The owner of Famous Dave's and Granite City Food & Brewery saw a turnaround in March after it and other restaurant companies saw a devastating 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Same-store sales for BBQ Holdings declined 15.3% in 2020, the Minnetonka-based company said Monday. But the sales decreases lessened in January and February. And in March, Famous Dave's sales were up 43.9% year over year and Granite City's 60.8%.

"We're ahead of the pack as far as our recovery and for what we've accomplished in the pandemic," said Jeff Crivello, BBQ Holdings CEO, in an interview Monday. "Everything we do in the future is about efficiency, from drive-throughs to counter-line and lower labor and food costs."

On Monday the company released a sales report for company-owned stores for January, February and March along with its earnings report for the fourth quarter ended Jan. 3 and full year 2020.

For the year, the company made $4.9 million, compared with a loss of $649,000 in 2019, after buying Granite City and Chicago-based Real Urban Barbecue in March 2020. For the fourth quarter, the company lost $2.8 million, compared with a loss of $1.7 million the year prior.

The company's most recent move is selling its large-format Woodbury location to a developer. The restaurant will close by May 1. After the closing, it will partner with Cowboy Jack's about 2 miles away to share the space and menu.

"Cowboy Jack's has a large space with latent capacity," Crivello said. "There'll be no physical separation of the two concepts, and the menus will be combined."

Cowboy's Jack's offers about 10,000 square feet at its Woodbury restaurant. Under Famous Dave's slimmed down footprint, focused more on takeout, it prefers about 3,500 square feet. A similar concept was adopted last year with the Johnny Carino's Italian brand.

Also in 2020, the company added ghost kitchens — defined as sharing kitchen space with another restaurant for delivery, takeout or catering without the Famous Dave's name being on the building or the menu. Once the name appears on the exterior or the menu, as with Cowboy Jack's, then a ghost kitchen becomes a dual concept.

It opened seven Famous Dave's ghost kitchens within Granite City restaurants. The company also entered into an agreement with Bluestone Hospitality Group to open ghost kitchens.

BBQ Holdings' purchase of Real Urban Barbecue inspired its new Quick Que cafeteria- line model. The line-serve model will open late summer in Coon Rapids and also in Salt Lake City, Las Vegas, New York and one more location this year.

BBQ Holdings shares closed at $9.07 a share, up nearly 15% and the first time the company traded above the $9 mark since 2015.

On average, most publicly traded restaurants experienced sales declines of 25 to 30% in 2020, said restaurant analyst Darren Tristano of Foodservice Results in Chicago.

"Limited-service brands did better, full-service brands did worse," he said.

Many publicly traded restaurants have reported closures, financial losses or bankruptcies, including California Pizza Kitchen, Ruby Tuesday, Applebee's, Denny's, Golden Corral, Dave & Busters, Subway, Red Lobster, TGI Fridays and P.F. Chang's.

The number of Famous Dave's locations has remained virtually unchanged since the pandemic, losing three corporate stores and adding two franchised locations. Including Granite City, BBQ Holdings' store count is 145 as of Jan. 3.

John Ewoldt • 612-673-7633