Innovator Interview: Ruby Tuesday's CMO Jenifer Boyd Harmon

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Jenifer Boyd Harmon, chief marketing officer at casual dining chain Ruby Tuesday, joined the brand in May 2019 with the mission of refreshing the brand and appealing to younger audiences. Brand Innovators caught up with her to discuss how the company has adapted during the pandemic and what is next on the menu for the brand.

Jenifer Boyd Harmon, chief marketing officer at casual dining chain Ruby Tuesday, joined the brand in May 2019 with the mission of refreshing the brand and appealing to younger audiences. She was only about 10 months into her role when the pandemic began.

“We were just at the point where we were beginning to turn sales around, increasing in-store sales and overall guests,” she says. “Then the pandemic hit.”

Fortunately, the company had already built out to-go and third-party delivery opportunities and was able to escalate these offerings in a very short period of time once restaurant dining rooms were closed. 

“We managed to get four different third-party delivery platforms on-board, fully integrated and situated,” says Boyd Harmon. “That helped us out a lot in the first few weeks when COVID initially hit and all but one of our dining rooms were closed. As they opened again, we had the facilities to deliver much better to-go products, and we’re hitting on all cylinders with third-party delivery and off premise, which has been a lifesaver for us.” 

Still, it has not been easy. During 2020, the restaurant chain had to close one-third of its 450 global restaurants and filed for bankruptcy in October. The company attributed these losses to a competitive marketplace and many dining rooms closed for use or limited in capacity. The judge recently approved Ruby Tuesday’s plan to emerge from bankruptcy in late February. 

But these shifts are also helping the brand push for more innovation and customer experience planning. “It puts a lot of pressure on us, but it helps us move quicker and more efficiently,” says Boyd Harmon. “We gather together and put decisions into place, having done a lot of research. We have begun to roll out ghost kitchens, partnering with online brands on products not currently available in our communities. We make them in our kitchens and are selling out the back-end, not as the Ruby Tuesday brand, but they are being cooked and prepared in the Ruby Tuesday kitchen.”

Harmon is speaking at Brand Innovators Trend Watch livecast event on March 16th. We recently caught up with Harmon to discuss the brand’s latest innovations, ghost kitchens, and the future of dining. This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

As consumers seek more delivery and take out options, how have you adapted the menu to meet these needs?

We have streamlined our menu. We did so during the COVID period because we weren’t selling as much and it gave us the opportunity to reassess if we actually needed all these products. Additionally, we had to make sure we did have the products that our customers were thrilled about. We narrowed the menu down, but we didn’t eliminate anything that people love, which has helped us as we search for the right mix of products on our menus and determine what our loyal guests are expecting from us. We have attracted new guests too. 

For Ruby Tuesday, we will continue to have the things that our guests count on and look forward to like our ribs, seafood, hickory bourbon salmon, and burger line-up. 

We are not abandoning our Garden Bar, 79% of our guests still want it served in the same exact way they’ve always had it. But, we went ahead and added the Garden Bar as an item you can order online. You can select from 50 items and have that salad made for you when you arrive for pickup. We are looking to add that option to third-party delivery too. The Endless Garden Bar is a part of the legendary history of Ruby Tuesday.

We have stepped up our packaging and changed it up a little to allow for longer car rides with third-party delivery drivers who may make multiple pickups. We are looking at sustainability, product integrity, and insulation quality. All of those things have been addressed. 

What role is curbside pick up playing for the business these days?

Although we let go of curbside for a number of years, Ruby Tuesday used to be a brand which really owned curbside; We created it and guests loved it. Then, people moved away from curbside pickup, more towards delivery and less pick-up. But, during COVID, curbside pickup was critical. It allowed for contactless pay, as people would just open their door or their trunks, and the deal was done. Curbside pickup has become very big again. I don’t think it will go away even after COVID reduces and we return to a new normal. I think we will see that people want to continue picking up their food and will be eager for that opportunity. 

Can you talk about how you are promoting your menu items in new and innovative ways?

We have built a lot of our products around family bundles, around catering for small get togethers. People still need to have small parties for their children, baptisms, graduations, they just don’t invite 50 people to the party. It’s more like 8 to 20. We have leaned into that with our catering, we have a really strong catering menu which has helped sustain us.  

All of this is focusing on off-premise, everything from our takeout program TueGo – where we really have a signature standard we embrace – to curbside pickup and delivery. 

You just rolled out Pasta Americana, a new delivery-only brand that serves up pasta dishes cooked in Ruby Tuesday kitchens. How did this come about?

We rolled out Pasta Americana, our delivery-only concept, as its own brand in ten areas across the country. It was created over the summer to satisfy the craving for comfort food and offered a product that could travel extremely well. Pasta travels well with sauce, maintaining the heat with good packaging. It’s actually really great when you get home, and you do not need to reheat it. 

This is our first third-party brand that we have created within the kitchens of Ruby Tuesday. We have only been doing it for a few weeks and our sales have been significant. The concept has its own website and Google listings. We are very transparent about the fact that it was created and crafted out of the kitchens of Ruby Tuesday, and the brand has soared so far. We are really excited about it. 

How has your marketing been impacted by the pandemic?

We have reduced our marketing budgets tremendously. Immediately, sales in the restaurant industry went down 76%. We all reduced our budgets by about the same. We are spending again, but we are not spending on television. We used to use television in a non-traditional way, but it was still the biggest part of our spend. We are now heavily invested in digital. Our whole budget is solely in digital marketing, search and paid social. We have influencers and they use their local outreach to connect with communities. Cause marketing is also a huge part of our communications plan. But the overall spend for marketing, as far as media, is very small compared to what it was in the past. 

All restaurants need to think about this. Whether you are a local player or a bigger brand, you need to realize that there are many restaurants that didn’t make it. If you are open and still going strong, and able to deliver great food in good time – I don't just mean deliver in the sense of ‘off-premise,’ but deliver a promise to consumers – those restaurant brands all have a super big future, because there is not as much competition out there right now. 

What does eating out look like a year from now? How will the pandemic have shifted consumer behavior?

Anyone with a large dining room is envious of QSR. There are many aspects of the discipline of a QSR business or a fast-casual restaurant (like Panera Bread or Chipotle) that make managing the pandemic easier. There are things that you learn from these companies which can make you more efficient. If you think about how Ruby Tuesday took the Endless Garden Bar and made it a to-go item, we may not have thought of that before March. There are many variations required for ordering but we are making the salads to-order for the guests, just like a Chipotle or a Panera would do. It’s forced us into an arena which we had stayed away from in the past. 

Take-out has always been important but delivery became even more important in the past 2-3 years since grocery stores began to deliver food everywhere, like the mammoth Whole Foods partnership with Amazon. I’d say that we knew it was coming, but it took COVID for us to make all those fast and speedy decisions. We made a few mistakes, and we had to fix them, but overall we are lightyears ahead in terms of off-premise and delivery this coming year than we would have been without the pandemic. 

However, COVID certainly wasn’t a good thing for us. We had to close so many stores that just couldn’t perform with dining rooms closed.

The ghost kitchens will stay around. Ruby Tuesday has the capacity in the back of house and it’s a great way to provide more than just your standard menu to foodies looking for something different. It’s no question, we are going to continue doing it. And we can help build emerging third-party brands.   

What do you think dining will look like once the pandemic ends?

We think that when guests really come back into the dining rooms, we might have different guests and they will probably come to us more frequently. I think their occasions using our brand will increase, not just for sit-down but also for convenience with our offerings of TueGo and delivery. From my point of view, brands need to go wherever their guests go. You need to have the facility, the packaging which gives food the ability to travel, so that we can fit into our users’ lifestyles. That really is a big step that casual dining needed to take. We have so many different products that were not initially built for off premise. But we have definitely stepped up and feel good about the off-premise focus. 

Sales are heading back up to almost normal. We have a super great plan for the spring. We end our fiscal year in May, I believe we will end on a very good note. We are down to what we would consider to be our best restaurants in our strongest markets. We have a very bright future. 

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