After nearly 60 years in business, the McGaugheys are tweaking their recipe.
Their locally based chain of MCL Cafeterias has a loyal following among the blue hair and bingo set. But after 12 months of market research, MCL discovered younger folks and families aren't familiar with the taste of the Mayfield's Value Plate or the Noon Special.
So the company has launched a $1 million campaign to reposition its brand. MCL has dropped the "cafeteria" moniker and its connotations of a high school lunchroom. Instead, it is attempting to rebrand its buffet by rolling out a new identity: MCL Restaurant and Bakery.
"The thought is, if we emphasize the food, rather than the mode of delivery, we're maybe going to get some new folks to try us," said MCL Chairman Craig McGaughey, 58.
"Businesses have to change. It's not good enough to continue to do a great job at what you're doing. But at the same time, we want to be loyal to what we are, and not try to be something that we're not."
Once a staple for budget-conscious diners, cafeterias had their heyday decades ago. Industry analysts say increased competition led to the slow, steady decline of most chains.
Founded in 1950, MCL has 20 locations in Indiana, Ohio and Illinois, 2,000 employees and annual sales of $45 million. It's still a family business, owned entirely by the McGaughey family. And Craig McGaughey said MCL remains profitable.
But MCL is not immune to the trend. Twenty years ago, the McGaugheys operated 31 eateries.
"For a long time, cafeterias were pretty much the only game in town," said Ron Ruggless, a bureau chief for the Dallas-based trade magazine Nation's Restaurant News. "But now competition offers the customer so many other options."
MCL is smart to adjust to the times, said Steve Delaney, a restaurant specialist with Carmel-based Sitehawk Retail.
"Cafeterias in America have become kind of passe," he said. "Their time has come and somewhat gone. [MCL is] one of the few shining stars in that segment to have broader appeal to restaurant customers."
MCL's new logo includes the phrase "homemade every day." That's always been the case, but now the company is stepping up efforts to get the word out. A new radio campaign, for instance, features the signature sound of a carving knife being sharpened.
"Good food is for everyone," said Casey McGaughey, Craig's son and the company's director of business development. "It's not just for an older demographic."
Casey, a 26-year-old graduate of Tulane University who grew up working for MCL, is spearheading the rebranding.
He doesn't want to overhaul the chain or to alienate longtime customers. Comfort foods like fried chicken and casseroles remain on the menu. But it's evolving to include slightly more exotic fare, such as cedar-plank salmon.
To help analyze its clientele, MCL hired local advertising firm Foundry to lead a one-year market study. Research included 55 face-to-face interviews with MCL staff, suppliers, customers and residents near restaurants, plus another 634 online interviews.
The result: Outside its core customers, folks had forgotten MCL. Or never heard of it in the first place.
"Rather than look at that as a bad thing, we saw an opportunity," said Barrett Crites, Foundry's MCL account supervisor. "We could focus on repositioning."
Foundry's resulting campaign emphasizes five selling points: homemade, fresh, family-friendly, variety and value. Crites noted that MCL makes all the noodles for its chicken noodle soup each morning at 5 a.m. And the cafeterias always have freshly baked whole pies ready for takeout.
"We just took what they already had and showcased it," Crites said.
Also setting MCL apart, company officials say, is personalized service--perhaps an unexpected strength for a chain featuring a buffet format.
Terry Davidson, manager of MCL's Speedway location, said he makes sure one of his employees visits customers' tables within two minutes after they sit down. He's also there to wish them good night as they depart.
Davidson has worked for MCL for 38 years and has been a manager since 1976. He said his longevity isn't unusual for MCL, though it's a rarity in the food-service industry, where turnover is rampant.
Longtimers like Davidson and Craig McGaughey still occasionally forget to call MCL a restaurant instead of a cafeteria.
For potential customers, the transition may be even tougher. Branding campaigns take a long time to register with the public, said Jonlee Andrews, director of the Center for Brand Leadership at Indiana University's Kelley School of Business.
She said people will have to hear the radio ads many times before they associate the knife-sharpening sound with MCL.
With more than a half-century under its belt, Casey McGaughey said, MCL knows how to take its time.
And if the strategy succeeds, the payoff could be substantial. He said MCL could begin adding locations in coming years.
"Everyone should be able to eat a good meal at a fair price," he said. "You should be able to eat here every day and always get something different."