Besieged iconic chain Hog’s Breath has a bold plan to rebuild the brand and regain the confidence of its franchisees and customers after some of the company’s darkest days.
In the past four months alone, the franchise has shed four eateries, reducing the number of outlets to just 47 after once boasting more than 80 less than four years ago.
Adding to the chaos, CEO Ross Worth departed in February 2020 as a company he was director of, which also ran several Hog’s Breath Cafes, was placed into liquidation owing more than $1 million.
The future of the once-popular eatery has fallen back onto proud co-founders Don Algie and Ginger White.
The pair returned to the fold in November after repurchasing the franchise arm of the chain they started in 1989 at Airlie Beach in the Whitsundays.
WHERE DID IT GO WRONG?
In taking over, Mr Algie and Ms White confronted a business they built from scratch, lacking trust between head office and franchisees and confusion over branding.
It was during Mr Worth’s tenure that the business ditched its celebrated name Hog’s Breath Café to become Hog’s Australia’s Steakhouse in 2016.
The decision was heavily criticised by franchisees as poor and confusing.
Ms White acknowledged the chain needed to realign itself and become united after some tough years which she said were “very disappointing” to witness.
“It’s been a bit of an issue that the branding and the system got divided, so it was very disappointing, not only for ourselves but we felt for our franchisees as well,” Ms White told NCA NewsWire.
“Part of the rebranding exercises we’ve done is that we want to really evoke those good times in memories to bring back that nostalgia of the original branding.”
STOPPING THE HAEMORRHAGING
In charge of leading the chain out of a financial pigsty is CEO Steve Spurgin, whose solid background in hospitality includes a three-year stint with French food services and management company Sodexo.
First appointed as a caretaker, eight months before the co-founders returned but immediately after Mr Worth departed, Mr Spurgin was handed the arduous task of stopping the financial haemorrhaging of the chain.
But before he went to work on improving the retail side of the business, there were back-of-house problems that first needed to be addressed.
“When I joined under the previous owners, the biggest problem was the trust between the system and the franchisees and that trust is being reinstalled,” he said.
“We have adopted a more supportive role, as opposed to a dictatorial role.”
FINDING ITS FEET
To get a grip on what had plagued the company, a US-based marketing team was brought in to determine how Hog’s Breath could re-engage with their previous clientele while attracting new consumers.
Their feedback, based on social media research, was encouraging, while critical of decisions in the past that led to a demise in the restaurant’s appeal, said Mr Spurgin.
“The reason we went there with the American marketing team, is we wanted an unbiased view and we wanted it done independently of our influence,” he said.
“They found Hog’s is a very relevant brand in the marketplace and it’s truly loved and known in the marketplace.
“We just need to reset our position very clearly away from confused branding and divorce ourselves from all the decisions made in the past.”
A BOLD REVIVAL
If all goes to plan in a post-COVID world, then Mr Spurgin wants up to 10 new Hog’s Breath Cafe opening their doors every year.
The timing depends very much on states not enforcing lockdowns and border closures.
“My great hairy audacious goal, for want of a better word, is to be in a position to open 10 restaurants a year within five years,” he said.
“Once we start getting more surety around the state government’s attitude toward lockdowns, it will allow new franchisees to be prepared to take the risk in the business, not take the risk in the current trading environment.”
Under the new changes, Hog’s Breath will change its menu twice a year – but its trademark curly fries and slow-cooked prime rib steak will remain staples, Mr Spurgin said.
“I’m looking at a menu development that is working through a six-month cycle, to make sure our old favourites are always there but we deliver relevant tastes that are in the market and meeting the demand of our customers,” he said.
“Our last menu hasn’t been changed for two years.”
CAN HOG’S SURVIVE?
It remains to be seen if, no matter how much love, money and passion is thrown at the brand, Hog’s Breath can survive in the highly-competitive restaurant industry and regenerate consumer interest.
Retail and marketing expert Professor Gary Mortimer said the company had made the right decision to refer to a “neutral” third-party to evaluate the brand and revert back to its original name.
“There’s always value in nostalgic marketing and consumers that have grown up and experienced the original Hog’s Breath will be more inclined to trial any new business ventures,” the QUT academic said.
He warned Hog’s Breath would have to fight to be the prime destination for steak lovers although they may be able to attract ex-Sizzler clients.
“I do hold out hope they will regenerate business,” Mr Mortimer said.
“While we’ve seen consumers shift away from steak to lighter options, there is a segment of the market, possibly ex-Sizzler clients, that want the steak and three veg offer.”