Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Random thoughts I

Courtesy of some pinot noir, here are some random jottings about the restaurant industry as it laps the start of the ongoing economic meltdown.

Earlier this week I moderated an online brainstorming session, telecast as a webinar, on how restaurant chains can contend with the times. Among the nuggets of information:
  • Some restaurant operators, perhaps for the first time in their careers, are contending with the frustration of putting their very blood into operations and still failing to goose sales. It’s demoralizing, observed Kat Cole, VP of HR for Hooters, but macro-economics can trump the best efforts. Indeed, she noted, many in the business are working harder than they ever have before. She encouraged our audience to focus on successes within their organization and their own four walls, and to keep employees motivated by providing plenty of recognition.

  • The restaurant industry’s equivalent of hell is operating in Michigan, several speakers suggested. They cited that market as the epitome of an economy turned glacier-cold.

  • Social media has arrived as a recruitment tool, a way of conversing with guests, and a means of communicating with employees and field-level managers.

  • The times have ushered a collaborative, open management style into chain headquarters. Several speakers noted how essential it is to have all stakeholders apprised of what’s happening in the business and how it should adapt to conditions. Steve Grover, vice president of cost and product management for Steak n’ Shake, said he has regular meetings with the VPs of various departments to discuss what they’re doing and what results they’re getting. Hooter’s Cole says she confers with her counterpart in operations about every 10 minutes.

You’ll soon be able to hear the whole webinar—the Smart Business Decisions Roundtable—for yourself via the website of the presenter, Nation’s Restaurant News. It was sponsored by Kronos, which is also presenting two similar thinktanks in the near future. A panel discussion focusing on human resources will be held on Nov. 5. The spotlight turns to finance and IT on Dec. 3.

I'm moderating all three. In line with the FTC's new disclosure regulations, I'm obliged to let you know that I'm getting paid for shouldering that task. But I would've posted these observations even if I was just a civilian listener.

Random thoughts II

Two weeks ago I gave a presentation on restaurant concepts to a class at the Institute of Culinary Education in New York City. It was the second time I’ve guest-lectured at the facility, which is one of the under-appreciated gems of the New York culinary scene.

Like last time, the students seemed obsessed with Chipotle, particularly its distinction as a sizeable chain that didn’t make them cluck in disapproval.

Unlike last time, I was asked during this guest lecture for my opinion of what chains are leading the pack in their green efforts. I cited Starbucks, Burgerville and McDonald’s. Interestingly, the mention of McDonald’s drew nods of agreement, not dumbfounded surprise.

Random thoughts III

When everyone’s giving away food that’s remarkably similar in the first place, service becomes the real way of differentiating restaurant chains that compete at a given price level. That underappreciated fact was underscored today by coverage of how both Boston Market and Chili’s are trying to shake off their lethargy.

A USA Today story revealed that Boston Market is moving toward the classic fast-casual model by testing table delivery. Guests place their order, take their seat, and wait for the food to be brought to their table.

CEO Lane Cardwell also noted that the concept will strive to be more of a true market, vis-à-vis Eatzi’s and the gourmet food shops that inspired both it and Boston Market.

Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal ran a super-premium story on how Chili’s is hoping to get its pizzazz back. Last week the chain started serving a different sort of burger, made from chuck and formed by hand to retain more of the meat’s juices, the article noted.

It also reported that the recipe for its Baby Back Ribs has been rewritten. The ribs are now smoked for a longer stretch, using pecan instead of mesquite to impart more flavor.

Service enhancements are also part of the revitalization effort. The story noted that restaurant-level employees were required to partake of a distance-learning program on service. Among the upshots is a requirement that servers now look all guests in the eye and cite new features of the menu.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The softer side of McD's marketing

McDonald’s makes so much noise with its mega-sized marketing budget that it’s sometimes difficult to detect its soft-sell promotional efforts. That’s a shame, since those programs are not only among the brand’s most creative, but a benefit to plenty of other players as well.

Consider, for instance, what the chain is reportedly doing at 400 units in North Carolina and Tennessee. Local teachers will be working as crew members in the stores tonight, drawing soft drinks, cleaning tables, filling drive-thru orders and the like. In exchange, the restaurants will contribute a portion of sales from the three-hour stint to short-funded programs in the teachers’ schools.

Imagine the draw for a student of knowing his or her teacher will be waiting on them if they can talk the folks into a McDonald’s run. It sounds like a very powerful traffic booster.

But the benefits extend beyond the top and bottom lines. Educators readily acknowledge that the restaurant industry has a major image problem among teachers, parents and guidance counselors. By getting teachers to experience what it’s like to work in a restaurant, to see firsthand such intangible benefits as working as a team and learning responsibility, McDonald's will no doubt give the industry’s image a vigorous buff. And it won’t exactly hurt the business’s recruitment efforts to have kids see their teachers working in a unit.

That’s only one of the things the chain is quietly doing to foster a bond with the community. Consider, for instance, the recent effort of a single unit in West Miami. The store opened up its doors last week to anyone who wanted to learn about the operation. The franchisee focused on the charitable efforts of the restaurant and the chain, while also noting the options that McDonald’s touts as being more healthful.

According to a news report, the invitation drew about 50 people, including an 8th grade journalism class.

Then there’s McDonald’s green stealth move. Since the start of football season, the chain has been offering pro-football fans a free ticket on public transportation to and from their teams’ stadiums. In exchange for foregoing their cars, the game-goers also get coupons for free sandwiches.

The environmentally minded offer has gotten plenty of publicity, but I’ve yet to see any ads. It’s a quiet program, beyond the reproach of the advocates who are quick to tar any green effort by the chain as greenwashing.

It’s just a shame the chain doesn’t get its due for what it’s doing right.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

A new concept headed for Darden's menu?

Is Darden considering an addition to its restaurant empire?

The parent of Red Lobster is moving this Wednesday into new headquarters elsewhere in Orlando, its home turf for the last 40 years, according to an Orlando Sentinel story. Included in the facility, says the article, are six test kitchens and the space to house a seventh. Each will serve a different concept, the piece notes.

In addition to Red Lobster, Darden’s holdings include Olive Garden, Capital Grille, LongHorn Steakhouse, Bahama Breeze and Seasons 52. Their R&D facilities will be firing up their grills in a few days. But why reserve space for a seventh? Is Darden shopping for an acquisition, or perhaps starting the in-house development of something new?

Setting aside space for expansion is hardly proof an addition is a “go.” It’s more like a young family buying a house with a spare bedroom, just in case.

But the article also notes that Darden has to add 400 positions at the new building by 2014 to earn the full tax benefits of the relocation. That’s on a base of 1,260 jobs currently housed there.

That would be a tremendous amount of organic growth, even if Seasons 52, the company’s youngest concept, really zooms cross-country.

And there’s no shortage of acquisition candidates in this buyer’s market. The last expansion of Darden’s portfolio was the purchase of Rare Hospitality, the parent of Capital Grille and LongHorn.

Speculating on possible additions is tough with Darden. Although the company is very conservative, its new concepts have been downright bold. Few would have bet it’d try a healthful concept featuring fresh, seasonal produce, as it did—undoubtedly with great success—with Seasons 52. Ditto with Bahama Breeze, still one of the industry’s few chained Caribbean concepts.

But who can resist making their wild-haired predictions. If Darden were looking to add concepts, I wonder if a burger concept, an everyday grill sort of place, would be one of types on the list. Ditto for an upscale Mexican place, with bold flavors and simple, even healthful preparations.

So, if you live in Orlando, please give a shout if catch the aroma of chipotles wafting out of the new headquarters.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Opening eyes to a greener reality

A new survey reveals that 80% of the public doesn’t know of a fast-food chain that’s trying to be green. That’s astounding, given how often I’m writing about the ecological efforts of McDonald’s, Starbucks, Taco Bell, Burger King, Carl’s Jr. and Dunkin’ Donuts, to name just a few of the sector’s green activists.

The findings by M/A/R/C Research point to a public relations disaster for the segment. Consider that the data, based on an online poll of some 7,000 consumers, also reveal that 62% of the public would be drawn to a quick-service place that was eco-minded, and that 21% would increase their visits if fast-food restaurants were green.

There can really be only two explanations. The obvious one is that the chains are doing a lousy job of letting the public know how they’re striving to be more ecologically responsible. Maybe they’re afraid of being accused of not doing enough, or of being slammed for “greenwashing,” a serious crime among the eco-minded. That community is sensitive to over-hyped or false claims of helping the environment.

But the other possibility is more problematic for the industry. What if the public is refusing to see what the chains are doing? If that sounds crazy, consider this excerpt from a Letter to the Editor that recently ran in the Santa Barbara Independent:

We are shocked and dismayed that a McDonald's restaurant on State Street has been certified by the Green Business Program of Santa Barbara County.

What's next, giving an award to Monsanto for putting up a single solar panel?

While we are sure that the local owner of this McDonald's franchise was sincere in trying to reduce his or her carbon footprint (and save a few dollars) by putting in waterless urinals, an Energy Star ice machine, and an upgraded irrigation system, it is a bad joke to "certify" this as a green business. It makes a mockery of genuine efforts toward true sustainability.

In our opinion, this award is one of the most egregious cases of greenwashing we have ever seen. — Larry Saltzman and Linda Buzzell, founders, Santa Barbara Organic Garden Club

Like it or not, McDonald’s is taking substantive steps to be greener, from exploring alternative energy sources to testing ways an operation of its size could feasibly compost its food scraps.

And it’s just one of the fast-food concepts that are trying to act more responsibly. Undoubtedly, those steps are still small ones right now. They’re balanced against the impact on profits. And maybe there’s more that should be done. We can even concede that the impetus may be public pressure, from employees and eco-minded shareholders as much as patrons.

But there is a lot being done by the industry—right now, primarily by fast-food chains and independents. The trade has to focus on making the public see and appreciate that effort.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Trying to out-supermarket supermarkets

I’m typing this very quietly because Security could detect me at any moment. I’ve managed to sneak into the nation’s leading restaurant thinktank, The Gravy Institute, to learn more about the startling new marketing strategy that’s taking hold of casual-dining chains.

The Institute, of course, was the crucible for the industry’s previous promotional breakthrough: Giving away food. Indeed, the internet now abounds in sites where you can learn how to eat restaurant fare for free on any given day—a dicey proposition for a trade that's in the business of selling food.

But that’s a Mister Rogers prescription compared with the crazy new idea that’s being hammered out here by the Institute’s best minds, Dr. Runyon Wanker and his longtime collaborator, Sir Ernest Turnip. Let’s listen in:

Wanker: By jove, that’s brilliant! Restaurants are losing business to supermarkets, since the economically-stressed prefer the economies of cooking at home. So why not beat those cabbage head stackers at their own game?

Turnip: Precisely, Wanker. Here’s how it works: The restaurants continue to offer free food—and a true bellyful, like a free entrée. But they provide it in an eat-at-home form! That way, the very at-home meals that keep people parked in front of “Dancing with the Stars” becomes the hook for restaurants.

Wanker: I believe you’ve lost me there, my good man. Do illuminate.

Turnip, with a tsk-tsk: People are buying meals or their components from the local supermarket. Ergo, they make fewer visits to restaurants. To win them back, a few restaurant chains have started dangling supermarket-style meals or products, like uncooked spaghetti, as the lure to get guests back through their doors. Buy a restaurant-cooked meal and get a second to have at home. The served meal becomes a means to the patrons' real end, a dinner in front of the tube.

Wanker: Huh. An example?

Turnip: Well, take Buca di Beppo’s new offer. Buy one entrée, you get a plate of spaghetti for free—and a 16-ounce box of pasta you can take with you to cook at home!

Wanker: But surely one example does not make a trend, my tweedy colleague. Remember the restaurant media's Rule of Three: Three instances make a trend, four examples indicates a sea change, but even two spottings signal a fluke.

Turnip: There’s another example, old sod. The Maggiano’s chain began a promotion last month that offered an entrée to have at home the next day if you bought a $12.95 dinner to eat in the restaurant. The freebie was packed up for you and delivered with the check, all set to pop into the microwave on Day Two.

Wanker: Diabolical, Turnip. Diabolical. But those are only two examples. You need a third instance of a chain providing an eat-at-home meal for every one you buy in the restaurant. And you don’t have it.

Turnip: On the contrary, my dear doctor. There’s a chain that offers such a deal—“eat one with us, get a second to eat at home”—as a matter of course.

Wanker: What??

Turnip: Yes. It’s called Cheesecake Factory.

With that, I'll make my escape to plot how I can take advantage of Buca’s free pasta offer. After all, it only lasts one day.

Perhaps with good reason.

That's Oct. 26, or National Pasta Day, if you want to see how the promotion performs.

Monday, September 21, 2009

A kick in the ash

Today researchers released two reports that validate the social benefits of smoking bans. By snuffing out the habit in restaurants and other public places, the often-controversial laws typically reduce heart attacks by 17% during the first year of enactment, concluded one of the studies. The other pegged the decrease at 26%.

The second study asserted that 154,000 people could be spared coronaries if a nationwide smoking ban was implemented.

Clearly the findings should steamroll the opposition to bans, a resistance that has often included restaurants. Still uncertain is how the industry will respond to this character-defining moment.

Is it going to react as it usually does, bashing the research and resorting to the black-and-white view that any burden on business is bad, anything less than a pro-business stance completely intolerable? Or will it take a more enlightened and realistic path, recognizing that many of its own members no longer embrace the sensibility that any management intrusion or strain on profits is intolerable? They no longer view issues like smoking bans, nutrition disclosure, or kids-marketing guidelines as the end of capitalism.

They’d prefer a creative accommodation of social causes, particularly when the result is an undeniable good.

Yet, even with the report pages barely creased, some industry members were lapsing into the old argument that they couldn’t survive another business-dampening measure.

This might trigger a few heart attacks, but I think the industry should drop the no-way line and instead push for a national smoking ban. One prohibition, from Maine to the westernmost Aleutians.

Fighting bans on a county-by-county or state-by-state basis is like trying to hold back the tide, especially with today’s indictment of the no-at-any-cost stance. The battle was turned long ago. The industry has to recognize that patrons who want to smoke should get takeout and climb back into their horse and buggies.

Practicalities aside, the industry would reach out to a younger constituency that can't abide the old-guard stances. They have trouble with the industry’s defense of menu items that pack thousands of calories or hundreds of salt grams. They’re sympathetic to demands that restaurants push their suppliers for more sustainable practices, from field to fork, and understand that ecological considerations have to be addressed. They'd like the industry to be a kindler, gentler employer, even if that means a higher outlay for labor.

I addressed a culinary class last Thursday and mentioned Starbucks’ health-care policy. It offers coverage to all staffers, including part-timers. Many of the students nodded their heads in agreement and admiration, as if to say, “’Bout time someone did.”

But if you think we’re about to join hands and launch into a rousing rendition of “Kumbaya,” don’t worry about needing any Purell. Instead of joining hands, make yours into a fist, and then aim it at the casino industry.

Because of the money that business generates, it has succeeded in wresting an exception to several smoking bans that affect virtually other service business. The argument can be summed up as, “Yes we did!”

That nonsense has to stop. If consumers can’t smoke in your places, they shouldn’t be allowed to smoke in casinos, either. Same with bars, airports, parks, bowling alleys, bingo halls, baseball stadiums, even churches. And restaurants should say as much, loud and clear.

If they’re going to do the right thing, do it all the way.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Andy Puzder's business geography lesson

The Midwesterner who heads the parent company of Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s isn’t a fan of the West Coast, particularly Oregon and the concern’s home state of California. But it’s not personal, insists Andy Puzder. It’s business. The fast-food business.

“It depends on what state you are in,” he explained Thursday to financial analysts. Some are just easier than others for a restaurant chain to navigate these days, he explained.

Texas, for instance, is “more business friendly,” said Puzder, without explaining why. Not coincidentally, “we are targeting a large percentage of our growth in Texas,” he noted.

That rev-up in the Lone Star State will lessen the importance of California to the Carl’s Jr. burger chain, which was founded in the southern part of the state and still has the bulk of its units there. Puzder has remarked in the past that the state’s high unemployment, wheezing economy and taxing regulatory environment are a significant burden on Carl’s.

But at least it’s better than Oregon, he remarked. The state “has a higher minimum wage and a similar regulatory structure as California and also has a similar socialist type government,” he said, “so the business there actually can be as bad or worse than California. And I think their unemployment rate is higher.”

Arizona, said Puzder, is also a challenging market, partly because of the drop in tourism and “issues with immigration.”

In general, he said, “illegal immigrants leaving one state for another state will hurt the restaurant business in the state they leave, not because we can't employ them but where do you think those guys eat?”

In contrast to Carl's units in Oregon, stores in Washington State are doing fine, Puzder indicated. And Texas, where Carl’s now has some 25 stores?

“Texas is doing real well,” said Puzder.

“Meaningful geographical diversification in Texas should also improve our brands’ short and long-term prospects,” he noted.

Puzder came to CKE Restaurants, the parent of Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s, via the latter brand, which is headquartered in St. Louis.
He was brought aboard as an attorney, but showed an aptitude and appreciation for the business.

But now, based outside Anaheim, he’s clearly not yet developed an affinity for its location.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

You have the answers?

Recent days have left me with some nagging questions about the restaurant industry. For instance…

What if “local” doesn’t necessarily mean “better”? Patrons are clamoring right now for more local ingredients in their restaurant meals, a propensity stoked by the belief that foodstuffs grown nearby have to be fresher, more flavorful and more nutritious.

But does that equation pencil out? Don’t growing conditions make some areas the ideal source for produce, even if they’re hundreds or thousands of miles away? And can a farmer with a truck always beat a well-oiled supply chain in getting materials to a kitchen?

That thought came to mind as I was making a salad with lettuce I’d grabbed up in my local supermarket because the bag was marked, “Grown Here On Long Island!” A half-hour later, I was trying to chop the leathery Romaine, a task akin to slicing wet tissues. The heads might’ve been produced locally, but perhaps not in the current calendar year.

Nor was the flavor as good as some of the mass-market brands available here, like Andy Boy or Dole.

Lest you think I’m palate-damaged numbskull who can't grasp the advantages of local fare, keep in mind that my father ran a millionaire’s estate/farm when I was growing up. One of my jobs was to head down to the garden and get the lettuce, cucumbers and tomatoes that would figure into my family’s dinner, typically served a few minutes later. I know freshness, and I know what good lettuce tastes like. And, in my experience, local lettuce doesn’t always equate to better. Ditto for strawberries, melons, tomatoes and broccoli.

What happened to our outrage? Kanye West pulls a dunderheaded move for the ages and, justifiably, he’s almost voted off the planet. On the same day his transgression comes to light, Share Our Strength reports the first flush of an investigation into classroom hunger. Teachers were asked. “Do you see child hunger in your classroom?”

Quoted was a San Antonio instructor identified as Kate, who spoke about a second-grader in her school named Kimberly. The child must have qualified for the school lunch or breakfast program, because, Kate noted, she could count on getting a meal at school.

“Anytime we had leftovers,” Kate said, “she would always want to take them home. She’d wrap up the leftover food to take home to her little brothers and sisters. She was a second grader trying to make sure her family got fed.”

I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t have had a chance if it weren’t for school. It was still the great equalizer in my day, the opportunity that largely offset the accidents of birth. And today we have 7 or 8-year-olds whose attention is diverted from basic math or reading by the need to feed her siblings.

With all due respect to music stars, isn’t that a little more galling than Taylor Swift getting dissed?

Who drugged the nation’s restaurateurs? Being a geek, I peruse virtually all the financial reports of publicly owned restaurant companies. It's like packing your iPod with blues songs and dirges, then putting it on Shuffle mode.

Lately, just to get a bit of relief, I’ve taken to reading the reports of supermarket and c-store chains. They should be delivered with confetti, noisemakers and party hats. The big source of their growth is in prepared meals, partially prepared meals, and rawer foodstuffs that can be turned into meals in lieu of a restaurant outing. In short, they’re eating the industry’s lunch.

Yet the restaurant trade seems oblivious to the loss. The only noticeable reaction has been to strike more licensing deals with food processors. That way, the chains figure, they at least pocket a few pennies from the dollars being spent on frozen entrees and other grocery products.

If you can’t compete on price, as restaurants likely can’t, at least the industry should tout service. Yet have you heard much about experience in restaurants’ commercials or other promotional efforts? Can you recall any marketing push that made a convincing case for restaurant service?

It’s as if the industry is ceding its dinner business, with vows to win it back once the economic climate improves.

But that recovery effort could be far, far more difficult than the industry imagines.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Cracker Barrel's return volley

After losing customers to fast-food places, chains like IHOP and Denny’s are fighting back with grab-and-go outlets of their own. IHOP, for instance, is testing a limited-service mutation called IHOP Cafe, where the menu is limited to wraps, sandwiches and a few other portable items. Denny’s calls its entrant Fresh Express, a section set up within existing stores as a takeout station. Bakers Square and Big Boy have similar experiments underway.

But Cracker Barrel, one of that sector’s powerhouses, is betting against them. Instead of creating a new set-up for patrons in a hurry, the country-store-themed chain is trying to compress a sit-down meal into a tighter timeframe. Tests of the Seat to Eat program have cut patrons’ wait times for a meal to less than 14 minutes, CEO Michael Woodhouse told investors yesterday. Starting next month, the initiative will be expanded to include all stores, though the process will stretch to 18 months in part because of the capital requirements.

Executives didn’t reveal the price of changing units’ kitchen configurations to accommodate Seat to Eat, but they noted that it would be part of a $30-million budget that also covers maintenance and the opening of seven stores. Other comments suggested the outlay could be in the $13-million range, with about half spent in 2010.

Woodhouse called it “an integrative tool to drive store traffic and increase productivity.”

Friday, September 11, 2009

Remembering an industry hero on 9/11

Eight years ago today, after an indelible exposure to the terrorism attacks, I vowed that I’d do my small part to keep the horrible memory of that day alive. If more people could understand what it was like to be in New York City that day—in my case, maybe 30 blocks from the Towers—we’d have a better chance of ensuring it never happens again.

So please indulge me this departure from restaurant industry coverage to recount the last hours of a hero who was atop the South Tower that day. But there is a connection to the business since she was one of ours, the assistant general manager of Windows on the World. The restaurant was hosting a breakfast conference in one of its function rooms.

But I’m going to step back and let Christine Olender, our heroine, describe the situation in her own words, as recorded in 911 calls to the police after the first plane hit:

CHRISTINE: Hi, this is Christine, assistant GM of Windows. We're getting no direction up here. We're having a smoke condition. We need directions as to where we need to direct our guests and our employees, as soon as possible.

Port Authority Police Officer STEVE MAGGETT: Okay. We're doing our best, we've got the fire department, everybody, we're trying to get up to you, dear. Call back in about two or three minutes, and I'll find out what direction you should try to get down.

CHRISTINE, minutes later: Hi, this is Christine up at Windows on 107. We're still waiting for direction. We have guests up here.

OFFICER RAY MURRAY: Ah, how many people have you got there, up there, approximately?

CHRISTINE: We have approximately, probably about 75-100 people.

RM: Seventy-five to 100, and you're up on 106 or 107?

CHRISTINE: One-oh-six; 107's impossible. The smoke condition on 107 is [sound lost].

RM: We're...we are sending officers and fire personnel up there at this time. We are evacuating as soon as possible.

CHRISTINE: But we...right now we need to find a safe haven on 106, where the smoke condition isn't bad. Can you direct us to a certain quadrant?

RM: All right, we are sending somebody up there as soon as possible. If anybody can get to the staircase, that's fine.

CHRISTINE: You can't. The staircase is [sound lost].

RM: All right, we're sending... we're sending people up there as soon as possible.

CHRISTINE: What's your ETA?

RM:'am, I have to get on the radio. As soon as possible. As soon as it's humanly possible.

The transcrips show that Christine called back in exactly five minutes to press for help to save her guests. When she got no where, she waited four minutes and called for the fourth and final time.

CHRISTINE: Hi, this is Christine again, from Windows on the World on the 106th floor. The situation on 106 is rapidly getting worse.

RM, to people around him: I got a fourth call from Windows on the World, it's getting rapidly worse up there.

CHRISTINE: We...we have...the fresh air is going down fast! I am not exaggerating.

RM: Uh, ma'am, I know you're not exaggerating. We're getting a lot of these calls. We are sending the Fire Dept. up as soon as possible. I have you, Christine: four calls, 75-100 people, Windows on the World, 106th floor.

CHRISTINE: What are we going to do for air?

RM: Ma'am, the Fire Dept....

CHRISTINE: Can we break a window?

RM: You can do whatever you have to to get to, uh, the air.

CHRISTINE: All right.

Minutes later, the building collapsed. Despite Christine’s valiant and self-less efforts, her guests didn’t escape. Nor, of course, did she.

There’s not a doubt in my mind that her extraordinary courage and concern eased her customers’ panic and comforted them greatly as the situation worsened. She was a hero who’ll be remembered for as long as I’m writing.

A side note: The account was taken verbatim from emergency-call transcripts that the authorities didn’t release for two years. Restaurant Business magazine, of which I was editor at the time, teamed up with several of its sister trade books to buy a copy for what I remember was a large fee, probably around $500. The New York/New Jersey Transit Authority had set the price high to keep the voyeurs and ghouls from getting their jollies.

Like RB, the other magazines wanted to pay tribute to the members of their industries who acted heroically that day. I volunteered to visit the Authority’s offices to pick up our copy, all 2,000 pages of it. Authority officials asked me to wait until noon, without explaining why.

When I got to their offices, several of the employees had obviously been crying. I didn’t press for a reason. But when I was writing out the check, I casually asked one of the non-criers for the date. He glared at me. “It’s Sept. 11, 2003,” he coolly responded. “I know that because we just came from a memorial service.”

They probably can’t forget what happened on this day in 2001. For that and a lot of other reasons, including Christine Olender, I can’t, either.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

What I learned today about the restaurant industry

The day wasn’t rife with ah-ha moments, but there were a few hmm-worthy points. Here, boiled down to snack-sized portions, is what I learned about the restaurant industry during Back to School Week:

The road ahead in the green movement may really be the road ahead. By now, even primitive tribes of the Guatemalan jungle have heard about Burger King’s test of an electricity-generating drive-thru speed bump. In essence, the device moves up and down as cars roll over it, generating kinetic energy in the process. The power could be sufficient to power a nightlight in the manager’s office.

The more promising route to restaurant economy could be the technology that’s being developed with a new $100,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Energy. The agency wants to see if an upstart company can develop a solar panel tough enough to serve as a road surface. If it can be, restaurant parking lots, access roads and drive-thru lanes could become energy generators. Throw in a few speed-bump power plants and you could get enough juice to light Las Vegas.

What’s our diagnosis of the healthcare situation? Quick, what’s the restaurant industry’s position on healthcare reform? If you can peg it, please grab a megaphone and blare it to the rank and file. They’ve largely been left in silence by the trade’s usual town criers on public affairs—a puzzling muteness, given the issue’s financial import to the nation’s second largest private-sector employer.

Hopefully we’re just not hearing a voice that’s ringing loud and clear at the negotiations table. But it certainly would be calming to know what our representatives think of the proposals that are currently being considered. How alarmed, if at all, should an average owner-operator or chain executive be? And what arguments are being put forth to protect the industry’s interests? It sure would be nice to know what’s happening on our behalf up on Capitol Hill. And something is, right?

Restaurant tables are being put to unusual use. Apparently there’s a lot of sex taking place in restaurants’ under-filled dining rooms these days. And we’re talking about the Full Monty sort, with partners and all.

Basketball coach Rick Pitino has drawn enough media glare for his professed dalliance with a woman in a Louisville, Ky., in 2003 (she alleges the coach raped her, an accusation dismissed by authorities and a witness to the scene). And that was six years ago. Even if it was atop a table, it probably should be skipped here.

But there’s no shortage of other examples. Two weeks ago, for instance, a restaurant in Woodstock, Ga., was raided because the place allegedly doubled as the headquarters for a prostitution ring. Be grateful there isn’t a Zagat guide for the town or we’d be reading snippets like “not all the moaning is for the food,” or “the real place to have it your way.”

At the other extreme are the places that tsk-tsk such base carnality right on their signage. They’ve incorporated the phrase “better than sex” right in their names, be it Better Than Sex Cake Café in Chandler, Ariz., or the Better than Sex Dessert Café in Key West, Fla.

Then there’s the new blood (sausage) lust. At Nation’s Restaurant News, we had set criteria to determine what qualifies as a trend: Three examples of anything. By that standard, appreciation of blood sausage is a veritable craze.

You’ll find it on the menu of such hot new places as DBGB, Daniel Boulud’s downscale café on New York City’s Bowery, as well as higher end places like Chicago’s Avec, where the blood sausage figures into a pasta dish.

The tubes of congealed blood, usually described in a much more appetizing way than that, are showing up in particular in their Latino versions (Puerto Rican, or morcilla; Argentinean; Cuban; etc.).

It’s not yet made its way down to the casual chains, but we’re probably only months away from a Bloomin’ Bleeder appetizer.

Friday, September 4, 2009

But can she leap a tall building?

It’s a good thing slime-dripping mutants from outer space haven’t attacked the restaurant industry in the last few weeks. Mustering a squad of superhero defenders would’ve been tougher than getting Alice Waters to wolf down a bag of Cool Ranch Doritos. A character named Price Slasher just wouldn’t fit an X-men team, even if any number of chain execs could have applied.

Then again, there is a new Clark Kent on the scene. Few have even noticed her, much less realized she can hold her own with the likes of Sally Smith of Buffalo Wild Wings, Jerry Deitchle of BJ’s Restaurants, and the industry’s own Dynamic Duo, Jim Skinner and Don Thompson of McDonald’s.

Gotham had certainly run amuck before Cheryl Bachelder, a one-time president of KFC, was hired in late 2007 to right AFC Enterprises and its fast-food business, the Popeyes fried-chicken chain.

Popeyes was KFC’s closest competitor, but a decidedly distant one. The brand had gone through more redirection in the prior years than a GPS provides in a decade. Under a succession of leaders, the concept had experimented with name variations, different formats, upscale recastings, and dramatic menu changes. They seemed intent on nudging the brand out of its quick-service niche.

Meanwhile, the core business stagnated. Units looked rundown and were often poorly located. Franchisees let their operations languish as headquarters cycled through more change.

Enter the caped Bachelder, promising yet more change, but talking dollars and cents this time. She explained that the 1,900-unit chain would spend $3.5 million to revamp its menu and marketing, and another $2.5 million to recruit better talent and improve service.

Then she changed the concept’s name from Popeyes Chicken & Biscuits to Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen. The bone-in fried chicken was itself renamed Popeyes Bonafide Chicken, and new premium products like a bowl meal and sandwiches were added. Simultaneously, Bachelder said the chain would tweak its menu to provide more portability and value.

It sounded like the same-old same ole—an attempt to be more upscale, without giving up the customers who just wanted inexpensive fried chicken. Similar past efforts had failed to pull Popeyes out of a Louisiana-grade swamp.

But Bachelder aired a sweeping plan to investors and staff. She cited lofty goals like improving the image of the brand, yet also mentioned minor tweaks like outfitting employees at the drive-thru station with headphones and timers. She later explained that handling three more cars an hour during Popeyes’ busiest drive-thru times would bump up comp sales by a full percentage point.

Marketing would be stepped up, as would deal making. The chain would emphasize portability, value, its Louisiana heritage, and on-the-bone fried chicken.

The strategy was notable for its detail and extensiveness, but not necessarily its approach.

Now, about a year into it, the plan is showing undeniable signs of success. Popeyes’ domestic comp-store sales for the second quarter hit 4.3%, outstripping the whole fast-food market by five percentage points, according to Bachelder.

A one-day discount—eight pieces of chicken offered for $4.99—had delivered “one of the best Wednesdays in our recorded history,” she told investors.

Bachelder also revealed that the chain would close as many as 120 underperforming restaurants.

Her moves were bold, but her predecessors at Popeyes hadn’t lacked gumption, either. What does seem different is how well-conceived her plan is, and how attuned it is to both the strengths and weaknesses of the brand.

Every turnaround amounts to building off a concept’s strengths with reasonable business-building measures. The artform is accurately identifying those strengths and astutely deciding what advances would complement that base.

It’s a superpower that Bachelder appears to have mastered, at least this far into the fight to save the world.