengthening its internal processes. Abt says the company has hired a number of new people focused on operational excellence, and it is developing new systems to give its franchise partners more resources to manage their restaurants better.
Focused on Growth
Abt says Huddle House is optimistic about the future. Not only have its own efforts improved its restaurants and operations, but the growth of the breakfast segment has helped Huddle House gain ground because of its concentration on its breakfast menu. “For us to have that foothold in the segment is positive,” Abt says.
Huddle House is on track to open 20 new locations in 2016, and Abt says the goal is for another 35 to open in 2017. In addition, the company is focusing its attention on what it calls its “Evolution 1.5” project, which is a new prototype restaurant that has been designed with improved ergonomics in the kitchen and service areas to enhance customer service. “We’re always focused on growth,” Abt says.