While all-you-can-eat salad bars are dead in the rest of the country, it’s driving profits as the No. 1 seller at this local chain.

On a late morning in April, Ron Moule finished his usual order of eggs over medium, home fries and rye toast with butter on the side at the Banksville Road Eat’n Park. His wife, Vicky, in a faded Penguins sweatshirt, sipped the last of her coffee.

As they paid the bill, she called him “Mr. Breakfast Smile,” in honor of his go-to order — whether he’s here on Banksville Road, where they’ve been regulars for 15 years, or the one on Route 51, which is closer to where they moved in Overbrook.

“I like the waitresses. It’s been around a long time,” Mr. Moule said about the restaurant chain. “You’ve got a sure thing here.”

His wife says she likes that Eat’n Park is family-friendly, going right to the Smiley Cookie, citing how much her kids used to love them when they were growing up. She buys one for herself as she leaves.

Another set of regulars, police officers John Adams and John Hamilton of the Pittsburgh Crime Scene Unit, who have worked together for 22 years, visit the Banksville Road and Squirrel Hill locations, where they’ve been getting the same order just about every time: the all-you-can-eat salad bar.

“We try to mix it up,” Mr. Hamilton said, “because we don’t want them to say, ‘Those guys are back again. And they’re getting the salad bar. A-gain.’ ”

Salad bar items are pictured at Eat'n Park on Friday, April 6, 2018 in Avalon. (Lake Fong/Post-Gazette)

Salad bar items are pictured at Eat’n Park on Friday, April 6, 2018 in Avalon. (Lake Fong/Post-Gazette)

As Eat’n Park approaches its 70th year, it is a feat that the place has stayed relevant during Pittsburgh’s restaurant boom. There are plenty of reasons for it. While new restaurants try to pull in diners with culinary finesse, an interesting cocktail program and sleek design, Eat’n Park attracts customers because it is reliable, familiar and intensely egalitarian.

The restaurant feeds people who have struggled to make a dime, as well as those who have wanted to save a buck: Of the 70-plus choices on the menu, fewer than a dozen cost more than $10.

No Eat’n Park is short on regulars, in part because most locations have been around for so long: Among the newest, Waterworks near Aspinwall was built in 2010; Pittsburgh Mills in 2006.

One in three Pittsburghers has visited an Eat’n Park within the past month, according to New York-based Scarborough market research. That a diner chain with a best-selling, all-you-can-eat salad bar remains so popular is saying something at a time when restaurants are competing for customers, resources and especially employees during a regional staff shortage that is likely to get worse.

Along the way the company has been ahead of the curve in banning smoking before it was mandated by the state and adding health-conscious items and special-diet options, like gluten-free dishes, smaller portions and low-sodium items, too. Pair aspects of forward thinking with updates like pickup windows, an order-ahead app and revamped dining rooms to more than 30 restaurants over 10 years — and you’ve got an old-school chain with legs.

Freshly baked Smiley cookies are pictured at Eat'n Park on Friday, April 6, 2018 in Avalon. (Lake Fong/Post-Gazette)

Freshly baked Smiley cookies are pictured at Eat’n Park on Friday, April 6, 2018 in Avalon. (Lake Fong/Post-Gazette)

It’s enough to attract college students pulling all-nighters and high schoolers after a football game, part of the 12 percent of customers who visit between 9:30 p.m. through the wee hours. Beyond late night, Eat’n Park does a quarter of its traffic during breakfast, a quarter for lunch, and almost 40 percent for dinner — and sales are up.

“On a same-store basis, we’ve seen sales increases in seven of the last eight years as a result,” said senior vice president of marketing Kevin O’Connell, crediting some updates and the closing of a couple of “under-performing locations.”

He declined to share revenue figures, but Technomics’ Top 500 Chain Restaurant Report confirms this, citing about $166 million in sales in 2013 and just over $168 million in sales in 2017.

In case you’ve never visited or it has been awhile, the food at Eat’n Park can range from unremarkable to satisfying. The vast menu starts with mac ’n’ cheese bites and mozzarella sticks, then moves on to salads and superburgers — a double patty on a bun draped in melted cheese with shredded lettuce, pickles and what it calls sauce supreme. It lists plenty of sandwiches, followed by entrees from baked ziti to baked cod. Breakfast all day is a given.

More than 20 percent of the ingredients are said to be local — more than most restaurants— courtesy of Jamie Moore, director of sourcing and sustainability for the company. While local sourcing can translate to better food, it also keeps small businesses afloat.

Whether its signature item actually tastes good — the Smiley Cookie, baked in nearly every restaurant since 1986 — has spurred debate on the internet that is only slightly less polarized than the current political climate. Hate it or love it, Pittsburghers remain loyalists, with the company producing more than 9 million a year.

Eat'n Play menus

Photos by Darrell Sapp/Post-Gazette

"Eat'nPlay" menus and games in boxes from the Eat'n Park restaurants, taken Friday April 20, 2018 in Pittsburgh. Mr. Rogers would have comments and and refer to "Mister Rogers Neighborhood". Eat'nPark was an underwriter for the show on WQED Channel 13. (Darrell Sapp/Post-Gazette)

Fred Rogers of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood helped design Eat’n Park kids menus decades ago as part of his long relationship with the restaurant; Eat’n Park had been an underwriter for the show on WQED Channel 13.

"Eat'nPlay" menus featuring games on the reverse side along with a comment from Mister Rogers. (Darrell Sapp/Post-Gazette)

“Eat’n Play” menus feature games on the reverse side along with a message from Mr. Rogers.

Precursor to McDonald's

Eight years before the first McDonald’s planted its golden arches in Pittsburgh, Larry Hatch opened the first Eat’n Park in 1949, as a carhop on Saw Mill Run Boulevard in Overbrook. According to legend, it caused a traffic jam and ran out of food (It’s now Frank & Shirley’s restaurant).

By 1973, the company had opened 40 restaurants, and as fast-food concepts evolved, Eat’n Park converted to a dine-in model around the time Jim Broadhurst became president in 1976.

Just after he took the helm, Eat’n Park introduced its 24-hour concept — of which 25 restaurants continue this schedule. The 1980s brought in-house bakeries. Near the end of Mr. Broadhurst’s tenure as CEO, Eat’n Park introduced its first drive-thru window in Monroeville in 2008, nudging the restaurant closer to fast-casual.

The chain peaked at 75 locations across three states in 2011, just after Mr. Broadhurst’s sons – Jeff, who’s now CEO, Brooks and Mark – took over the company, with their mother, Suzy, and Jim Broadhurst still actively involved; he is still the chairman of the board. (Brooks is no longer in the day-to day operation but is an owner and on the board.)

An Eat'n Park restaurant Thursday, April 19, 2018, along Ohio River Blvd. in Avalon. (Rebecca Droke/Post-Gazette)

An Eat’n Park restaurant Thursday, April 19, 2018, along Ohio River Blvd. in Avalon. (Rebecca Droke/Post-Gazette)

Today, as Eat’n Park Hospitality Group Inc., there are 68 Eat’n Parks, and the company has diversified. It has opened the first The Porch in Oakland, a lunch and dinner place overlooking Schenley Plaza, serving arugula salads, roast chicken, prime rib sandwiches and pizza.

Then came Hello Bistro in 2012; there are six locations with more to come. It’s a leaner, faster-casual version of Eat’n Park, with more emphasis on app ordering and a streamlining of favorites like superburgers, made-for-you salads and potato soup, the fan favorite served at Eat’n Park on Wednesdays.

Along the way, the corporate and education food service arm of the company, Parkhurst Dining, has been feeding employees and students around the country, as well as locally in places like Google headquarters in Larimer and Duquesne University, Uptown.

Even as national fast-food and fast-casual restaurants gain traction across the country — same-store sales over the summer at McDonald’s, Wendy’s and Burger King outpaced the economy — middle-brow Eat’n Park restaurants haven’t lost their juice.



Surprising bestsellers

The Avalon Eat’n Park is the oldest location now, opening in 1949. In a new building erected in 2016 on the adjacent property to the original, the dining room looks faux-retro, with its cushy booths, mid-century accents and salad bar that anchors the room. Some aspects of the decor can be a little over the top, like the relentless smiles: at the entrance, in frosted glass windows, at the registers and on servers’ T-shirts.

The exterior of Eat'n Park are pictured on Friday, April 6, 2018 in Avalon. (Lake Fong/Post-Gazette)

The exterior of Eat’n Park are pictured on Friday, April 6, 2018 in Avalon. (Lake Fong/Post-Gazette)

But mostly, it’s comfortable. Old-timey photos and framed Steelers prints hang above booths. Plate-glass windows look out to a semi-full parking lot. Tables are dotted with customers, like the trio of regulars at one table, a family of four having lunch and a man sipping coffee at the counter.

At the salad bar stocked with spinach and mixed greens, pineapple and melon, cottage cheese and pudding, ranch maintains a humble position as one salad dressing among creamy Italian, Thousand Island and blue cheese.

Fish Fry to Go sandwiches with potato chips and cole slaw are pictured at Eat'n Park on Friday, Feb. 9, 2018 in Homestead. (Lake Fong/Post-Gazette)

Fish Fry to Go sandwiches with potato chips and cole slaw are pictured at Eat’n Park on Friday, Feb. 9, 2018 in Homestead. (Lake Fong/Post-Gazette)

But servers won’t let you forget that ranch is the standout — as a dip for breaded zucchini, jalapeno poppers or really anything. Eat’n Park goes through more than 400 gallons a day.

The company even tried to bottle it, “but it just isn’t the same,” says Mr. O’Connell.

The fact that there’s still a salad bar at a chain restaurant is actually remarkable. Wendy’s phased out its salad bar in the late ’90s because it was too labor-intensive, reported the Christian Science Monitor, which is also why it’s included in The Daily Meal’s “The Most Disastrous Fast Food Menu Fails of All Time” (it was too hard to keep stocked and clean). And a few years ago, Bloomberg wrote a piece on salad bars with the headline, “Why Even a Supermodel Couldn’t Sell the Salad Bar Today.”

Not the case here: Introduced in the late ’70s, the salad bar remains the No. 1 seller at Eat’n Park. A third of customers order it for their main meal or a side. “It’s our answer to Chipotle and its customizable menu,” Mr. O’Connell says. The company sold 3,357,846 orders last year.

A few of the dishes seem like throwbacks, too. Take one that’s being tested in Robinson, the tortelloni alfredo branded “vegetarian spinach tortelloni.” Either way, it looks like it’s right out of the ’70s: a hot casserole dish filled with cheese-stuffed pasta, dappled with sliced cherry tomato and spinach, blanketed in more cheese and charred under a broiler — for $9.99.

Following the salad bar, the top dishes are the superburger, the Breakfast Smile (two eggs, bacon, potatoes and toast), the turkey club, the “Whale of a Cod” sandwich (592,754 orders last year), and the Nantucket cod dinner (428,916 orders), which is also the No. 1-selling entree.

A fleet of longtime employees

Linda Brooks-Jones reported to work as the general manager at the Avalon Eat’n Park on the afternoon of the last Friday of Lent, a very busy shift. She inspected menus at the host stand before the dinner rush and greeted a few customers who had just arrived. She wore black jeans and a striped cardigan, her gold Smiley-faced name tag attached and her blond hair pinned in an updo.

One of more than 5,000 people who work for Eat’n Park restaurants, Ms. Brooks-Jones is a lifer, having racked up more than 30 years with the company, first as a server, now as a general manager who has worked in at least eight other Eat’n Park locations across three states.

General manager Linda Brooks-Jones chats with customers Susan Litzinger, right, and Judy Gould, both of Coroapolis at Eat'n Park on Friday, April 6, 2018 in Avalon. Linda has been working at Eat'n Park for 32 years. (Lake Fong/Post-Gazette)

Kerry Comport serves food to Paul Rilius of Ross at Eat'n Park on Friday, April 6, 2018 in Avalon. Kerry Comport has been working at Eat'n Park for 29 years. (Lake Fong/Post-Gazette)

A handful of employees have met their spouses at Eat’n Park, marrying regulars or fellow employees. The general manager at the Belle Vernon restaurant, Tom Mathews, met his now wife, Nancy, at a company volleyball league in 1981, around the time she started as a server. A year later, they got married. Both were 26. Today, the two together have worked a combined 88 years for Eat’n Park.

More than 400 people have worked for the chain for more than 20 years. Many cite the good benefits, which include tuition for management and scholarships for hourly employees. The company offers paid vacation, a flexible schedule, a 401(k) and health insurance for anyone who works more than 30 hours a week.

Eat’n Park is not all rosy: There’s another side, especially for hourly employees. In a recent example, in 2016, a server signed an internal petition asking Eat’n Park to pay employees above the tipped minimum wage, to provide raises for kitchen employees, and to implement a paid parental leave policy, to which a manager said she could lose her job over signing it — as stated in an old employee handbook.

With the help of Restaurant Opportunities United, she says she filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board and won. She has since left the company.

“We don’t discuss individual personnel matters,” said Mr. O’Connell about the incident and others like it, “but like every organization we have occasional disagreements. We respect our team members’ rights and provide many avenues for them to provide feedback and resolve issues.”

Whether it’s her employers, colleagues or customers, Ms. Brooks-Jones says she has stuck around so long for the people.

“You get to know the families and the kids and they come in with babies,” she said. “And before you know it you’re watching their babies grow.”

After transferring from place to place, today she feels most at home in Avalon. “I think,” she said, “the bus will probably stop here.”

Melissa McCart: mmccart@post-gazette.com