Big makeover unveiled for steakhouse chain with Dayton roots

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

The formerly Dayton-based Ponderosa Steakhouse is a survivor — and now it’s headed for a significant makeover.

The restaurant chain that once called Dayton its home has survived countless ownership changes and a brush or two with bankruptcy over its 48 years. And it still operates two buffet restaurants in the Dayton area: at 4918 Airway Road in Dayton and at 602 Taywood Road in Englewood, as well as locations in Urbana and near the Tri-County Mall.

But as we old-timers know, Ponderosa’s glory days were decades ago and had a distinctly Dayton flavor.

In 1974, the steakhouse chain opened a new steak-shaped corporate headquarters near Dayton International Airport, just two years after the company became a Wall Street darling when its stock price jumped from $8.50 to $119.50 per share.

Back in those days, the steakhouse chain was run by Gerald S. Office Jr., the longtime chairman and chief executive of Ponderosa who guided the company from 1968, three years after its founding, until January, 1987, when it was bought out by New York financier Asher Edelman for $285 million.

By 1989, Ponderosa operated 736 restaurants worldwide, more than any other U.S. steakhouse chain, and that same year, it merged with the second-largest steakhouse chain, Bonanza, which had 579 units. The marriage got off to a rocky start: Bonanza franchise owners hired lawyers after Ponderosa’s then-president J. Michael Jenkins suggested they convert all their restaurants to the Ponderosa brand. The two sides eventually worked out their differences, and the Bonanza nameplate survived.

After emerging from bankruptcy proceedings in 2008, the Ponderosa-Bonanza marriage remains intact today, under the parent company Homestyle Dining LLC, based in Plano, Texas. The number of restaurants in the combined company, however, has shrunk from the 1,300-plus of 1989 to 223 today.

But just this week, Homestyle unveiled plans for a “brand refresh and culinary revitalization,” as well as a “renewed emphasis on franchise growth,” for both Ponderosa and Bonanza that includes a new line of flavored steaks, with toppings such as blue cheese, garlic, cumin, and coffee; new seafood offerings; and the addition of several “Light ‘N Healthy” menu items.

There will also be an “interior refresh,” company officials said.

The headline on the news release sent out by Homestyle Dining reads, “At 50 Years Young, Bonanza and Ponderosa Steakhouse Restaurants Look to a Rebranded Future.”

Homestyle Dining CEO Tom Sacco said the rebranding initiative will begin in early 2014.

“It’s an exciting time for both Bonanza and Ponderosa as we celebrate 50 years and as we grow and adapt for the next half-century,” Sacco said in the news release. “We look toward the future but will not sacrifice our authenticity. With a refocused attention to quality food, friendly service in a comfortable and inviting environment, the guests have been responding amazingly well to the changes we have made. … We fully anticipate that as we ramp up our brand refresh next year, we’ll continue to see dramatic improvements in guest feedback and traffic.”

It’s a new chapter for a company that enjoyed its heyday — its first heyday, anyway — right here in Dayton.

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©2013 the Dayton Daily News (Dayton, Ohio)

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