Ruby Tuesday polishes its image and takes casual dining up a notch

Goodbye Ruby Tuesday -- or at least the Ruby Tuesday we once knew. Gone are the knock-off Tiffany lamps and the cheesy knickknacks that once served as such great comedic fodder for the fictional restaurant Chotchkie's in the movie Office Space Gone, too, are the waitstaff clad in white shirts and ties that hark back to 1989. Instead of fusion cuisine excesses like Southwestern egg rolls and the Macho Nacho burger, the new Ruby Tuesday's menu is about bison burgers, prime rib, and lobster -- with a side of macaroni and cheese, of course.

It's not exactly four-star dining, but it's surely a long way from a casual dining restaurant where "casual" far outshone the other possible monikers. The new Ruby Tuesday's features waiters and waitresses in black tees and pants -- "hipster" style, the New York Times says -- leather banquettes, dark varnished wood, and a menu that would feel right at home in this millennium. In addition to the lobster and prime rib, there's jumbo lump crab cakes, broiled tilapia, and a crispy shrimp sampler in which sesame seeds and peanut glaze make an appearance.

It's part of a $100 million makeover, and the fact that it's come smack in the middle of a recession makes it hard for some investors to swallow. They've gulped down the new menu, though, and the stock has bounced back from its lows in March (as the Times points out, at the 52-week low of 85 cents a share, "a side of the creamy mashed cauliflower cost about three times as much").

Much harder will be convincing cash-strapped customers to buy into the new menu. It's surely more delicious and modern than the old one, but it's not the least bit cheaper. Instead, the company's CEO Sandy Beall, says he is taking advice from his son, who graduated from the California Culinary Academy. His son told him bluntly that what was wrong with his restaurant was "garbage in, garbage out. You can't have great food if you don't buy great product." So the beef, the bison, the lobster and shrimp were upgraded, along with the sauces and the house wines.

But the extreme makeover hasn't stopped in the kitchen. Historically, the waitstaff turned over at an astonishing rate of 135% (that means the average server only lasts about eight months). Now it's 100% each year, something which the restaurant's management is quick to boast about.

But will Ruby Tuesday's makeover really resonate with customers? Only time -- and lots and lots of fork-tender ribs -- will tell.
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