Engaged in the Cincinnati chili wars, Gold Star Chili stands out with an emphasis on community initiatives
Most every city has its one special cuisine, a food that can practically bring brand loyalists to blows. In New York, it's pizza. In Chicago, it's hot dogs. And in Cincinnati, it's chili.
Not chili as in hearty, meaty Texas chili, loaded with beans and fire. Cincinnati-style chili, originally served by Greek immigrants in the early 1920s, has a sweet, cinnamon-y taste and thinner, runnier consistency. And according to the Greater Cincinnati Convention and Visitors Bureau, Cincinnatians consume more than 2 million pounds of their own chili every year.
"You have to understand that chili in Cincinnati is a big, big deal," says Rodger Roeser, VP at Justice & Young Public Relations (J&Y), the Cincinnati-based AOR for Gold Star Chili. Started in 1965, the 90% franchised chain now has 105 units throughout Ohio, Indiana, and Kentucky, and features a menu of classic Cincinnati chili fare: "Three-way" is spaghetti noodles topped with chili and shredded cheese; "four-way" and "five-way" add onions and red beans to the mix. Gold Star also serves chili-cheese hot dogs (called "coneys"), chili-cheese fries, and other smothered delights. In its entirety, the company makes more than 15,000 pounds of chili per day and more than 7.5 tons each year.
Though Gold Star is a regional icon - and the "official chili" of the Cincinnati Bengals - to compete with the likes of Skyline Chili and Dixie Chili in the area's ongoing chili wars, Roeser says it was necessary to "take the personality of the brand and breathe some life into it, make [it] more vibrant and robust."
Recent PR initiatives include a new Web site and e-club, aggressive search engine optimization, and an aspirational campaign focused on both Gold Star's already dedicated audience (mostly 40-plus men, Roeser says), as well as younger families and college-age singles.
From a PR standpoint, it's an emphasis on community involvement that also makes the brand stand apart, says Lori Busse Hubbard, marketing director at Gold Star.
"We're the kind of local chain restaurant that people look to, to provide information, as well as great food and service," Hubbard says.
She adds that the company's community-service outreach has two main focuses: fire-safety education and military support.
While fire safety and chili just makes sense, Hubbard explains, the cause also "seemed to be underdeveloped" in terms of corporate support. "Not a lot of companies were placing an emphasis on this," she notes.
That's where Gold Star saw an opportunity. Since 2002, the brand has hosted an annual Firefighter Education Night across its restaurants, inviting local firefighters to share safety tips and take-home materials with dining patrons. Outreach efforts, which include in-store signage, bag stuffers, and media relations, have brought outstanding visibility to both the fire-safety issue and the restaurants, Hubbard says. This summer, more than 10,000 families - as well as plenty of regional media - attended the events.
Among its other annual fire-safety efforts, Hubbard adds, Gold Star partners with the American Red Cross for the Safe Summer Nights smoke-alarm donation program. From May to September, she explains, area firefighters "go to inner-city neighborhoods to do smoke-alarm checks for the elderly, lower-income, [and] other folks at risk." If their detectors don't work, she says, new ones will be installed free of charge with batteries provided courtesy of Gold Star Chili.
Another aspect of the brand's commitment to community involvement is military outreach, Hubbard says.
In 2003, Gold Star launched Operation Chili Care, which allowed any patron with "a loved one serving overseas to pick up a free can of chili to include in [his or her] care package," Hubbard says. If the family member also filled out an information card, Gold Star's CEO would write a personal note, thanking the soldier directly.
A second program, Serving Our Troops, was launched earlier this summer. For this, Hubbard says, Gold Star restaurants treat returning soldiers to a welcome-home reception for 10 - complete with free meals, a cake, a banner, and balloons - "to make up for the many months they weren't able to enjoy Gold Star Chili."
Prior to the serviceperson's return, family members can go online to arrange the party or call Gold Star's corporate office. Restaurants are currently hosting at least "a couple of receptions a week," Hubbard says.
While Cincinnati's chili wars are destined to continue, it's these kinds of community-centric efforts - as well as a dedication to good food - that will help keep Gold Star top of mind with consumers while helping the brand firmly uphold its family and community-oriented roots, says J&Y's Roeser.
"It's about sharing food and fun, and being together," he says. "I just can't reveal any secret ingredients."
AT A GLANCE
Company: Gold Star Chili
CEO and President: John Sullivan
Revenues and latest earnings: Privately owned company, but approximately $60 million in 2005
Competitors: Skyline Chili, Empress Chili
Key trade titles: QSR, Nation's Restaurant News
PR budget: About $50,000 annually, 15% of total advertising/marketing budget
Marketing and comms team: Lori Busse Hubbard, marketing manager
Mickey Kamfjord, LSM coordinator
Marketing services agencies: PR: Justice & Young PR
Advertising: Freedman, Gibson & White