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Dixie goes south to attract families.

By the time the marketing consultant got to the part about the bright colors and yellow ceilings, Dixie Restaurants' executive vice president Gordon Gondack thought, "Oh, my God."

The Little Rock-based restaurant chain had really just wanted to make its 23 locations more family friendly and grow their dinner business. The mission, Gondack says, wasn't to overhaul an entire section of the restaurant.

Still, by summer 1999, that's just what Dixie Cafes had done. Recognizing that children - not parents - often decide where families eat, account executive Kirk Wallace and the creative team at Forza Marketing Group (formerly Martin & Martin) had set their sights on updating Dixie Cafe's soda fountain.

The result was tweaking the soda fountain as a "destination within a destination." The art deco soda fountain serving ice cream and doses of '50s nostalgia became a kid-friendly place where children's culinary cravings could cope with their parents' pocketbooks.

During the transformation process, Gondack says, he and Dixie president Alan Roberts decided they had to trust Forza's plans. Roberts and Gondack had designed the original soda fountains, which had replaced Dixie's bars - and did twice the business and accounted for about 10 percent of their revenue.

"We just kind of scratched our heads and said, 'Well, it'll come together,'" he says. "And it did. It came together in a big way."

With Forza's help, Dixie Cafe converted nine of its central Arkansas locations' soda fountains into the South Pole, a brightly colored restaurant-within-a-restaurant. Gone are the old fountains' dark colors, Norman Rockwell paintings and limited dessert menus. Dixie's new South Pole is awash in stainless steel, blue neon and attitude.

A fiberglass polar bear in multicolored shorts gives a thumbs-up to visitors as they enter Dixie's new "hot cold spot," marked by a snow-covered south pole decked out in ebullient greens, yellows and oranges. On the rear wall, a mural depicts a quartet of party-ready penguins aiming their pink Cadillac over snow-capped mountains. The menus feature a pop-up pole flanked by a penguin and polar bear, as well as food items like the Polar BURRger, the South Pole Meatloaf Sandwich and the Polar-Berry Popper.

Gondack laughs about the stir he says the South Pole has caused among children, who often run to sit on the fiberglass polar bear's lap.

"It's by far one of the most fun things we've done in a while," he says. "And we're pretty pleased with it."

And a Little Child Shall Lead Them

Forza president Tim Martin's message might scare some long-time businesses, but he tells it anyway.

"These days, you don't have to have done anything wrong in business to not be successful," he says. "The entrepreneur has to be open to change with the flow."

Forza purports to be a "true marketing firm" that will examine a company's total marketing strategy down to distribution, packaging and pricing. According to Martin, businesses might have go beyond simple product promotion to total reexamination if they want to be successful.

Martin cited Munro, a $150 million shoe company in Hot Springs. Despite producing great children's shoes for many years, Martin says, the product failed to keep up with the minds of '90s children. The company's brand of Jumpin' Jacks might not sell to 12-year-olds simply because of the name, he says.

"The business has to re-look at where they're at," Martin says.

To hear Martin tell it, today's marketing strategies can be downright biblical: "And a little child shall lead them."

Martin says Dixie saw competition like Frankie's, Furr's and Denny's taking bigger shares of the market pie. The question, he says, was "how do we keep our product in front of our customers," especially when anyone can imitate any product? The answer was to tap deeper into the family restaurant market by making Dixie exciting for the whole family, starting with the children.

Family restaurants are becoming more important because children have greater influence on where the family eats, Martin says, and Gondack agrees.

"When we were kids, we didn't get a vote," Gondack says. "If we got to go out and eat at all, we went where Dad wanted to go. And that's evolved through the years to the point where Mom usually decides where to go and the kids have veto power.

"That's gone to the next step, which is the kids have a real big say on where they're going, and dad's input is minimized, pretty much," he says.

With that in mind, Martin says it was important for Dixie to find a way to strike a chord with children. With the soda fountain under performing, Martin says, and the difficultly of getting children excited about mashed potatoes and other grown-up foods, Forza pitched a revamped version.

The creative team called the soda fountain the "South Pole at Dixie Cafe." Martin says the new concept keeps Dixie connected with the South and Southern food. The restaurant wanted to "own" the word "South" like FedEx "owns" the word "overnight," so that word and the company are linked in the minds of customers.

The South Pole's look has purpose, too. The bright colors, polar bears and penguins are designed to excite children and set the area apart from the downhome country decor of the restaurant. Children feel as if they have their own area, Martin says.

In addition' to changing the soda fountain's look, Forza added a children's menu, including specialty foods offered only at the South Pole. The soda fountain also serves ice cream available through Dixie's partnership with Yarnell's. The partnership features a Yarnell's product - the Polar-Berry Popper, a sherbet sprinkled with Pop Rocks candies - offered exclusively at Dixie. All of this, Martin says, creates a brand you can't get anywhere else.

"The silver bullet is more than just promotion," he says.

Martin says children have an expectation of a place, and if you meet those expectations, they'll want to return. For example, Martin says, a child might like to eat at McDonald's because of the PlayPlace, an on-site playground with slides and tunnels. The child might play on the equipment during only 40 percent of his visits, he says, but he's connected with the experience and wants to return.

Though the changes at Dixie have apparently won some children's approval - including enthusiastic nods from Roberts' own children- Gondack says it will be a while before he can determine whether the "hot cold spot" can generate cold cash. Roberts says it might be the fourth quarter of 2000 before he can gauge success.

"Unfortunately, we got that installed at the end of the summer, rather than the beginning of the summer, which is the peak ice cream eating season," Gondack says. "... But at this point we have to say it's pretty darn exciting.

"And it's not exciting because we're selling a ton of ice cream, because we're not," he adds. "But it's ... bringing [in] that 'destination within a destination' and a separate identity to the soda fountain."

Gondack says he and Roberts' goal with the original soda fountain was to tap into nostalgic memories of drugstore soda shops. Unfortunately, few shared in their vision, he says.

"Although it looked like it was neat and just like what we remembered, nobody else remembered," he says. "We kind of missed a generation there."

Gondack and Roberts think they've tapped into that lucrative generation this time. They plan to install South Poles in their other 14 locations next year at a cost of between $15,000 $20,000 per location, Roberts says.

"All we're looking for is something that is attractive to the kids and therefore families," Gondack says. "And we didn't know exactly what that would be, and that was [Forza's] job ...

"We weren't doing it for us. We'd already done it our way, and it hadn't been a failure, but it hadn't been a huge hit."
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Title Annotation:Dixie Restaurants Inc.
Comment:Dixie goes south to attract families.(Dixie Restaurants Inc.)
Author:Turner, Lance
Publication:Arkansas Business
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 18, 1999
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