By Jason DeRusha

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — Twin Cities-based Famous Dave’s has been in a free-fall: Six CEOS over the last six years. But closing a bunch of money-losing locations and making some drastic changes at a north suburban test restaurant appears to be paying off.

“We wanted the wow factor,” said Geo Concepcion, the company’s chief operating officer. “It wasn’t a minor change, it was a drastic change.”

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The Coon Rapids Famous Dave’s is not what you’d normally expect: forget the dark, lodge, cabin feel. Instead, Shea Design has led a redo, featuring lighter woods, bold and modern signs, bright-red upholstery and no more blues music.

“The times have called for something more upbeat,” he said. “Dave curated the playlist we play here of country music.”

Founder Dave Anderson’s influence is seen in his cherry chicken recipe, his smoked turkey, it’s all over the menu and restaurant redesign.

“This has to be a sensory experience,” he said. “We have to have great food, that’s table stakes. We need to engage the other senses: what do you feel, what do you hear, what do you smell.”

Most Famous Dave’s are run by franchisees, but the company owns 15 locations. And that’s why they’re able to use the Coon Rapids spot as a laboratory. They quietly launched 23 new menu items in April.

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“It’s very different,” said culinary director Sylvia Matzke-Hill. She showed us two new barbeque bowls: one with pulled pork, the other brisket. There are new sides, too.

“We have mac and cheese. Brussel sprouts are moving up the chain in trendy vegetables,” Matzke-Hill said.

The cornerstone, of course, is still barbeque, with the giant smoker cranking out award winning racks of ribs.

But, according to Concepcion, “Barbeque is a low frequency meal,” he said. “We need to offer things that people are going to do once a week.”

And they’re bringing some fun to the room, like the mini-donut machine. “Burnt butts” are the pork counter to the popular burnt ends. So far: It’s working.

“Sales have been fantastic,” Conception said. “Since the inception of the test, we’re up 15 percent.”

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The menu changes and some of the design elements will start rolling out to other company-owned restaurants, including Maple Grove next.

Jason DeRusha