Friday, July 31, 2009

Discounting at the sterling level

How do you tactfully offer a bargain when your customers view you as a Mercedes-class experience? That’s the quandary facing Ruth’s Chris Steak House, a longtime favorite of the expense-account crowd.

The chain tried a bundled-meal deal—the equivalent of a Dollar Menu to the Gold Card set—in February. Patrons could have shrimp, a six-ounce filet or several other upscale entrees, packaged with a side and a dessert, for a mere $39.95. By the standards of that segment, this was dangerously close to a tie-in with a blockbuster summer movie.

The nod to value played well with Ruth’s clientele. “It has been well received by our guests and is representing a sizable portion of our sales mix,” CEO Mike O’Donnell told analysts during a conference call today.

Indeed, he seemed to suggest, the promo might’ve been too well received. The chain’s typical guest check fell 6.5%, to $70. Ruth’s was getting less per guest, which would’ve been fine if more guests were drawn by the head-turner.

But comp sales fell by more than 23%. The numbers indicate that traffic was down as well as the average check.

So what’s a high-end chain to do?

The chain is currently testing a bistro menu in the lounges of six restaurants. A second possibility, a $19.95 steak-and-fries platter, is being tested during the normally slow beginning of the week at three locations.

But the chain’s not abandoning its prix-fixe deal, at least not this summer. Apparently the company feels it was enough of a brake on the traffic decline to keep it in place. O’Donnell cited expectations that the value offer might catch on and hit an “inflection point,” where it becomes a boon to traffic, even though the average tab might slip by a few more dollars. And as he noted in response to a question on that point, patrons can “buy up” to a $49.95 version.

I guess it’s like trading up to a large drink.

Monday, July 27, 2009

The rejuvenation effort to watch

When I heard Dick Rivera had been named CEO of Real Mex Restaurants, I shrugged and figured, A job’s a job. He’d already diamond-studded his reputation by leading such big-name brands as Red Lobster, T.G.I. Friday’s and Longhorn Steakhouse. So what if he was stepping back now to what anyone in the business would regard as second-tier concepts? He’d help such relics as Acapulco and El Torito play a little Bingo in the home for aged restaurant chains.

Then Rivera tapped Lowell Petrie to lead Real Mex’s marketing efforts. It’d be like the Mississippi Mud Hens putting Derek Jeter in as shortstop, after slotting Ivan Rodriguez as the clean-up batter. Petrie has earned mountains of respect in similar roles at concepts large and small, from Denny’s to his most recent employer, the much-watched Daphne’s Greek fast-casual chain.

Then came the announcement that Craig Miller, a longtime casual-dining leader, and Jeff Campbell, perhaps foodservice’s biggest marquee name during the 1980s, had been appointed to Real Mex’s board.

And along the way, Rivera lined up $130 million in debt financing.

Suddenly, what sounded like a reshoot of “Going in Style” was emerging as the story to follow. Indeed, it may be the most intriguing situation in all of foodservice right now, with more drama and audacity than the saga of Starbucks. Wisdom, financing, talent, determination and old but extremely well-known brands, all blended into a comeback effort that would make Lance Armstrong look as if he was back on training wheels. This is one for the Harvard Business Review.

Of course, there’s no guarantee of a happy outcome. As one close observer put it, Real Mex’s concepts come with plenty of baggage. El Torito can boast of being the granddaddy of Mexican dining in the U.S. But that’s like touting a Walkman in the age of the iPod. Freshness, novelty and perceived authenticity are what seemingly pull consumers to today’s Tex-Mex outlets. Can Real Mex promise real Mex?

Then again, it has a gem in Chevys, a brand that touted freshness while Steve Ells was still toying with the idea of a Mexican concept that could offer food with integrity. Long before Chipotle Mexican Grill, it was boasting that it used nothing canned or frozen, and entertained guests by cranking out fresh tortillas on a signature machine visible from the dining room. In short, it was fresh before fresh was cool. With only 68 restaurants in operation, it has plenty of room to grow.

Real Mex also has a few youngsters in its nine-brand, 189-restaurant fold. It opened a concept called Sinigual last fall in New York City, for instance. There’s also what’s now a single-outlet concept in Laguna Beach, Calif., called Las Brisas.

In any case, it’ll be interesting to track the turnaround efforts of Rivera and his team—a line-up that presumably hasn’t yet been completely drafted. That alone will be something to watch, given the talent available and how many all-star acquaintances the current recruits enjoy.

It’s also a buyer’s market for top-grade development sites, or even acquisition candidates.

Clearly this’ll be no checkers game at Shady Acres Retirement Village.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Another sort of carrot for being healthier

An unusual social experiment is underway in Albert Lea, Minn., a small city apparently chosen because it’s so typical of the Midwest. Such big names as AARP and United Health Foundation joined forces in January to launch the Blue Zone Vitality Project, a pilot program aiming to add 10,000 years to the lives of Albert Lea residents. The effort is also intended to challenge the ways restaurants serve their communities, with 30 local eateries now taking part in the experiment.

The program is comprehensive, extending to exercise, social interactions, eating habits, even non-tangibles like residents’ self-interest and sense of purpose. Already, the town has added community gardens, walking trails, “walking school buses” (a group-walk to school, led and shepherded by grownups), and “walking moais,” a program that encourages residents to walk in groups and get to know their neighbors.

Indeed, dear readers, I apologize for not noticing such a sweeping program until it’s in the seventh of its 10 chartered months.

The most recent development is what finally snagged my attention. Thirty local restaurants have agreed to meet the stipulations of the Vitality Project pledge, a commitment seen as the businesses’ contribution to making Albert Lea “America’s healthiest home town,” in the words of the promotional literature.

They apparently took the plunge after attending workshops presented on behalf of the Project. The educational sessions reportedly showed the operations how they could bolster the community’s health through relatively painless adjustments, like offering the option of smaller portions, or offering fruit or a salad as an alternative to French fries or chips.

The pledge is more than a pinky shake. The restaurateurs apparently sign a document, solemnly committing themselves to the effort.

But, already, they’re being identified locally as healthier places to eat and responsible members of the community. In short, not all of the carrots are served on a plate.

As pledging supporters, they’ll presumably be active participants in the festivities commencing Sept. 8. That’s the kick-off of a six-week “online experience,” in the words of the Project, that was drafted to teach the fundamentals of living longer. Included will be materials like videos and daily communiqués. Given the involvement of restaurants, dining-out habits may be part of the focus.

It’s interesting to see a community embrace such a novel approach to health. But it’s certainly refreshing to see that commitment rising from Main Street, instead of seeing it imposed on communities by lawmakers and carpetbaggers-cum-consumer advocates.

Domino's assesses damage from YouTube prank

The infamous YouTube video shot by two Domino’s staffers cut the chain’s comp sales for the first quarter by 1 to 2%, CEO David Brandon explained during the pizza company’s conference call yesterday with analysts. However, the chain was able to collect $2 million from a business-interruption insurance policy, he added.

The clip showed an employee of a franchised unit in North Carolina fouling the ingredients of a sandwich. After being posted on the internet, the spot became a viral hit, spreading quickly and apparently scaring Domino's patrons.

The chain initially waited for the brouhaha to blow over, then realized its mistake and jumped into action. It filmed its own YouTube video, featuring company president Patrick Doyle blasting the two knuckleheads and apologizing for the food-safety lapse. He assured consumers that such shenanigans are not tolerated by the brand.

Brandon noted yesterday that the culprit and his colleague, the woman who held the camera, are being prosecuted.

“If the stupid incident down in North Carolina wouldn't have happened, we'd be here reporting significant traffic uptick,” he told the analysts.

Brandon was asked if the damage might've been more severe than a $2-million drop-off in business. Brandon indicated that the chain wanted to move quickly and put the incident behind it, so apparently didn't dicker over the settlement.

Chipotle offers update on value-menu test

Chipotle Mexican Grill said it will maintain the test of its new lower-priced menu items at the current single-market extent, though “we are seeing some encouraging signs,” co-CEO Steve Ells told financial analysts Wednesday. One of the more reassuring finds of the Denver sales trial, he explained, was the effect on check averages: Customers tended to spend the same amount, even though they could trade down to less-expensive options.

Co-tested with those value-oriented selections was a kids’ menu. “We have seen enough demand for our kids menu that we plan to test that part of the menu in all of our Salt Lake City restaurants as well,” Ells said.

CFO John Hartung noted that at least half of Chipotle’s new stores in 2010 will be conversions rather than newly built outlets.

Monday, July 20, 2009

MIA: Something new

Send out an A.P.B. and snap on the Bat Signal. Some scoundrel has run off with the restaurant industry’s love of innovation. And it looks as if it might be an inside job.

The authorities have their suspicions about the culprits. They’re looking for glassy-eyed numbers fiends who wield machete and scalpel with equal zeal, slashing costs the way hopped-up jungle guides would blaze a trail.

But the real scourges are the accomplices—the CEOs, marketers and ops specialists who know better than to stifle new ideas. Instead of nurturing green shoots, they’re standing by while the bean counters prune anything with an expense. It’d be like a dairy farmer trying to offset a dip in production by feeding the cows less silage.

You can only hope the cut-and-kill mindset will be arrested. Here’re the questions that should be put to the innovation throttlers during the interrogation:

Where are the new concepts? Except for a few upscale riffs on established brands—think The Whopper Bar, Baja Fresh’s new dinner-focused prototype, or Baskin-Robbins’ new cafes—we’ve seen virtually nothing in the way of new restaurant ideas from the chains. That’s an historic shift, especially for casual dining, where the big brands were always scouting the hinterlands for The Next Big Thing.

Everyone agrees that this is an unprecedented time that could forever change the business. Isn’t it foolhardy to think that yesterday’s concepts are going to meet tomorrow’s tastes?

Ironically, we did see a new entrant in the market in early July. Unfortunately, it’s something called Crazy Girls Café, a strip club that also serves food. There’s a novel notion.

Where are the aha! moments? Consider this obvious one: Craft condiments. Soft drinks, a staple of the business, are being reconsidered as the public shifts to options promising more uniqueness, character and quality. Smaller, highly crafted brands are gaining favor.

The same dynamic holds true in the beer business. Would any new restaurant not offer a craft brew today, if not a beer that can only be purchased there?

So why not ketchups and mustards? Why aren’t we seeing the proliferation of high-craft selections with different flavors and consistencies? There’s a burger boom underway. Why not a ketchup craze?

For a glimpse of what might have been, look at the barbecue-sauce and marinade sections of your local grocery. There are more options than what you’ll find in the salad dressing aisle.

The exception that underscores the non-trend is Ketchup, the multi-outlet concept of The Dolce Group in California. The restaurant features five house-made ketchups to accompany its heavily local menu of comfort foods with contemporary twists.

Where’s the urgency in casual dining to come up with something new? The innovations of the last two years could be summed up as sliders, $9.95 filets, micro-brews, mini-desserts and better full-sized burgers. Whoa.

Why isn’t the sector at least staying current with the trends? For instance, other than Seasons 52, is any concept addressing the fresh and local trend? Organics? Or even green? Name one chain that’s as active as the fast-feeders are in greening their facilities.

Clearly the economic climate is taking its toll, stifling creativity that could distinguish an operation. But the real lost opportunity may not be evident until conditions improve. By that time, many established brands are going to regret that they weren’t trying yesterday to come up with what’ll fly tomorrow.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

A duel with teensy-weensy swords

Hi, my name is Peter, and I’m a sample-holic.

(This is where you yell back, “HI, PETER!”)

I never thought I’d end up this way. One day a matron in a hairnet is spraying cheese on Triscuits and offering a taste in the dairy aisle. The next thing I know, I’m cut off at Costco’s perogi and turkey-sausage stations. The kid at the deli won’t even listen to my plaintive, “Is the bologna better than the ham? Could I try a slice of each?”

But there’s no shortage of freebies to be had. Supermarkets will probably be setting up carving stations soon, or allowing you to order samples ahead of time by fax. And we’re practically being pelted with free menu items—the whole damned things—by the big fast-food chains.

Which is why I’m speaking out to you casual dining specialists, before it’s too late. Get yourself a box of those toothpicks that look like little swords and start cubing your sliders, $9.95 sirloins and other center-of-the-plate additions.

It’s no secret that other food channels are eating your lunch. Supermarkets and the quick-service horde are both offering meal choices close to your league in quality—if not squarely in it. The way they whet an interest is by sampling, a concept you’ve virtually left alone because you're not willing to swallow the bump in food costs as a marketing investment.

Meanwhile, you’re adding items with cutesy names and suspect heritage, like Cheeseburger Pizzas or Mediterranean Egg Rolls . They sound like something you’d find on a c-store rack next to the Ho-Ho’s, Sour Cream & Maple Waffle Chips, and Hawaiian Pork Rinds. In short, abominations that were invented by chemists and processors, not discovered on the tables of some mountain town that had passed down the dish through umpteenth generations. They sound contrived, fake and definitely lacking in integrity. And that perceived artificiality of your menu is a big part of the problem.

Your hope is winning patrons with the taste of what you’re developing. The way to do that is with sampling.

I know firsthand that it’s an effective sales technique. When my wife sees 10 or 15 samples of the same item stacked in my shopping cart, she’ll often buy the product without trying it herself.

But I’m not sure if she sees me as a one-man focus group, or if she’s motivated by pure guilt.

Monday, July 13, 2009

This just in

Here’s a quick sampler of news tidbits that might have slipped past you this Monday. Indeed, they seem to have escaped attention by the restaurant industry in general, which is strange, given the surprise they pack. And that surprise isn’t going to be regarded by all as pleasant.

Chris Sullivan is building another chain. The co-founder of Outback Steakhouse and an icon of the business is a partner in a fledgling casual-dining chain called Café Caturra, the Tampa Bay Business Journal reported Friday. A spokesperson for OSI Restaurant Partners, the current parent of Outback, describes Sullivan’s role as being “more of a mentor” for the Richmond, Va.-based start-up. But the article suggests his participation is more extensive than that.

Chipotle pushes “Food, Inc.”, the controversial documentary about factory farming and the ills ascribed to it, including E. coli outbreaks. Chipotle is sponsoring free airings of the movie in 32 cities, and units are also urging patrons to see the flick. The burrito chain said it add a bonus feature to the DVD of the film when it’s released later this year to highlight Chipotle’s commitment to sustainable agriculture.

Terms of the promotional arrangement weren’t revealed.

In years past, a mob of noose-wielding restaurateurs would have formed if one of their own had supported sharp criticism of the food served in their establishments. Chipotle suggests it’s supporting the flick in a classic show of capitalism, albeit from a unusual vantage point. “I hope that all our customers see this film,” said Chipotle founder and co-CEO Steve Ells. “The more they know about where their food comes from, the more they will appreciate what we do.”

In any case, the chain is bravely taking a different stance in the ongoing debate over how the nation’s feeders—the very food supply system—may be contributing to major societal ills.

Jason’s Deli goes on the road with a health message. Chipotle’s claims about the purity and sustainability of its food are well known to the general public. Indeed, “Food with integrity” is a key marketing message.

Lesser known, probably, is the pure-foods stance of Jason’s Deli, the 200-unit southern chain (as compared with Chipotle’s 800-plus stores). It can’t crow as loudly about its extensive use of organic ingredients, and its efforts to reduce the salt, fat and calorie content of its fast-casual fare.

Now Jason’s is going on tour to spread the word about the importance of consuming such fare—not to consumers, but to school-board officials, academics and even fellow restaurateurs. Execs are traveling the country to meet with educators in 14 nations for a discussion of food’s impact on health, according to a news report last week in The Packer, a publication for the food industry. In addition, “We’re trying to get restaurants interested in cleaning up their menus,” Jason’s co-owner Rusty Coco told The Packer.

The same posse that might’ve formed for Ells in bygone years would no doubt have had Coco’s name right below his.

Sir Richard Branson, restaurateur. The mogul behind the various Virgin businesses—airlines, record stores, etc.—has quietly added a U.S. foodservice holding to his empire. The avid environmentalist is building a “farm-to-fork” eco-resort, Natirar, in Raritan, N.J., not far outside New York City (Natirar is Raritan spelled backwards).

The facility sounds as if it will be a Stone Barns-like complex, with fields growing the produce served in a restaurant on the grounds. The twist is the eco-minded cooking school also envisioned for the 90-acre complex.

It’s scheduled to open later this summer. Perhaps Chipotle could lend it a copy of “Food, Inc.,” with an intro from Jason’s.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Who said chains can't satisfy locavores?

As far as I can tell, there are two main drawbacks to living on the East Coast: One, Red Sox fans; and, two, we don't yet have the West Coast's homegrown fast-food chains, particularly In-n-Out, Burgerville and El Pollo Loco. That's especially painful today as Burgerville once again refutes the notion that a restaurant chain, and a burger joint at that, can't provide locally grown produce.

If I can read through the tears, let me recount the promotion I just fielded from my e-mail inbox. It's a heads-up that Walla Walla (Washington) sweet onions are in season, which means the Vancouver, Wash.-based chain is adjusting its menu. You can now get onion rings made from the local onions, a seasonal signature of the chain, as well as a burger topped with the onions and a sour cream-and-horseradish sauce. The Horseradish Burger is accompanied by a salad of pickled Walla Walla's, fresh zucchini and grape tomatoes.

I'm dying here.

But it gets worse. Next month, the announcement mentions, the focus shifts to Washington State cherries, which presumably will be at their peak about then (we're just starting to get ripe ones here in Yankee territory). "And in September," taunts the e-mail, "it'll be peppers." As in fresh, locally grown peppers.

Hey, we have bagels.

This is why we really need to perfect transporter technology.

Okay, back to e-mailing Theo Epstein and asking if he's still pleased with the Johnny Damon trade.

Why restaurants need real reviewers

Restaurant reviewers have been known to wear disguises for the sake of going unnoticed. You couldn’t blame them these days for trying to stay incognito while a publisher is within pink-slip range.

It’s obvious that America’s newspapers are going through the sort of dislocation the stagecoach business tried to survive when the railroad came to town. The break-glass emergency response has been to sacrifice senior editorial staffers—typically the most loyal and experienced, and hence the highest paid—in lieu of myrrh, goats or virgins. Most definitely not virgins. The young innocents are the ones who’ve been left in the newsroom because they’re green, cheap and far more obliging than the ink-stained curmudgeons who caught the blade.

Given that situation, reviewers might suspect some cold heart has taped an “Axe Me” sign to their backs. To do the job, they have to wield a certain level of experience and knowledge in constant need of being refreshed. Translation: Senior staffer, paid accordingly, with a decent expense account, compensated for the indulgence of dining out. Any publisher reading that is probably reflexively reaching for an axe right now.

Meanwhile, anyone who’s watched The Food Network figures they could be a reviewer, and many would do it for free. Indeed, many do. It’s routine at small papers for local residents—perhaps one-time reporters on their high school papers—to review local eateries for nothing more than compensation for the meals. They do it for the prestige and meals. Literally, they work for food.

Other sports diners indulge their inner Gael Greene by turning to Yelp, Boorah, personal blogs, Eater, Zagat, message boards, restaurant blog sites, social media, or just about any other post-it-yourself channel for those who fancy themselves citizen-journalists.

You know publishers are looking at those currents and wondering, Do I really need a reviewer? Couldn’t I just somehow tap that stream of commentary for free? Especially since Twitter and those other new media are providing a way for restaurants to market themselves instead of advertising with us? Hell, who needs a review, anyways? Are readers going to buy a subscription for something they could find anywhere for zilch? Where’s that machete…

Then comes a piece of citizen hackery like the posting a week ago on the Los Angeles branch of Eater, one of the top-tier blog sites for scene-conscious restaurant fans. A contributor named Kat Odell heaved considerable raked mud at an L.A. hotspot called The Must, revealing among other things that it was “not adhering to simple food saftey [sic] standards, such as soap, sanitizing and throwing out chicken salad that’s 2 weeks old.”

Citing an unidentified "tipster," she also reported the restaurant was using low-cost distributor-brand cheese but billing it as artisan, and generally ripping off customers by using ingredients inferior to what were cited on the menu.

The problem, as you may have guessed, is that the assertions were never validated or substantiated at all by Odell. Eater initially stuck by her when the bar-restaurant objected, then acknowledged the place had refuted the assertions.

“We ran this tip without contacting the owners of the restaurant, who have since refuted the tip in its entirety,” Eater said in an “update” to Odell’s posting, which is still posted on the site in its entirety. “We apologize to the owners of the restaurant, and our readers, for not investigating our source's claims before airing them.”

Maybe it’ll take some time, but the dining-out public is going to realize it needs professional reviewers who adhere to the professional standards set by a newspaper, magazine or journalistically based website. If you doubt it, check out some of the responses that Eater’s readers posted to Odell’s blog entry.

And publishers are going to learn that consumers value thedependability. It won’t be easy to leverage the appreciation into subscriptions, but media have to get into a mindset of selling information services, not print by the inch. It comes down to authority, quality and dependability, which carries a price.

It’s a lesson that restaurants should encourage the professional media to learn quickly. Because it’s the industry that would really be walloped if the pros are supplanted by an all-volunteer horde.

If you doubt it, consider what the owners of The Must had to say about the experience. And note that the response is provided by the Los Angeles Times.

Extra points--and added impetus for restaurateurs--for perusing what the Times readers had to say about Eater's blunder.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

A suggestion to restaurant suppliers: Wake up

This is a public service announcement to all of the mega-sized companies that sell food to restaurant chains: Are you living in a cave or something?

Complacency might be a warm and comfy place to call home, but you’re juggling dynamite, Bunkie. Look at any trends roundup, or just talk to a 22-year-old, and you’ll see that the dining-out world is changing at lightning speed. Yet you and many of your cohorts seem stuck in the ‘80s.

Consider, for instance, the penchant for locally sourced ingredients and its complement, the desire to have the origin of a product clearly identified. This weekend, for instance, we had Florida corn, New Jersey and Georgian peaches, Washington State cherries, locally caught fish, California and Long Island strawberries, Boston beer, Indian tea, Kenyan coffee, and one of the big national brands of chicken, which listed the address of its corporate parent on the label. One of those things was clearly out of sync.

Yet the big processors shrug and say, What can we do? We’re a big company with a national production set-up. How can we pretend to be local, or figure out the source for any item when it could’ve come from 10, 15 or 30 different plants?

That’s like parking under a teetering water tower and saying, “Well, this is my assigned spot.”

The market is moving away from them, yet they seem loath to latch on, or at least try.

Why, for instance, couldn’t they provide restaurateurs with ideas for regional dishes that incorporate their products? The flavorings, sides or ingredients could all be listed in the menu description with their origin, which ideally would be local. One ingredient that isn’t tied to a locale is a lot better than the whole item.

Or couldn’t they show a restaurateur how to make a dish that’s connected to an area, like Santa Fe Chicken, or Pork with Washington Boysenberries?

In any case, trying something has to be better than doing nothing while the market leaves you outmoded. And yet the level of inactivity on the part of many suppliers is astounding.

The sourcing issue is just one of their problems. There’s also the growing interest on the part of consumers, and hence restaurant operators, in less-processed, more natural fare. And changes in portion preferences. And a curiosity about unusual cuts or variations of an ingredient.

How do their products work with pairings? Or as bar-menu items? Or for catering?

The list of questions is lengthy. But the main one has to be, What’s worse than doing nothing?

Even with budget restraints, soft sales from restaurants, limited personnel, and all the other factors that foster inertia, inaction is clearly the wrong choice. Yet it seems to be a popular one right now within the supplier community.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Man bites dog, sets own price

It's now a yawner for restaurants to flycast for customers by letting them pay whatever they decide a meal is worth. But you're definitely in man-bites-dog territory when the place resorting to that ploy is Le Bec Fin, the old Brahmin of Philadelphia's fine-dining scene.

Yet, for the next two months, patrons can visit the landmark on any Monday through Thursday nights, dine on a special menu created by chef George Perrier, and pay what they deem to be appropriate.

Of course, as always with deals too good to be true, there is some fine print. The offer is only available to the first 20 people who reserve a seat. They'll be served in a group, as if they were attending a banquet, and in family style (i.e., from big platters).

Still, it says a lot about the state of fine-dining that a place as renowned as Le Bec Fin has to resort to such a ploy.

Okay, time to go jockey for position. There's a rumor that Tavern on the Green is staging a flag-pole sitting stunt.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Tweet this

Social-media and other online marketing may be all the rage for restaurant chains right now. But when Red Robin wanted to generate some buzz for a limited-time promotional product, it decided the Old Media approach of a coupon drop would work just fine. And it bet right.

Coupons were sent to 5,000 households within a three-mile radius of participating company-run restaurants, chief marketing officer Susan Lintonsmith explained to financial analysts during a call. The call was held in late May, but a transcript wasn’t released by the financial site until this morning.

The coupons entitled the recipient to a $3 discount on Red Robins’ Burning Love Burger, a spiced-up sandwich served with Jalapeno Coins, a side made from the spicy peppers. The item was touted as a limited-time item. Translation: Get it while you can.

About 8% of the recipients used the coupon, “Which is significantly higher than what is typical for these type of mailings,” Lintonsmith said. She noted that the targeted mailing was complemented with online advertising, including banner ads and videos.

The acceptance prompted Red Robin to add the Burning Love as a permanent offering last month.

The mall-based chain switched its promotional focus to sliders last month. The key marketing components were 15-second cable spots—and another coupon drop.