The Changing Face of Eat 'n Park

The hometown franchise is about much more than just Smiley cookies.




Photo by Laura Petrilla
 

With its wooden rain barrel, rooftop veggie garden, gleaming bar, outdoor fireplace and retractable glass wall overlooking the Cathedral of Learning, The Porch at Schenley has the relaxed vibe of a Napa Valley bistro.

Though it sports a few “crunchy” touches, including several rooftop beehives (to produce its own honey) and a massive hearth oven (for sourdough loaves and pizza), the newest addition to Oakland’s casual-dining scene isn’t a California import. It’s a homegrown endeavor bearing the DNA of one of Pittsburgh’s biggest food-service businesses.

Open since November, The Porch is the latest add-on to a company Pittsburghers think they know by heart — or at least by taste. Eat’n Park, launched in 1949 as a South Hills car-hop drive-in, is a regional powerhouse serving 500,000 meals each week. Its 73 family restaurants stretch from Cleveland to State College. Its upscale-casual spots, downtown’s Six Penn Kitchen and The Porch, will be joined by a funky streetfront hybrid, Hello Bistro, in the heart of Oakland next month.  

Meanwhile, the company has embarked on a decade of growth into institutional dining at colleges, cultural destinations and corporate headquarters (through the Parkhurst Dining brand), as well as hospitals and retirement communities across the Mid-Atlantic region. If you grabbed a couple grilled stickies at an Eat’n Park pick-up window this morning, hit the lunchtime salad bar at the Google Pittsburgh cafeteria and had a post-show bite at Six Penn Kitchen, your diet for today would be an Eat’n Park three-peat.

Speaking of three-peats, Eat’n Park Hospitality Group is currently directed by a trio of brothers who represent the second generation of the Broadhurst family: Jeff, 42; Brooks, 40; and Mark, 37. While parents Jim and Suzy are actively involved — Jim is still chairman of the board — they’ve turned over day-to-day operations at the firm’s Homestead headquarters to their sons and a loyal team that oversees 8,000 employees. Despite the recession, the firm’s namesake restaurants have seen their same-store sales in Pittsburgh increase in seven of the past nine years. The reason is simple: Eat’n Park knows what we like. The company has produced fresh, reliable meals day and night for the past 63 years, promoted with catchy advertising jingles, and refined with in-depth feedback. As a result, most of us can immediately recite our favorite items on the menu. The company’s growth has been fueled by a shrewd understanding of customer preferences.

In the pre-microwave, post-World War II era, the essence of dining convenience was a restaurant that would serve you meals in your car. That was Eat’n Park. On its sensational opening day, the tiny yellow diner caused a traffic snarl that closed down Sawmill Run Boulevard in just six hours.

Today, customers still feel the need for speed, and the chain is responding with takeout and pick-up windows at 45 locations. But it is also accommodating new preferences. Urban diners may not need a restaurant with a parking lot. Vegetarians need something other than the standard veggie burger and fries. And most folks see a growing connection between eating fresh, healthy foods and supporting local farmers. Meeting those consumer expectations keeps the company ahead of the national curve.

When the National Restaurant Association forecasted trends for 2012, along with demands for food quality and good value, it noted that health and nutrition topped customer concerns. More than 75 percent of those surveyed said they wanted healthier menu choices, particularly for children’s meals. Nearly as many said they were more likely to patronize restaurants that bought goods from local suppliers.


Fresh salads, slow-roasted meats and irresistible pizzas are hits at The Porch.

 

Eat’n Park is meeting both demands through a nationally recognized program called FarmSource. The program buys produce, meats and dairy products from farmers within 125 miles of its restaurants, spending $23 million with local purveyors last year alone. Its market dominance has created what farmers need to survive: steady local demand for products that otherwise might have to be sold at a loss.

“There’s no one on their scale,” says Neil Stauffer, general manager of the Penns Corner Farm Alliance, a cooperative of more than 30 local farms that sell to the chain. “And it’s not just buying tomatoes in July. It’s everything, milk, eggs, beef, produce — because they have such a diversity of sites.”

Jamie Moore, Eat’n Park’s director of sourcing and sustainability, is a board member of the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture and works on the logistical challenges of sourcing 20 percent of the company’s food purchases locally.

“Jamie is educating his own chefs to get excited about what western Pennsylvania has to offer,” says Stauffer. “He’s spreading the word — our farmers sell good stuff at a fair price.”

A majority of the local farm purchases land on the centerpiece of the firm’s dining operations (and the centerpiece of many Eat’n Park sites): the salad bar. The array of fruits, veggies and soups is the chain’s most popular offering. How popular? Twenty percent of all patrons choose the salad bar, kids included. “People are passionate about it,” says Jeff Broadhurst. “And it’s unique, with the FarmSource spin.”  

The CEO says the company tracks customer preferences rigorously. “We have survey responses from 80 guests per month at every restaurant,” he says. “That gives us a comfort level about introducing new items. Our college locations [through Parkhurst] are our test labs. We see what’s popular there. We’ve been hearing a lot about celiac disease [which requires a gluten-free diet] from both campuses and our retirement communities — for food allergens and dietary restrictions, we’re on the leading edge.” Fifty registered dietitians work alongside chefs to craft new menu items.

Decades of strong growth made the firm a dominant player in the family dining sector by the 1990s, even as competition grew. By the mid-’90s, chairman Jim Broadhurst faced a decision: Expand geographically or diversify within western Pennsylvania? The company’s deep roots and market penetration close to home made the decision easy.

“Our dad was passionate about the area. He lived here,” recalls Jeff, who eventually joined the company in 1996. “Folks trust us, after so many years. The clients we called on initially knew the company and trusted us.”

If you grabbed a couple grilled stickies at an Eat’n Park pick-up window for breakfast, hit the lunchtime salad bar at the Google Pittsburgh cafeteria and had a post-show bite in the Cultural District’s Six Penn Kitchen, your diet for today would be an Eat’n Park three-peat.

A six-decade commitment to charitable giving boosted the firm’s profile. Donating 5 percent of each year’s pre-tax earnings to local causes, Eat’n Park is also a major supporter of the Free Care Fund at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC. Jeff Broadhurst says the firm has donated more than $8 million to that and other children’s health causes throughout the last 33 years; in 2009, it also funded the sixth-floor atrium for the new Children’s Hospital. Its scholarship fund has provided $1 million to employees. In 2010, the firm introduced LifeSmiles, a five-year, $1 million program to encourage children’s health and wellness, designed to complement First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign.

And don’t forget the Smiley cookies, now available in a calorie-conscious mini version. Of the 12 million cookies rolled, baked and iced with a grin each year, 500,000 are given away at community fairs, walks, races and other events. More than 600,000 were sold in the run-up to the Steelers’ appearance in Super Bowl XLIII alone.

While the cookie may seem to have been around forever, Jim Broadhurst, who remembered a similar treat from his childhood in Titusville, introduced it in 1986. Developed as a kids-only freebie, it is almost certainly the only dessert in the country memorialized with a statue (at the Homestead restaurant). As a brand as well as a mascot, Smiley’s got legs. An online e-commerce system for the treats, which can be customized with corporate logos or colors, netted a sweet $800,000 in its first year. It has given the firm an entrée into the food gift market, a fast-growing segment of the industry.     

In 1999, the company acquired Cura, which provided dining services for hospitals and retirement communities. Of the four company brands, Cura has the widest reach, with 50 locations in six Mid-Atlantic states. “It’s more spread out than Eat’n Park,” says Jeff Broadhurst. “The demographics on the retirement side in this area are great — and in the state in general. And independent community hospitals have been a big part of the growth. It’s like Parkhurst — they trust us.”

In 2005, the firm ventured into a neighborhood it had previously ignored: the Golden Triangle.

“We were committed to Pittsburgh, but we had no presence downtown,” explains Mark Broadhurst, director of concept development. (The firm closed a Grant Street location in the 1970s.) Although the development of the Cultural District had increased demand for downtown dining, low numbers of downtown residents at the time ruled out a traditional location. “It wasn’t right for a traditional Eat’n Park. Based on costs, we need breakfast, lunch and dinner [traffic] — all three day parts to make it work.”  But a vacant building on the corner of Sixth and Penn avenues within a block of major Penn Avenue theaters suggested a different possibility.

The two-story structure offered plenty of space but not the unfettered 7,000-square-foot floor that a traditional restaurant and bakery would require. Carefully redesigning the interior and adding a state liquor license — the chain’s first — and rooftop bar, Broadhurst transformed the building into Six Penn Kitchen. Opened in 2005, the casual-dining concept thrived — and suggested another new corporate direction.


Six Penn Kitchen’s rooftop is an ideal spot for post-show dining.

 

Mark Broadhurst began to explore a new casual-dining prototype with help from a brand specialist from Seattle, an architect from Los Angeles and other consultants. “The concept was on-the-go food — quick but made from scratch, as good to eat at home as in the restaurant,” he explains. “We invested a couple hundred-thousand dollars and a fair amount of time” on a design. While the recession put the new plans on the shelf, a request from the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy brought them back to work.

In 2009, the Conservancy invited the firm to submit a proposal for a new restaurant to cap development at Schenley Plaza.

“The Conservancy wanted a high-quality, economically accessible dining location — an all-season anchor,” explains Jim Griffin, director of facilities for the nonprofit since 2008. While Eat’n Park had submitted a first-round proposal for the site in 2005, as it opened Six Penn Kitchen, the nod had gone to another local chain, Atria’s. When the plans for a larger two-story space fell through, Eat’n Park revived its design — and faced some skeptics.

As the firm worked to get city approvals for its designs, rumors spread that a large, suburban-style Eat’n Park would command the Plaza. “There was a quiet uproar from people who used the lawn — [they envisioned] a restaurant with 70 parking spots,” recalls Broadhurst. Those fears couldn’t have been more misguided; the sleek, sustainable design that arose instead blends quietly with the green space at its feet.

Executive chef Kevin Hermann of The Porch worked with Mark Broadhurst to create hearth and rotisserie items: slow-roasted meats, pizzas and fresh salads. “It’s streamlined but allows you to do a bunch of different things,” says Mark Broadhust. “Kevin’s got the freedom to do his thing, Mediterranean-influenced cuisine.”

The Porch isn’t far from the next Eat’n Park concept to debut. Hello Bistro will open its doors next month on Forbes Avenue, in the heart of the Pitt campus.

“We started by asking: ‘What do people really love about Eat’n Park?’ We put the core things in a new package,” says Mark Broadhurst. “The main things are burgers, the salad bar, the breakfasts — and the people, the personality of Eat’n Park.”

At less than 3,000 square feet, the Hello Bistro concept fits “where we can’t put a traditional Eat’n Park,” says Jeff Broadhurst. “East End, downtown, where’s there’s a small footprint but no parking.” Hello Bistro is not merely a minimized Eat’n Park, however; while favorites from the traditional menu will appear, this new endeavor will be a wholly original creation.

Small and sustainable describes other new projects as well.  The new Fox Chapel location, sporting a wind turbine in its parking lot, is the region’s first LEED gold-certified restaurant, meeting top standards for energy-efficient design. Used fryer oil is recycled into biodiesel fuel. The company’s first food trucks are now at Bucknell University, Meryhurst College and MICA (Maryland Institute College of Art), all Parkhurst clients.

While menus will continue to evolve, some things absolutely won’t change.

“Take pies. They’re synonymous with Eat’n Park,” says Jeff Broadhurst. “Three years ago, when the economy was dipping, we took a hard look at the serving size. Our pieces are an inch larger than our competitors; the fruit pies are 10 inches, compared with their 8 or 9 inches, for the same price. But you don’t tinker with something people have a passion for. People would notice. You’d lose the trust.”

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