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Shoneys shines with new direction
Statesboro restaurant owner Herman Lee likes new menu, CEO
Herman Lee, owner of Shoney's Restaurant on South Main Street, right, chats with customers while checking on the buffet.

On the back of Shoney’s executive business cards is the mantra of new management: restoring the Southern buffet and restaurant chain to its ‘‘glory days.’’  It is the latest attempt to revive the once-dominant comfort food chain, long known for its inexpensive buffets.

            Shoney’s once claimed 1,200 restaurants nationwide, but it has shrunk to 272 in recent years. The Nashville-based restaurant chain’s new owner, CEO and Chairman David Davoudpour, said he is determined to bring the brand back.

            Since he acquired the company last January, Davoudpour has taken over several underperforming franchise locations and turned them into company-owned restaurants. He has vowed to use fresh — not frozen — meat and fruit products and to try to improve service through spot checks of stores and better employee training.   

              ‘‘We want every restaurant to shine,’’ Davoudpour said. ‘‘Basically, I want to be the model of excellence.’’   In the past, some franchisees said they broke the corporate norm to make their restaurants profitable. Part of the problem was inconsistent service and spotty food quality, said Davoudpour, who is also the head of Atlanta-based Royal Capital Corp., the largest franchisee of Church’s Chicken stores.    

             Davoudpour said he wants to set an example for the chain’s remaining four-dozen franchisees by running his 61 corporate-owned stores exceedingly well. Davoudpour recently purchased nine underperforming restaurants in Tennessee and Louisiana from three franchisees.  He said he has spent millions of dollars for basic repairs in many of the company-owned restaurants.

        Some franchisees and customers say Davoudpour has his work cut out for him. A sluggish U.S. economy, high gas prices and other factors have created a rough patch, pushing consumers to slow their spending and dine out less. ‘‘Right now, it’s going to be a longer-than-planned journey to get back,’’ said franchisee Bill Emendorfer, who runs two restaurants in Tennessee and Kentucky. ‘‘I don’t think the new management has had time to implement things that has resurrected the brand yet.’’  

            Local Shoney's franchise owner Herman Lee is optimistic about the restaurant chain's future.

            "We have already begun to implement the new menu and some of the other changes that David (Davoudpour) has brought about," Lee said. "We are seeing a very positive reaction from our customer base. I think David is going to do a great job."

            Lee is owner and operator of four Shoney's restaurants, three in southeast Georgia, and one in South Carolina.

            "Right now, I have restaurants in Statesboro, Hinesville, Savannah, and Hardeeville," Lee said. "As an owner and a member of Shoney's franchise advisory council, I am very excited about David's vision for the company. It has been a very good change."

            Davoudpour said Shoney’s is rolling out new menu items, including mahi-mahi, and revamping old standbys such as the Shoney’s ham and Swiss sandwich, the ‘‘Slim Jim,’’ by using higher quality bread.   The new owner also plans to reduce the price of the weekday breakfast buffet by $1.50 this week, in part to spur diners to give Shoney’s another try.

            For five years, Texas-based Lone Star Funds owned it. Brentwood-based Centrum Equities, an affiliate of Chicago real estate developer Centrum Properties, planned to buy the chain in 2006 but backed out because it alleged that Shoney’s had corporate problems. Centrum sued Shoney’s to get back $1.5 million in earnest money; the case was settled this summer. Davoudpour’s predecessors declined to comment for this article, but Davoudpour, who bought Shoney’s for an undisclosed price, said he would succeed because: ‘‘I don’t work for anyone.’’    

             Some of Davoudpour’s corporate tweaks are winning praise from longtime customers. John Hailey, 28, thanked Davoudpour for what he said was tastier fried chicken on the lunch buffet at one area Shoney’s last week. In return, Davoudpour paid for Hailey’s lunch.  ‘‘It’s always good, but it tastes better,’’ Hailey said.     

            Lee said he knows that this is a challenging time for Shoney's and the restaurant industry in general.

            "My restaurants have continued to perform well, but we have lost some business over time," Lee said. "I attribute that to the economy and competition. We have great food and a great menu, and now we just have to focus on service and execution, day in and day out."

            Lee said his restaurants have been test sites for new menu items that are now being offered.

            "I have worked with the corporate office for the last year on menu item development," he said. "What they have come up with is really, really good. From freshly made hamburgers to Jamaican jerk chicken sandwiches, it is great food."

            John McGowan is Shoney's vice president of franchising. McGowan said Lee is very respected by Shoney's executives and his opinion is a valued one.

            "Herman (Lee) was the first franchise partner to roll out the new menu that we have developed," McGowan said. "He is a model franchisee. He is literally helping us to get to where we want to go. He is just a great guy."

            McGowan said the company has every intention of restoring the Shoney's brand to its former glory through improvements and the addition of new restaurants.

            "We are going to grow this brand," he said. "We are looking to put that in process in the next twelve months. We will be in a very serious growth mode next year.

   The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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