Peruvian Onions

A Breath of Fresh Air: Chef Tamra Scroggins & The Remaking of Sizzler

"W e wanted to remake Sizzler to the way it was, back in the day, when everything was made from scratch, and it was a real home-cooked kind of meal,” Tamra Scroggins tells me.

As Director of Food Culture for Sizzler USA, Tamra has transformed a legacy brand—more than 60 years in the making—and brought back a focus on fresh, whole ingredients. It’s an impressive accomplishment in and of itself, but it’s not the only feather in Tamra’s cap—not by a long shot.

In transforming Sizzler’s menu, Tamra has empowered Sizzler’s employees, transforming a workforce of microwave jockeys into burgeoning chefs along the way.

“We started with soups, salads, and salad dressings—making them all from scratch, and I began to teach our employees how to actually cook,” Tamra says. “I’ve been here for about 10 years, and we have a good balance now with about 75 percent of our menu made from scratch. We use fresh produce almost exclusively. Our famous salad bar is full of fresh produce. We also do all production of fresh produce in-house. Our entire salad bar is centered around using fresh produce.”

It’s a thing Tamra tells me she’s immensely proud of—empowering Sizzler associates by teaching them the skills to work with fresh food and whole ingredients.

“You can just see their eyes lighting up and engaging and having pride in what they are doing. We went from having ho-hum salad bars to fabulous salad bars—because we gave our employees ownership of them, and they felt like they were contributing and being part of the experience. They would come up to me when I visited the restaurant and say, ‘Tamra! Tamra! Come taste my soup; it’s amazing!’ You could see a total transformation of how our employees went from being microwave tenders to artists. They’re making sure that their food looks great and tastes great. I love training and showing our team members how to make and serve fabulous food. We take simple products and make them into craveable dishes that our team members can be proud to serve,” Tamra notes. “My favorite part of my job is training and inspiring our team members to be proud of what they do.”

Tamra’s career as a Chef and culinary maestro has taken her across the country, from icy Minnesota to sunny San Diego, from building outsized kitchens for restaurant chains in bustling Southern California cities to catering at oil rigs outside Texas towns of 3,000. And while Tamra is a third-generation chef and the daughter of restauranteering royalty of sorts, her path to fresh food has been less than raylike.

“Sizzler had kind of fallen into just getting everything in a bag, a box—premade. There was nothing being made in the back. Everything was frozen or packaged when I got here.”

- Chef Tamra Scroggins, Director of Food Culture, Sizzler USA

From a child in the Pacific Northwest learning Southern-style soul food cooking from her grandmother to an Orange County, California-based believer in whole ingredients and meals made from scratch, Tamra came to her career after a stint in the proverbial wilderness. In college, Tamra tells me, she was initially extremely wary of a career in the restaurant industry.

“Initially, I went to college to be a doctor, but I quickly realized that that was not the lifestyle I wanted to have,” Tamra explains. “I wanted to be able to go out and do things, and I didn’t want my whole college career to be studying—my nose in a book. I’m not that type of person.”

Tamra, like so many young people, found herself caught between ambitions and having a social life. And though she had sworn off the restaurant industry as a teenager, Tamra soon found herself testing the waters of a culinary career by way of hospitality.

She recounts her less-than-perfect start in the restaurant business.

“My dad had already opened Old Country Buffet at that time—in March of 1984 when I was in high school, and I swore, after opening the restaurant with him, that I was never going into the restaurant business. I thought it was too much work; it was too many long hours, and there was no payoff—just people screaming at you all the time,” Tamra recalls. “But when I decided to change my major in college I thought, ‘Oh dang, I might have to go into this hospitality management deal.’ As much as I didn’t like it when I was 16, I thought, maybe that was just my dad yelling at me.”

Tamra decided to enter the Hospitality Management University of Wisconsin—Stout in Menomonie, Wisconsin. At a top-tier program behind only Cornell, Tamra would rediscover her passion for the culinary world. It was in college that Tamra would reconnect with the food culture that informed many of her earliest memories.

“I grew up always helping my grandmothers in the kitchen. I can remember from about three years old sitting on the counter and helping them stir batters,” Tamra explains. “My grandmother on my dad’s side worked doing menus in health care and was always catering in her free time. So from a very young age, when I was still just a baby, she would put my playpen in her kitchen while she was cooking and catering, and she would talk to me. As I got older, my grandmothers taught me breadmaking, roasting, and canning. Both my grandmothers were always cooking for a bunch of people and seeing the pleasure it brought them and the people they were cooking for inspired me to become a chef.”

After college, Tamra went to work for Champps Americana—earning valuable knowledge at the fast-paced sports bar and scratch kitchen. And soon, despite swearing off the family business in high school, Tamra was drawn back into the fold—this time working for the incipient Hometown Buffet chain of restaurants. Thankfully, the move came with a change of scenery and brought Tamra to what would eventually become her home in Southern California.

“My dad opened Hometown Buffet in San Diego, California, and I decided to come into the family business. I moved from Minneapolis, Minnesota, to San Diego, which was the best move ever,” Tamra laughs. “So, I opened up restaurants for Hometown Buffet. I opened up more than 120 restaurants—which means I went to the restaurants before they opened, opened up the entire kitchen, helped hire the kitchen staff and managers, and stayed on for about a month making sure that the kitchen managers and staff knew what they were supposed to be doing. Then I’d go on to the next one. I did that for a few years. Then I got married and had kids and decided that traveling 52 weeks out of the year probably wasn’t conducive to family life.”

Tamra and her family packed up and moved to her husband’s home state of Texas. There, Tamra founded her own family restaurant in oil country—catering at oil derricks and cooking for the 3,000 denizens of her new home.

I love training and showing our team members how to make and serve fabulous food. We take simple products and make them into craveable dishes that our team members can be proud to serve.

- Chef Tamra Scroggins

“I came to Sizzler in 2008. I was running my own restaurant in Texas and got a call from my former CEO Kerry Kramp, that he needed some help with menu development,” Tamra says. “I had started doing consulting, and the CEO of Sizzler had been my CEO at Hometown Buffet. He reached out to me and said, ‘Hey, I’m working at Sizzler. You think you have time to come and help me?’”

At that point, the oil industry was experiencing a slowdown, and Tamra said the opportunity to reconnect seemed like kismet.

“It just seemed serendipitous. I was looking for something to do and he was really needing someone,” Tamra says—someone capable of taking an aging operation and transforming it with a focus on fresh. “Sizzler had kind of fallen into just getting everything in a bag, a box—premade. There was nothing being made in the back. Everything was frozen or packaged when I got here.”

In the ensuing decade, Tamra would take the restaurant chain—now entering its 61st year in business—in a new direction—focusing on fresh food and dishes made from scratch—dishes that comport with Tamra’s taste for big flavorful dishes that let their individual ingredients sing, so to speak.

“I like bold, outside the box dishes using familiar products,” Tamra says. “I am spontaneous and rebellious and like to have dishes that reflect that.”

Tamra’s focus on fresh and whole ingredients and dishes made from scratch has transformed Sizzler’s menu. By adopting that menu, she’s transformed the culture of the company, drawing on her diverse experiences to empower employees, elevate fast casual eating, and breathe new life into a time-tested brand. It’s a story that has taken Tamra full circle. From an unwilling teenage accomplice in her father’s restaurant empire to a dynamic changemaker leading the charge at Sizzler, Tamra has breathed new life into each new endeavor she’s tackled. Her story is, in the truest sense of the word, inspiring.