Sizzler Steakhouse Chain Plans Chicago Return

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Sizzler, a "family-casual" steakhouse chain that once boasted more than 700 locations worldwide, is mapping a return to Chicago.

Culver City, Calif.-based Sizzler USA says it wants to open 18 restaurants in the Chicago area over the next five years, with the first location slated to open within the next 18 months. The expansion is part of a nationwide effort by the company to breathe life into a brand that, until recently, has done more fizzling than sizzling, with just 179 of the original Sizzler outlets still open; none is in Chicago.

"We think we've now got the whole package," Sizzler CEO Kerry Kramp said. "We feel like we can go back into the markets in a much more strategic and disciplined fashion." - Sizzler CEO Kerry Kramp - Sizzler CEO Kerry Kramp Although Sizzler is just starting to scout franchisees and locations, Mr. Kramp said a goal is to recycle as many vacant restaurants as possible, including shuttered Sizzler locations in Naperville, Crystal Lake and Gurnee.

This summer, Sizzler USA, a group led by Mr. Kramp, acquired the company from Australia's Pacific Equity Partners, a move that shifts the spotlight back on the U.S. Unlike other restaurants such as sandwich chains Cosi Inc. of Deerfield and Denver-based Quiznos, Sizzler has actually benefitted from the shaky economy, with three consecutive years of same-store sales increases.

"Sizzler started to do better because they represent a very strong value," said Darren Tristano, executive vice-president of restaurant consultancy Technomic Inc. in Chicago. "They're focusing not on maintaining the brand, but on refreshing, reinventing and regrowing the brand." In addition to new ownership, Sizzler has replaced its single-price buffet with menu of made-to-order seafood and steaks, enabling customers to pay for only the food they want. Choices include an "endless" salad bar for $9.99 at dinner, a $7.69 bacon cheeseburger with fries, and steak and lobster dinner with a side order for $19.99.

"If you come in and just want to get the salad bar and a glass of water and someone else wants to get steak and lobster, we can charge each of you based on what you want to order," Mr. Kramp said. "That's where we clearly differentiate ourselves." Sizzler once had 15 restaurants in metro Chicago, all of which closed after the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 1996, a victim of overexpansion.

Both Messrs. Kramp and Tristano said familiarity should help Sizzler reenter Chicago's competitive market, where it will take on other country-style chains like Raleigh, N.C.-based Golden Corral Corp. and Old Country Buffet, owned by Eagan, Minn.-based Buffets Inc.

"I think there will be an element of nostalgia associated with the Sizzler brand," Mr. Tristano said. "As a result, I think that's a positive for the brand because the nostalgic crowd "" millennials and boomers "" are likely to give it another try." Sizzler also is eyeing expansion into Denver, Minneapolis and St. Louis.

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