||Restaurant Chains, Singers Sharpen Brands Together
At the Texas Roadhouse restaurant in Kenosha, Wisconsin, peanut shells litter the floor, uncooked slabs of steak line a display case and the upbeat twang of country artist Candy Coburn blares from the jukebox.
The little-known singer and the restaurant chain want to blaze a trail together.
Texas Roadhouse Inc. teamed up with Ms. Coburn last year, sponsoring her tour and featuring her songs on its jukeboxes, its line-dancing playlist and its website. In an effort to help get her songs on the air, the chain sent bags of peanuts to radio stations. In return, Ms. Coburn recorded a ditty called "Kick it Up" to help promote a new line of "Kickers" margaritas the chain is rolling out this fall. The song also can be downloaded free on the chain's website.
To attract customers amid a sluggish economy and try to stand out among competitors, Texas Roadhouse and other restaurant chains are increasingly turning to up-and-coming musicians. For their part, the musicians can use all the help they can get to boost their visibility, fund their tours and sell CDs -- functions that are ever more difficult for cash-strapped record labels to perform.
Cracker Barrel Old Country Store Inc. is promoting country singer Josh Turner. On Aug. 27, his new Cracker Barrel-presents CD became available in its stores. Downloadable versions also are available on Amazon.com and Apple Inc.'s iTunes. Meanwhile, LongHorn Steakhouse has supported Darius Rucker, the Hootie & the Blowfish frontman-turned-country singer, and other rising stars. Some restaurants give away concert tickets and have musicians perform at restaurant events.
Ms. Coburn, a former pharmaceutical sales rep whose songs also include "Pink Warrior," written for the Susan G. Komen for the Cure breast-cancer charity, sees corporate deals as her best shot at building a career. The 40-year-old Kentucky native doesn't have a record label and relies on Texas Roadhouse, Anheuser Busch, Arby's Corp. and others to underwrite her career. In exchange for endorsements and performance at corporate functions, Ms. Coburn gets financial stipends and other support from these sponsors.
Artists, she says, are constantly pressed to find "creative ways to build your brand for really, really slim money."
While it is difficult to quantify the effect its alliance with Ms. Coburn has had on sales, Texas Roadhouse says it has raised the chain's profile among country-music lovers. When Ms. Coburn performed at Tootsie's World Famous Orchid Lounge, a well-known Nashville bar, Texas Roadhouse gave out peanuts and served food. "It's about brand awareness," says Travis Doster, a spokesman for Texas Roadhouse, which has 380 restaurants in 47 states and one foreign country. "Lots of country artists are calling us now."
Cracker Barrel, a restaurant and gift shop known for its chicken and dumplings, sells CDs by various artists recorded exclusively for the 616-unit chain. Cracker Barrel declined to say how much it pays to sponsor musicians or how much revenue the CDs have brought in but says it has been a success.
This will be Mr. Turner's second go-round with Cracker Barrel. He sold "hundreds of thousands" of CDs the first time he released an exclusive recording for the chain in 2007, says his manager, Ted Greene, owner of Modern Management in Nashville.
"We all know the music business is going through a lot of changes and technology is driving it, so to have these brick and mortar stores in 600 markets with your record at the front counter is huge," Mr. Greene says.
The music business isn't always successful for restaurants. Although Starbucks Corp. still sells some CDs in its stores, it all but eliminated its music division a few years ago after it proved to be a distraction from its core coffee business.
Sometimes the efforts are lost on customers. Rich and Cindie Phillips, who dine at the Texas Roadhouse in Kenosha every week, have never heard of Candy Coburn even though her album cover is featured on the jukebox. And even if they liked hearing one of her songs while eating, they say they wouldn't bother to download one of them. "That's probably because of my age," says Ms. Phillips, 57, who says she likes country music but just "comes for the steak."
LongHorn Steakhouse, a 392-unit chain owned by Darden Restaurants Inc., began teaming up with country stars in 2005, when it sponsored Kenny Chesney's "Somewhere in the Sun" tour. Since then, its relationship with country music has evolved into a more hands-on program called "Live at LongHorn." Instead of simply slapping its name on concert signage, the company now has musicians perform at new-store openings and meet with contest winners. Lee Brice sang at the opening of a new LongHorn Steakhouse in Sugar Land, Texas, in May, and other musicians will perform at restaurant openings in Phoenix and Salt Lake City in December.
LongHorn declined to say how much the company has spent on its sponsorships, but said it has seen a payoff: After LongHorn sponsored a contest in which the winner got to go fly-fishing with singer Luke Bryan for a day last year, the chain said it acquired 50,000 new Facebook followers, a 40% increase from before the four-week promotion began.
(Source: The Wall Street Journal, 10/10/12)