Master of Reinvention

Anthony Wedo has spent a lifetime building restaurant brands, but his latest endeavor may be the most challenging yet

Anthony Wedo CEO, Ovation Brands Career Advice: “You have to have passion. This business is very difficult and impossible to do as just an intellectual exercise. Your heart will make the difference.”
Anthony Wedo
CEO, Ovation Brands
Career Advice: “You have to have passion. This business is very difficult and impossible to do as just an intellectual exercise. Your heart will make the difference.”

Anthony Wedo is a man that embraces change, so when he had an opportunity to reexamine one of the most traditional and unchanged models in the restaurant business, he jumped at the chance. “It’s that classic definition of insanity, doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results,” says Wedo, who joined Ovation Brands as CEO in December 2012. “Moving forward requires disruption, requires a different way of thinking and acting—and leading.”

At the time, Ovation Brands was in need of such direction. As CEO, Wedo was inheriting the parent company of Ryan’s, HomeTown Buffet, Old Country Buffet, Country Buffet, Fire Mountain, and Tahoe Joe’s Famous Steakhouse, taking on responsibility for 18,000 employees serving 100 million guests a year in 342 locations across 37 states. The picture wasn’t a healthy one. The company had just completed its second bankruptcy filing. Sales and morale were low. Guest counts were on a dangerous trajectory, and consumer sentiment about the brands was flagging. Internally, there was confusion, lack of focus, and a general lack of faith in the long-term future of the enterprise.

“I spent a lot of time analyzing the situation prior to coming on board, and I connected with two very valuable truths,” Wedo says. “First, there was an enormously powerful consumer value proposition: you can come into these restaurants and consume all you want of 75 different recipes made from scratch. Where else can you do that? Second, the business focused on families, and I believe families today are struggling and need support. The idea that our business could be a real and meaningful assistance to families at their core felt almost like a calling to me.”

Wedo’s background had prepared him well for the job. He has spent nearly 25 years in the restaurant industry, including positions as chairman and CEO of New World Restaurant Group, which owns and operates seven major bagel brands in the United States, and as COO of Boston Market, which recently experienced its own turnaround. “My mission in life is reinvention and turnaround,” he says.

At Ovation, Wedo’s first object was to make employees believe a revitalization was possible. “I inherited a business that had been through difficult times, and the people who work here had suffered,” he says. “I had to create an environment of hope, and show people there was something better coming.”

Step two was to “inspire the minds and change the paths of everyone who serves our guests,” Wedo says. New management helped create a cultural shift, and the team began promoting a new vision for reinvesting in the business. The strategy was three-pronged, involving changes to food delivery, hospitality, and décor. “I’ve been in the restaurant industry a long time, so a lot of it was intuition, but we also researched what our guests expect and the changes were based on those insights,” Wedo says.

The success of these building blocks allowed Wedo to drive the business forward—quickly and in a proven manner. “We take our three components, roll them up, and deliver them to the guest with an advertising campaign called the ‘make-it-right guarantee,’” he says. “I’m on television in each market, promising folks that if the experience isn’t exactly what they want, we’ll make it right. And we do.”

Since late 2013, Ovation Brands has been launching its new concept in test markets, first in Denver, Colorado, then in San Diego and Fresno, California—and now in Minneapolis, Minnesota. It’s been a resounding success, with a sales increase of 40–60 percent seen in Denver restaurants. “I call it the secret sauce,” says Wedo. “Each of those four ingredients—the food delivery, the hospitality, the décor, the make-it-right guarantee—is necessary for success. And, when you get that recipe right, no one can resist.”