Thursday, February 12, 2009

What're the pacesetters trying next?

Three of the industry’s most closely monitored performers conferred with their investors yesterday in quarterly conference calls. Apparently the SEC has quietly changed its regulations to require that each confab include questions about bundled meals and other ways of coaxing open tightly clutched wallets. Here are some of the highlights:

McDonald’s is the indisputable king of fast-food, based on its consistently strong financial results. By the same gauge, you’d have to give the crown in casual dining to Buffalo Wild Wings.

Comp sales for the first three months of Wild Wings' fiscal 2009 are running at 7% for franchises, 8% for company stores, CEO Sally Smith told investors yesterday. No one else in the sector is coming close to those sorts of gains.

Smith also detailed some of the new products slated for rollouts, and they’re absolutely brilliant—because they’re so simple. For instance, one of the new items is merely a twist on chicken fingers, quite literally. Twisted Chicken is exactly that.

Those products are being readied after the introduction late last year of flat-bread items that intended to be dipped before they're munched. Sauces, developed for BWW’s wings, are one of the chain’s signatures.

The other new items—barbecue-flavored nachos and Pepperoni Kickers, presumably a type of appetizer—are also simple extensions, which promise to keep serving times tight.

Executives noted that BWW opened 67 stores last year, and has $44.5 million in cash and marketable securities on hand.

Chipotle clearly feels it’s no bank in a bailout situation. The chain said categorically that it would not cut 2008 bonuses across the board for restaurant managers, a reflection of that position’s importance and the stellar performance of many doing the job. If they excelled, execs indicated, they’ll be collecting their promised incentive pay-outs.

Nor is the chain following the lead of Starbucks and virtually the rest of the industry by bundling menu items into bargain-priced packages. The approach would work against Chipotle’s founding principle of customizing each order, executives explained.

But, they acknowledged, the chain is experimenting with new menu boards that may be less intimidating to first-time visitors. A new set-up might also help regulars discover new flavor or meal combinations, they added, though they weren’t forthcoming with details.

P.F. Chang’s is testing several ways to underscore value at its Pei Wei Asian Diner fast-casual concept, including portion cuts with an accompanying price rollback, executives said during their conference call yesterday.

“We’re looking at offering some of the existing products in a smaller portion, smaller price opportunity. We are looking at the possibility of doing some more all-inclusive dining opportunities. And then we are also evaluating the general format of the menu as it sits today in relationship to its current price,” said co-CEO Rick Federico.

He also cited the possibility of doing bundled meals, where a drink, cup of soup, side salad or spring roll could be offered as part of the meal. And, he said, nine stores are offering certain meals as bowls instead of a plated offering.

Federico said the concept has evolved into more of a low-priced alternative to casual restaurants instead of a true quick-casual place, which has been “a bit of a competitive disadvantage.” Part of the remedy, he said, will be a step-up in the development of new menu items.

He also acknowledged under questioning that the company may hire someone out of the fast-casual sector to lead Pei Wei, which has been without a president since Russell Owens resigned late last year.

P.F. Chang’s closed 10 Pei Weis last year.

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