A generation ago, farm life was considered about as uncool as life got. Now upscale restaurants list the names of the farms where the pork or potatoes or cheese comes from. Farms are hip. You can’t keep ’em down on Wall Street after they’ve dined at Blue Hill at Stone Barns. And Bob Evans is taking advantage of the perception shift to modernize its brand image.
Part of its evolution was the recent addition of a line of Big Farm Burgers to the menu. BurgerBusiness.com talked to Bob Evans VP-Restaurant Marketing Tom Marchese and Executive Development Chef David Eisel about the creation of the burgers.
Tell me about Bob Evans’ market position, because I know the company has been working to make it more contemporary.
Marchese: We really are. We’re undergoing a transformation of our brand positioning now from “The home of homestyle,” which worked well for us, but now we’re getting back to where the company started. “Farm-fresh goodness that brings people together” is what this company was built on and what it’s all about. You see a new positioning in our advertising, “Discover farm-fresh goodness,” that we started in our summer campaign. That’s carrying forward.
Has this shift been directed by feedback from consumers or your understanding of the competitive landscape?
Marchese: It’s a combination of both. It’s a crowded market and you want to distinguish yourself in the strongest way possible. When we talk to consumers and they don’t know we’re from Bob Evans, they talk more and more about knowing where ingredients come from and about the importance of reputable farms. It’s a growing macrotrend that our brand plays well into.
You had burgers on the menu before?
Marchese: We did. The incredible thing is that when Bob Evans came home from the war in 1946, he opened a little steak house in Gallipolis, Ohio, called the Terminal Steak House. He served Angus beef burgers with fresh fixings from his farm. So burgers have been a part of the brand since the start.
But they’ve never been menu stars.
Marchese: No. They were there from the beginning but, certainly, we’ve underplayed them. I don’t recall doing any real innovation around them.
Eisel: I wouldn’t say we haven’t done any innovation but not specifically to burgers. But let’s say we’d develop a barbecue platform. With that we might do a barbecue burger. So they were a piece of the program but never something we went after specifically.
Burgers were a cost-of-entry product for us, though it was a pretty good product.
Marchese: We’ve started looking at the “farm-fresh flavor” positioning and asking how we can improve and enhance the menu around that. Burgers were a logical first step in that.
What kind of burger were you after? How did you know what was missing?
Marchese: Consumers told us what to do. We asked people what makes a great burger and they told us; they hit it for us. Right away they said they’d expect Bob Evans to have great burgers because the best meat, the best toppings comes from “down on the farm.” So David’s charge was to deliver a burger worthy of the Bob Evans heritage, and that drove the most extensive testing we’ve probably ever done on a product.
So, David, if the basics of a burger are bun, meat and toppings, where did you and the culinary team start?
Eisel: We started with the meat. We went through a lot of different iterations. We’re known for sausage, so would Bob Evans have a sausage-patty burger? Or a combination of beef and sausage? Consumers said they wanted a decadent, 100% beef burger. Black Angus was important to them.
Marchese: And bigger. We increased to the patty size from 6 ounces to 8 ounces.
Eisel: As far as some of the other ingredients we considered, there’s fresh spinach on the Farmstand burger. Who’d have thought it would work on a burger, but it has that farm-fresh image. The bacon we use isn’t that thin bacon like at a quick-serve restaurant; it’s the thick-cut bacon we have at breakfast at Bob Evans. It’s cooked fresh for every burger. The Portobello mushrooms are big and thick, not little button mushrooms. They taste great and, again, they speak to that farm freshness
And a brioche bun, right?
Marchese: Yes, We went from a run-of-the-mill kaiser roll to the brioche, which is really a fancy way of saying egg bread, like on a farm. It’s hearty and has a nice wheat dusting on top. We didn’t want to go with sesame seeds like everyone else.
I know you developed a whole range of new sauces, too.
Marchese: Yes, the sauces really played a key role in this.
Eisel: We wanted to come up with sauces that fit Bob Evans and fit the burgers. We have four different sauces. We wanted some flavor excitement, some heat, so one is a Smoky Chipotle, which is on the Smokehouse. There’s also a Garden Herb, which makes a lot of sense when you talk about farm freshness. It pairs well with the Farmstand Burger that has the Portobello mushrooms and spinach on it.
We have a great whole-grain mustard sauce, Country Dijon, that’s a little creamy. It’s a kind of an all-purpose sauce, but we also wanted one that would be unique to us and that we could brand as ours. So Old Route 35 [named for the highway skirting Bob Evans’ farm] has got that Worcestershire-tang bistro sauce that’s great on burgers or chicken.
Marchese: The sauces are branded as “Taste of the Farm” sauces. They come to the table in a caddy and the guest can try any of them. Some folks are putting sauce on their fries. We’re now selling the sauces in our retail section.
Does that mean these sauces, or other bold new ones, might be used across the menu?
Eisel: We’re all excited about seeing where we can go. They could be dipping sauces for appetizers or be used with other sandwich builds beyond burgers. The sauces have a versatility that’s exciting.
Marchese: Our customers tend to have [menu] favorites, and, oh boy, don’t change them. The Rise & Shine breakfast is the Rise & Shine and don’t mess with it, but they’re also open to trying new things.
What’s selling the best so far?
Marchese: The Smokehouse is the top seller but they’re all doing well.
David: It’s interesting because that burger, especially, has a lot of flavor. We take a Memphis spice rub and put that on the patty, and we’ve done that to the bacon, too.
What’s the pricing?
Marchese: The burgers start at $8.99. The Big Farm Cheeseburger Platter is $9.29 and that’s with two sides; it’s a big meal. That’s certainly within our current price territory, and our consumers had no negative reaction to the prices. And we’re actually selling more at the high end with the two sides than the smaller one-side meals.