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.


ChristianZ said...

There's lots of categories of Mexican food. Not every sit-down Mexican restaurant that isn't a fast food joint or a little hole-in-the-wall joint is "Tex-Mex." It actually has to be influenced by Texan food to qualify as Tex-Mex.

Orrick Nepomuceno said...

Great post Peter! This is definitely an interesting change of the guard. With still slumping sales, can even this crew understand what consumers really want?