Marie Callender's Grill

The Orange County Register
Thursday, July 14, 2005

Marie's new flame
Chain opening restaurants with grill-based menu, fresh interiors.

Marie Callender's Restaurant & Bakery is testing a slightly more masculine version of its brand – Marie Callender's Grill – which features contemporary design, plasma TVs in the bar, more steak choices and an open-flame mesquite grill.

The third of five experimental grills planned for this year opened recently in Westminster , near the Huntington Beach border, where an original Marie Callender's stood for 18 years. Sales at the grills have been about 35 percent higher than at the classic venues. If the numbers stay high, the company plans to open many more grills in new or current locations.

"We're trying to introduce a whole new group of people to our evolving brand," said Allison Glenn Delaney, a Marie Callender's vice president. Mostly that means men, but the restaurant also hopes to attract more young women and families with teenagers.

While the company expects to keep most of its core customer base – middle-aged to older women and young families – executives acknowledged that the changes might trigger some patrons to go elsewhere.

"Undoubtedly there will be a few longtime customers who will come into the grill and have a problem with the new concept," Chief Executive Phil Ratner said.

"The prices are a little higher, and the food is seasoned more strongly. But if they give us a chance, they will enjoy it. We still have some of the classic menu items, but in a great new atmosphere. We'll lose a few people, but we'll gain a lot more."

The average check price increased from $12.25 to $15.75.

The grill's menu is almost entirely new, featuring entrees such as hickory smoked baby back ribs and seared rare ahi tuna steak.

The most popular item is the hand-carved 14-hour slow-smoked tri-tip, which is served with roasted garlic mashed potatoes, charbroiled asparagus, fried onion straws, and bourbon barbecue sauce. The same Angus tri-tip beef is also used in a French dip sandwich, a salad and a quesadilla.

A surprise hit is the Grill's Mac & Cheese, an adult version of the popular kids meal that uses eight types of cheese and is topped with apple-wood smoked bacon bread crumbs.

Ratner and his wife tried a similar meal while the two were in New York , and he was so impressed he immediately called the office and told them to add the item.

Executive Chef Armando Veliz's first reaction: "What?!"

But he whipped something up, and customers say they like it.

Another new appetizer is chicken lettuce wraps, which Ratner claimed are better than the ones at PF Chang's China Bistro. He might be a little biased, though.

The classics that remain on the menu include chicken pot pie, fresh roasted turkey, and the "Works" Frisco Burger. The salad bar has been upgraded with more prepared slad offerings. And they still bake the pies that Marie Callender's is best known for.

The sign on the new grills de-emphasizes "Marie," while proclaiming the "Callender's" in bold print. That change is symbolic of the company's efforts to hold on to its heritage while moving the brand forward, executives said.

The entire concept is modeled after Callender's Wilshire, a $4 million-a-year restaurant the company opened in 1985. Classic Marie Callender's locations do an average of $2.1 million a year, executives said.

The interior of the new restaurant features natural materials such as granite, marble and wood. The color scheme is mostly accented, earth tone olives, tans and browns.

Designers got rid of the typical Marie Callender's knickknacks and created a more simple look to keep the focus on the new food. A partially open kitchen adds background noise and ambiance to the restaurant.

Marie Callender's for decades has straddled the fence between family dining (think Denny's and International House of Pancakes) and casual dining (Red Lobster and Outback Steak House), experts say. Their main competition has been Mimi's Café.

The new grill concept puts the chain fully into the casual dining arena.

"Marie Callender's is a strong, recognized brand, and they have a good chance at success with this," said Bob Sandelman, president of restaurant industry firm Sandelman & Associates. "The challenge for them will be to change their image in people's minds. A lot of people think of Marie Callender's as mom-and-pop cooking."

If the company does go through with a broad change to its image, it won't remodel many of its smaller, profitable locations whose buildings don't lend themselves to the grill concept, executives said.

But the company should be careful to avoid too much of a gab between its older and newer models, said Dennis Lombardi, executive vice president of business design and development firm WD Partners.

"A (restaurant) brand should always carry a single voice," he said.

Customers interviewed by the Register said they liked the new concept. The only gripe was that the prices are higher than the original Marie Callender's.

Hugh and Norma Steven, who ate at the Marie Callender's in Westminster for several years before it became Marie Callender's Grill, enjoyed the experience.

“Before, there was a subdued atmosphere,” Hugh said. "Now there is charm, aliveness. There is an upscale sophistication to the overall presentations, including the food. It makes you feel civilized, comfortable, and welcome."

Anita Angdahl, 60, of Long Beach remembers her mother sending her to Marie Callender's to pick up fresh pies when it was still just a pie shop.

She doesn't have a problem with the new concept, on one condition: "They better never get rid of the pies," she said. “Not ever.”

Marie Callender's Pie Shops Inc.
Founded: 1948
Headquarters: Aliso Viejo
Owner: Castle Harlan Inc.
Revenue: $800 million for the entire brand, including frozen meals and pies. Restaurants: About $350 million a year.
Average revenue for classic restaurants: $2.1 million a year.
Locations: 150 in 10 states
In Orange County : 10

Marie Callender's Restaurant & Bakery

  • Family/casual dining
  • Homestyle, country interior
  • Flat grill
  • Average ticket price: $12.25
  • 8 wines by the glass

Marie Callender's Grill

  • Casual dining
  • Contemporary interior
  • Open-flame mesquite grill
  • Average ticket price: $15.75
  • 22 wines by the glass

New menu items at the grill: Hand-carved 14-hour slow-roasted Angus tri-tip, seared rare ahi tuna steak, hickory smoked baby back ribs, cool citrus chicken salad, chicken lettuce wraps, jumbo coconut shrimp, warm cookie pie a la mode.

Some of the classics that were kept: Chicken pot pie, hand-carved roasted turkey, artichoke and mushroom chicken, "Works" Frisco burger, fresh-baked pies.