Dave Eldredge serves as the Director of Marketing for Elite Restaurant Group, owner of Slater’s 50/50, Daphne’s Mediterranean, Paxti’s Pizza and Gigi’s Cupcakes. This longtime restaurant veteran (literally…he served in the Air Force) has embraced the challenges of not only managing four very different products and brands, but doing so with the added variable of the franchise model. But despite the overwhelming complexity of moving parts, Eldredge has risen to the occasion by bringing out the best of each brand through product innovation, technology integration and community engagement.

Eldredge shared insight on how he’s tackled such hurdles, as well as imparted advice for restaurant owners to build their concept’s brand.

How did you get started in restaurants and what led you to Elite Restaurant Group?

My role in restaurants started as a teenager. I began as a dishwasher, moved up to be a prep cook, then a line cook. I continued to progress doing pretty much everything you can do in a restaurant, except for bartending.  After graduating high school, I went into the military, where I served in the Air Force on an electronic warfare plane. When my enlistment was up, I wanted to go straight back into restaurants, but my family pushed me into college. I earned my MBA right afterward, completing six years of school in about 3½ years.

When I got out of school, I was an attractive candidate for defense contractors, but took a job in marketing with Dunkin’ Brands. I was making 1/3 of what I would’ve made as a defense contractor, but it was what I loved. I held various roles at Dunkin’ for six years. 

The next step of my career took me to various e-commerce groups and retailers, but when I saw this opportunity with Elite, I jumped on it. It takes me back to my roots. 

Elite Restaurant Group is like a home flipper for restaurants. You acquire distressed brands and turn them around. Can you elaborate on that model?

We buy brands with good foundations. Our goal is not to gobble them up as Elite, but to turn them around as a brand. We’re brand-focused and want to make sure that we’re doing what’s best for each individual concept we own. Elite Restaurant Group doesn’t have a website for itself, nor a LinkedIn page, and that’s very conscious. Each concept needs to be its own ongoing cause.

I love the opportunity to work with franchisees, rather than just with an internal corporate team. [The franchisees] depend on you to keep their lights on. You don’t have that perspective in other segments of the restaurant industry. 

Working with each brand individually must come with some additional challenges. Can you discuss a few?

At Daphne’s, we have our baby boomer customers who just want a low cost pita. But we also have our millennials who want more authentic Mediterranean experiences. It’s very hard to give both of these groups what they want. So we expanded the menu. We brought in shawarma, we created pita burgers. 

At Gigi’s cupcakes, people think about the cupcake fad being over and done with. Gigi’s is more about franchisees serving their community. Yes we sell cupcakes, but we also sell experiences, like our famous boo box. We make the product more relevant to the community. Customers are also socially conscious about how businesses impact their communities, so we’ve focused the brand so that 100% of profits go back into the community through charitable events. We’re celebrating the art of baking.

And Slater’s is all about the experience. Our over-the-top burgers and milkshakes speak for themselves there. 

You’re integrating a lot more technology into each brand as well. What are some of your projects that are pushing these concepts further into the digital age?

For Slater’s, previously, we had to print out coupons and pay for direct mail. I’m investing in CRM, so we can market to our audience in a more relevant way. We’re looking at Atmosphere [formerly Chive TV) and testing that in a few locations. Typically on a slower weekday, you’ll see SportsCenter on around the bar and it’s not super compelling dining, but Atmosphere puts on viral content that really engages the millennial audience. We want to emphasize the ‘dinnertainment’ aspect of dining. Sports are of course integral to our DNA at Slater’s, but we’re also talking about ways we can leveraged streaming media.

For Gigi’s, we’re trying to get to a point where our signage is always digital. People buy with their eyes. We want to make our menu boards more dynamic, highlight more cupcake flavors people might enjoy. 

We get [technology] ideas from vendors left and right. We’re testing mobile charging stations that allow us to market to customers.

What are some of the seismic shifts you’ve seen that are affecting the restaurant business as a whole, regardless of concept? 

People are shifting what they expect out of dining. When I was brought up, I looked at value as how much something costs vs. what I get for that price. Restaurants were discount focused back then: couponing, lunch menus, focusing on specific price points. Millennials look at things holistically. They’re not as focused on price, but rather the all-encompassing experience when they go to a restaurant. They’re judging brands in terms of ‘how is it going to affect my life?’ 

They want to share the experience with their friends, whatever that wow factor is. That’s what’s driving the new consumer segment. [Restaurants need to] evolve their business model to appeal to that type of consumer. 

Coming from the retail/ecommerce world, I’m trying to bring some of the best practices there into the restaurant world.

What additional marketing advice do you have for restaurant owners?

Think bottom up when it comes to restaurants. At the end of the day, people are enjoying not just your recipes but your location. It’s not like it was in years past. 

When I look at a marketing campaign, the first thing I want to know is whether what I’m selling is relevant to the customer. We could try selling fried chicken at Slater’s, but it’s not relevant, because people come to us for our burgers.

Then, think about your ability to execute operationally. And finally, as yourself, ‘based on all my efforts, is this profitable for the franchisee?’ At the end of the day, if it’s not profitable, it’s not going to work. 

In restaurants, you have to create a unique experience and do your best every single day, transaction by transaction.