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Tuesday, April 23, 2024

NC trend: Hickory Tavern’s new CEO delivers more than a new menu

Mark Eaton

CEO Mark Eason is implementing a new recipe for Hickory Tavern. The Charlotte-based restaurant chain, which has 20 locations in North Carolina and South Carolina, has undergone a menu overhaul since the veteran restaurateur joined the company a year ago.

A new wine list and beer menu were rolled out. He’s closed underperforming locations, including sites in Carrboro and Birmingham, Alabama – the only location outside of the Carolinas – and changed hiring practices. A quarter of a million dollars was spent in 2023 upgrading the restaurants, and the same amount will be spent in 2024. And Eason has a prototype for further expansion on the drawing board.

So far, the results are promising, says founder Brad Smith, who is chair of the 26-year-old company, which has struggled to return to its pre-COVID performance. Customer feedback has turned positive, and sales are stronger. The company has about $60 million in
annual revenue.

“He’s a great operator and leader,” says Smith about Eason. “Had Mark not shown his face to us, we would have been hard-pressed to get someone like him for a company our size.”

Smith and partner Tom Hager, his uncle, started Hickory Tavern in, you guessed it, Hickory, in 1997.  Smith was working at First Union in Charlotte, but thought Hager, who was running Charlotte-based sports bar Fox & Hound, had a life “a little cooler than mine.” After the Hickory location thrived, they opened a second restaurant in Spartanburg, South Carolina, and then entered the Charlotte market. “We built one store a year as a rule of thumb,” says Smith.

In 2014, Connecticut-based private equity firm Rosser Capital, which specializes in restaurants and retail, bought a majority stake to fund growth. At the time, Hickory Tavern had 16 locations, but added another 10 by the time COVID struck in 2020.

Eason had been chief executive officer of Charlotte-based Firebirds Wood Fired Grill, overseeing an expansion from four locations to 55. He had commuted from his home in Pennsylvania, staying during the week at a Marriott Courtyard in south Carolina near a Hickory Tavern. “It was a place that I could go in and feel comfortable,” says Eason. “It was just a good place to meet and gather with my staff.”

Retirement proved boring, so when Smith and Hager called, he jumped back into the restaurant business. Eason closed the Huntersville location and turned it into a test kitchen, revamping the menu and simplifying how the kitchen operated.

Hickory Tavern had been selling wings taken raw out of a bag and thrown into a fryer. Now, they’re cleaned and seasoned before they’re cooked. “They taste better, and they’re crispier on the outside and tender on the inside,” says Eason. 

Mozzarella sticks are now made internally, as is the marinara sauce. The fish in the fish and chips is now cod instead of grouper. The cheese and the meat in the cheesesteak sandwich were both upgraded. Some menu items, such as baked potatoes, were eliminated. The new menu was rolled out Aug. 28 to all 20 locations. The new menu, when all of the prices are added up, totals an extra $12.

Eason says the changes have been so successful that he’s getting ready to introduce more new menu items, such as cheese fries, cheese tater tots and ribs. And he’s rolling out half-priced bottles of wine on Tuesdays. “We’re OK, but we’re not where we should be, “ he says. “We’re not going to serve automated pre-made food. We just have to make sure we’re executing. People want great food and great service.”

Staffing remains an issue, and Eason says the company is now paying more than $20 an hour for cooks. “I don’t think we were quick enough and aggressive enough to get back to normal fast enough after COVID,” adds Smith. “We were having a hard time hiring people. We had a limited service and a limited menu.”

Eason is now focused on remodeling and building a prototype. He’s renegotiating
leases to help pay for new furniture, carpets and bars. Both Eason and Smith say there
are plenty of potential expansion locations in North Carolina and South Carolina. “I think we have an opportunity to pick better locations,” says Eason. “We need to get out there
on the highway.”

Smith concedes that the sports bar and restaurant market is crowded. But he adds, “We look forward to six months down the road after people have been able to come in and experience the new menu and the upgraded facilities, that we’ll not only
be a survivor, we’ll be a winner.”

Chris Roush
Chris Roush
Chris Roush is executive editor of Business North Carolina. He can be reached at croush@businessnc.com.

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