Thursday, January 28, 2010

Party on, Garth

Not since the medical-marijuana movement have toga wearers heard news this good: Slowly yet surely, the fast food industry is making it possible to catch a buzz with your burger or burrito.

Those of you just deplaning from the space shuttle might’ve missed the news that Burger King will serve beer in its new Whopper Bar concept, an upscale riff on the chain’s usual fast-food emporiums. The kegger will start at the branch under development in South Beach, Miami’s own little stretch of Gomorrah, and spread to outlets like the one planned for New York’s Times Square, according to press reports.

The hubbub suggested that the fast-food world has never tried such a thing before. Yet a number of other chains had beaten BK to the bottle opener. Prominent among them is Starbucks, which is selling beer and wine at its new “neighborhood” stores, the individually named cafes that call to mind eccentrics in berets reading poetry.

Even more ambitious is the bartending of Baja Fresh, the fast-casual burrito chain that’s now offering margaritas in a few outlets. The stores also offer bottled beers, as competitors like Chipotle have done since their start.

The slow seep of alcohol into fast food has been happening for years. Three decades ago, a point of distinction for Taco Cabana was selling margaritas through the drive-thru, and the regional chain still sells a frozen version by the glass and in pitchers. If memory serves me correctly, McDonald’s even tried beer at an outlet in the Miami airport back in the ‘80s.

But the trend is particularly intriguing now because it shifts fast-feeders closer to casual dining, a stretch of quicksand during much of the Great Recession. Why wade into that marshland when the casual chains were scrambling not long ago to recast themselves as fast-food places that happened to use silverware? They certainly narrowed the gap between their prices and what you’d be charged at a grab-and-go burger shop. Ditto for the menu items they featured.

So why inch onto ground the traditional occupants are forsaking to some degree? Maybe the seam between the sectors is the place to be. That, after all, is the turf targeted by fast-casual chains.

Yet they’ve not fared as well during the downturn as their conventional quick-serve predecessors. No, it seems more a matter of pushing out the edges of a brand’s market, regardless of what sector serves as its base. Even more so than a year ago, chains of all stripes are trying to hold their traditional turf while pushing out in slight increments into new territory.

The question is, does that sharpen their appeal or just blur their image?

It’s enough to make you crave a drink.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Copycat killers?

Have some mercy, fast-food chains.

You’ve already swiped a horde of customers from casual dining. Do you have to steal the sector’s best defense, too?

Yet there’s no denying the recent raids by higher-end brands. Consider the newest offer from Qdoba: Craft 2, a mix-and-match deal for bargain-hunters who prize variety as much as volume. The offer invites customers to build a meal by combining two Qdoba favorites, all for $5.99.

Sounds a little like Applebee’s 2 for $20 deal, doesn’t it? Or is it Chili’s 3 for $20? T.G.I. Friday’s 3 for $12.99, maybe?

Mix-and-match deals have become as commonplace in casual dining as deep-fried onion product, bloomin’, straws or otherwise. They’ve been a leading way—perhaps the leading way—for big brands to provide the value that consumers now regard as a non-negotiable.

Fast-food chains could offer better prices on products common to both segments, like burgers or salads. But filling platters or serving up multiple courses was something only the full-service chains seemed able to pull off.

Well, not anymore. A few weeks before Qdoba started hawking its mix-and-match deal, Quiznos lifted the napkin off its new Choose Two deal. Patrons are invited to make a meal of any two items off the sandwich chain’s menu, all for $5.

Is there any doubt that other fast feeders will follow?

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Starbucks offers Brits a new coffee. Are we next?

Starbucks is trying a new sort of hot coffee drink across the pond, according to CEO Howard Schultz. He mentioned U.K. operations' new Flat White to U.S. investors recently, but didn't divulge details. A query to the chain's offices across the Atlantic brought this description:
Starbucks Flat White is a small strong coffee made with two shots of 100% Fairtrade certified espresso in an 8 fl oz cup topped with creamy, steamed whole-milk. The milk is given a velvety texture by being "stretched and spun", which allows the espresso shot to rise through the milk. Patterns or "foam art" can be made in the top of the cup with the contrasting colours of the coffee and milk. The Flat White has become increasingly popular in cities throughout the UK in recent times, although its origins are in Australia and New Zealand.
By "stretched and spun," Starbucks apparently means that steam is injected deep into a pot of milk and the bubbles that rise are mixed with a spoon back into the less-aerated portion of the liquid, judging from other sources. The bubbles rise again, "stretching" the creamer. The milk poured over the espresso is taken from the bottom of the pot, where you have no froth and the least aeration. Hence the "flat" descriptor.

Aficionados say the process gives the milk a silky quality. They note that whole milk has to be used, rather than the 2%-fat variety that's Starbucks' staple.

Starbucks U.K. noted that "this is the first major addition to our UK and Ireland espresso-based drinks line-up since we entered the UK market in 1998."

Monday, January 25, 2010

Having a bad day? Consider Ronald's

If corporate life increasingly feels like having your arms pinned back while people line up to punch you in the gut, consider the agita that erupted for McDonald’s in just the last week or so.

Blogs and message boards were filled this weekend with reports of the corporate giant’s one-sided battle with a 19-year-old named Lauren McClusky, who’s raised some $30,000 in contributions for the Special Olympics through events she calls McFests. You guessed it: Ronald & Co. doesn’t want anyone else using the “Mc” prefix for promotional purposes, so it’s trying to block McClusky from patenting the handle for her fundraisers.

Both parties have already lawyered up. Obviously that’s a bigger deal for McClusky than it is for a multi-billion-dollar global behemoth. The youngster says she’s merely fighting for the right to use her own name (the “Mc” in McFest comes from McClusky, she asserts), and points out that $5,000 of what she’s raised is being wasted on legal wrangling instead of helping the disabled.

The cyber-coverage has been mixed. Some reports indeed portray McDonald’s as the sort of mustachioed corporate villain that boots widows and childrens from their homes just for the fun of it.

But others note that McDonald’s hasn’t blocked McClusky from holding her fundraisers under the McFest name. It’s merely challenging her attempts to trademark the name McFest, which could be lent to far less lofty endeavors if the youngster should choose to license it at some later date.

That situation wasn’t the only one that might’ve cost Mayor McCheese some sleep this weekend. Across the pond, Brits are leaping out of their plimsolls to berate McDonald’s for misinterpreting British slang in new ads for the Saver Menu, or what we know here as the Dollar Menu. The spots equate a pound with a bob, when anyone who’s ever seen “Oliver” would know a bob is the street term for a shilling. Much of the coverage slams the Yank company for not using accurate English, as if we in the States have no respect for the mother tongue. Ronald is being cast as the ugly American.

Far worse disparagements came from a member of the Scottish rock band Franz Ferdinand, who was irate because the band’s label sold McDonald’s rights to use one of the quartet’s tunes in commercials. “I’d rather eat a cowpat on a bun than a bloody McDonald’s,” Alex Kapranos reported posted on Twitter.

And, just to round out the assault from the arts, The Hollywood Reporter posted a story today about a 17-minute animated flick that was aired at Sundance, the movie Mecca. The report calls it, “the movie no lawyer should see,” and notes that it’s basically a depiction of well-known brand icons in situations that would have marketing departments hyperventilating into a brown paper bag.

Included in the action, says the story, is “an evil Ronald McDonald” who “goes on a shooting spree.”

At least McDonald's isn't the only restaurant brand to be sullied. The story notes that Big Boy is shown picking his nose.

It doesn’t sound much like entertainment or art. But it’s safe to call it a super-sized headache for McDonald’s legal department.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Mind the recent signs of improvement

Be careful where you drop your gloom because you don’t want to crush any of the green shoots that sprouted in the restaurant industry last week.

Let’s recap:

McDonald’s, a chain that looked as if it’d finally been tripped up by the economy, explained to investors that it’s paying attention in 2010 to building check averages, a surprising admission given the discounting that’s still rampant in fast-food. The segment’s leader isn’t abandoning its quest for bargain hunters. To the contrary, it’s rolling out a Dollar Menu for breakfast and the Mac Snack Wrap, an item so low priced that execs term it a “fourth-tier” item, below your run-of-the-mill bargain.

Still, officials are pushing items like the Angus burger and continuing the rollout of frappes and smoothies because of the boosts they’ll deliver to tabs and profits. Even the Mac Snack, essentially a Big Mac served in a tortilla wrap, fits the strategy. The chain believes the item’s low price will convince customers to buy it as an add-on to what they normally get, putting more money in the till.

McDonald’s wouldn’t be devoting attention to that end of the pricing barbell if it didn’t feel the opportunity is there.

Panera Bread, meanwhile, said the restaurants it manages took in 9.4% more year-to-date in January than they did during the same period of 2009, after rising 9.6% in December. The January figure is particularly encouraging because McDonald’s mentioned to investors that bad weather probably depressed sales for the first half of the month by 3% a day.

Starbucks’ comp sales increase for late 2009 wasn’t quite as robust, with “just” a 4% gain. But a full percentage point came from increased traffic, a term that wasn’t been heard much last year, unless you were talking about the situation at unemployment offices.

In the full-service sector, Chili’s lifted the dome off a new menu that’s as radical—and sensible—as anything the chain’s ever done. What makes it so bold is the surrender to simplicity. For one thing, the bill of fare runs to only eight pages, a 50% cut from the tome it replaces.

But what’s really significant is the Doh! that must have precede it. The chain is basically a grill, like a neighborhood bar, with good burgers, ribs and other relatively simple preparations. The items left on the menu aren’t cutesy-named knock-offs of the trendy stuff someone dressed in black might hunt in the casual hotspots of New York or Chicago. Chili’s recognized what it was, and what it should become again, and shifted back there.

A smaller, simpler menu means better execution and a shot at better food. The side benefit is presumably quicker service, since the kitchen staff can prepare more of a relatively few items, which become that much more familiar.

Quicker kitchen output gives customers an option of getting in and out of the restaurant quickly, if that’s what the occasion warrants, or hanging back with a few more margaritas, if that’s the preference that night. Executives of the chain’s parent company, Brinker International, have been talking for some time about the need to let patrons decide the pace and extent of a visit. Presumably that objective was brought to light by research. In any case, it appears the chain has taken a big step toward complying with the desire.

Chili’s traffic and sales are still declining, executives acknowledged, but the downdraft has moderated appreciably. And they cited the new menu as a foundation for the chain’s identity going forward. The brand appears to have found itself.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Smart is as smart does

This just in: Restaurateurs don’t know everything.

It gets worse, folks: A lot of people think the strange beings who own or operate restaurants could actually learn something from counterparts in other fields. Or at least that’s been the thinking of clients who’ve commissioned me in recent weeks to draft stories or presentations aimed specifically at restaurateurs.

“Maybe we should look at what other industries are doing, so restaurateurs can see what they’re missing,” suggested one editor. “Focus specifically on caterers, since they seem to have figured it out,” asserted another. “Feel free to talk to retailers if you find out they’re getting it and restaurants aren’t,” said yet another.

This would’ve been heresy just a few months ago. You always spoke to restaurateurs by using the words and experiences of other restaurateurs.

But those of us who monitor the business can’t help but be a little frustrated with our usual sources. The Great Recession has changed the game, yet many restaurant operators are determined to carry on as they did in a much different age. Two years ago, say. The railroad has come to town , and they’re still focused on the stagecoach trade.

Part of the problem is the restaurateur’s pride in being different. Many take great pleasure in comporting as society’s desperados, the nonconformists who want no part of the suited mainstream. Unless you’ve sliced a finger three times, burned your palm at least five, and survived a Friday dinner service where the chef didn’t show, they have no use for you. You’re not one of them.

Indeed you’re not. But the restaurant business is hampered by such an acute lack of imagination at present that you want to shake the close-minded individuals who refuse to look beyond the trade’s boundaries.

If they were really smart, they’d look for the people who are even smarter than they are, regardless of what field they’re in.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

My pick for Best Turnaround Story

If Kona Grill’s past year had been recorded in 3-D, people would be bailing out of “Avatar” to catch the more engrossing tale.

The story could’ve been lifted from a Hollywood western: A frontier boss decides he’s going to make his own rules, public be damned. In this case, that includes selling a million shares of stock to his father at a sweetheart price to raise working capital after cutting the staff. Meanwhile, the easterners on Wall Street worry about how this range lord is running the ranch they’ve staked. Shots are exchanged, albeit verbally, when they ask for an accounting during a routine phone chat with management. You could almost hear the derringers being cocked.

Enter our hero, his white hat almost glistening. Marc Buehler, best known as the marketing sure-shot who deftly used his spurs at Applebee’s, is brought in as the new honcho to fix the muck-up that the 24-unit chain had become.

He starts assembling a posse to run off the fusion concept’s problems. Because bar business is essential to Kona, Buehler recruits Rachel Phillips-Luther, a former hand at the Chammps and Fox & Hounds sports-bar chains, to serve as vice president of marketing and brand innovation.

The appointment came after one of the last key figures from the last regime, an operations specialist, had been sent galloping into the sunset.

If you want to go get a refill on the popcorn, I’ll wait.

Yesterday, Buehler showed what kind of firepower he intends to put behind Kona, a concept old enough to need some updating. This time his lariat fell on Larry Ryback, president and chief operating officer of Dean Vlahos’ Redstone American Grill, one of the most popular and admired concepts at the high end of casual dining. Ryback is serving Kona, characterized by Buehler as “polished casual,” as senior vice president of operations.

Now comes the hard work of proving the viability of Kona, a decidedly quirky fusion concept. Its signatures include a sushi bar, a 2,000-gallon aquarium, a hopping bar, a menu that stretches from pizza to noodle dishes, and 40 made-from-scratch sauces. “We have a saucier in every restaurant,” Buehler recently boasted to investors.

Buehler has suggested that those idiosyncrasies will serve Kona well by differentiating the brand from other casual concepts, or what he calls “a sea of sameness” featuring “a lot of brown food on plates.”

Yet he also notes that Kona is popular with consumers aged 21 to 35, hardly the older, more affluent customers sought by other upscale concepts like Seasons 52. Checks average $24, and units are typically running “north of $4 million” in annual sales, says Buehler.

With only 24 restaurants, the chain also lacks the marketing wherewithal of competitors. Those stores are also scatter-gunned across 15 states, so even pocket marketing is a challenge.

Instead, Buehler says he’ll rely on social media and word-of-mouth. His revised team is in the process of forming a new loyalty marketing program, a club for “Konavores.”

He also plans to blaze new opportunities for Kona in catering, delivery and takeout, while opening only one restaurant in 2010.

The job has to be a daunting one. But the dramas leading into it have made this one of my favorite turnaround efforts to watch.

After all, would the Na’vi dare to combine sushi with calamari, meatloaf and a swimming-pool sized aquarium?

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Restaurants show their hearts. My friend told me.

As a journalist who covers the restaurant industry, I of course have to remain absolutely, positively objective about the companies and chains that make up the business. Show appreciation or regard for even a single member and someone might suspect you lack the cold-heartedness to tell it like it is.

But I have this friend who covers the business, and he wants me to publish a few of the reasons why he’s particularly proud today to be affiliated with the trade. Here they are:

--McDonald’s pledged to donate $500,000 to relief efforts for Haiti, and its Latin American franchisee offered to match whatever the home office provides. That’s $1 million in aid.

--Burton’s Grill, a four-unit chain in the Boston area, announced that it would donate 15% of its revenues for the day to buy food for the Haitians. You could argue that giving away one of every six dollars that’s slipped into the till by a company of that size is a bigger sacrifice than the McDonald’s million.

--Yum! Brands, the parent of Taco Bell, KFC and Pizza Hut, pledged to send $500,000 from its standing hunger-relief fund to Haiti.

--Burger King's standing charity has pledged $50,000 in relief.

--In Chicago, independent restaurants are forming a Donate a Dollar program to fund a Haitian relief effort called Wake of the Quake. Apparently patrons will be asked to make contributions that will then be aggregated and shipped to the earthquake-devastated nation.

--A roundup of what other restaurateurs are doing to help was compiled by The New York Times' Kim Severson and published in paper's Diner's Journal Blog . Among the contributors are such gods of the business as Danny Meyer, Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Mario Batali.

There are undoubtedly dozens of other programs that restaurants are undertaking to help quake victims, and each deserves to be celebrated. It's a good feeling to be part of this business.

I was referring to my friend, of course.

My day on the restaurant savannah

I’m on safari this week for that most elusive of beasts, the free-spending consumer. Word reached camp of a gaggle converging at the midday feeding spots of my suburban hometown. So off I zoomed in my four-wheel-drive upholstered bushwhacker, eager to observe the habits of this prized and seemingly endangered prey.

The question was where. I picked up the trail in a section of the suburban wilds known to local tribesmen as a strip mall. The peculiar formation of neon and hardtop is a favored spot of the species’ juveniles, but this was the time of day when most hang out in schools rather than in small foraging packs. Indeed, the specimens milling outside what naturalists call a chain restaurant were decidedly long in the tooth. Perhaps they were the stragglers of a free-spending herd inside.

No such luck. There were all of six grey-heads at the trough, seemingly enjoying the shelter more than the food. Indeed, they weren’t even spending. Yet this was prime feeding time. Why such a sparse turnout?

The mystery deepened as I scouted the savannah for other traces of the dollar-wielding consumer. A local pizzeria was packed. Ditto for a hole-in-the-wall with the unlikely dual specialties of pizza and soup.

A bagel shop, a one-of-a-kind known throughout the region, didn’t even necessitate a stop-by. I knew it would be packed.

And I could’ve been trampled in a local upscale market. Perhaps it was the aroma of the food as the chefs spooned it from pan to platter behind a chest-high glass wall, handing out samples as they worked. Here, craning their necks as they bayed for a taste, were my wallet-emptying foragers. They huddled near the imported cheeses, and two females appeared ready to butt heads over a choice piece of foccacia on display. Some looked ready to purr over their ready-to-eat purchases.

A scientist would smile and say, What do you expect? It’s quality that draws the trophy customers, not value or marketing dollars.

Yet that only begins to tell the story. I had pulled a Dian Fosse and eaten with the subjects of my observations at the chain restaurant. It proved a harrowing experience. I had ordered two things. Before I could even finish saying Item I, the counter-person had cut me off, demanding—and I mean demanding—to know if I wanted cheese on it. Interrogators use a warmer tone.

Then, even though I had only ordered two things, and I was the only customer, he botched my request and input only one selection in the POS. He wasn’t happy when I pointed out that I wanted a soda with my burger. His day was clearly ruined, so tragically that he finally had to pick up a pencil and manually figure out my tab, sighing the whole time. At $3.24, I’d bet my home it was off considerably.

Then I had the Wild Kingdom experience of listening to the mathematician and his colleagues as they discussed my request in Spanish, at one point with a hearty guffaw. It had a vaguely menacing feel, like hearing strange sounds in a thick wood.

The food, in contrast, was good. Not on par with the gourmet shop, to be sure, but a notch or two above my expectations for a feeding spot of that price range. And definitely in the same range qualitywise as local pizza-by-the-slice.

No, the problema for restaurant chains go beyond a yearning to get better quality for the dollars we can crowbar out of our wallets during these bruising days. It seems as if too many members of that pack have forgotten they’re a service breed first and foremost, and what they really deliver is an experience, not stuff.

Sometimes a leopard has to change its spots if it doesn’t want to get skinned.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

'I'll punch you if the roll's soggy'

A question of etiquette for those of you who’ve been monitoring the recent headlines about fast-food restaurants: Is it impolite to keep your Plexiglas visor down while you order? Or should the helmet come off altogether until you see a customer actually start to lose it?

Nah, that might be way too risky, given how quickly fists (and glass) can fly when a patron isn’t happy. And how can they turn anything less than murderous with provocations like not being able to get Chicken McNuggets for breakfast, or having your cheeseburger order botched? Geesh.

In case you missed the recent incidents of restaurant rage, here’s a quick recap that’ll get you back to “Balloon Boy: A Retrospective” before you can say “TMZ”:

A woman in Toledo, Ohio, reportedly punched a crewmember through the drive-thru window at a McDonald’s because McNuggets weren’t available at 6:30 a.m. The accused, aged 24, then allegedly broke the window with her fist. Some news reports noted the woman’s explanation that she really loved McNuggets.

What happened to the Good Ole Days when customers merely dialed 911 if they were upset about a drive-thru experience?

That incident came a few days after a customer of a McDonald’s in Kansas City, Mo., was caught on video as she threw a bucket of water and a POS terminals at counter workers because they'd given her a cheeseburger on a bun, not wrapped in a tortilla as she'd requested. The restaurant had offered to try again, but the customer wanted her money back. Rebuffed, she went on the rampage, which extended to throwing a Wet Floor sign and pushing another terminal to the ground. Then she fled.

The video, a hit on the web, led police to the culprit. She was arrested this week, about two weeks after she’d torn up the McDonald’s unit.

The drive-thru pugilist was also arrested, but released on her own recognizance pending a court appearance later this month. News reports noted that a judge instructed the woman not to revisit the McDonald’s where she couldn’t get her beloved McNuggets until lunchtime.

Well, I think I’ll put on my body armor and maybe get a McSnack Wrap.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Lite on calories, not credibility

Forget the celery and cottage cheese. Any serious dieter knows the way to a healthier bod these days is chowing down on tacos, ice cream and any number of chain-restaurant specialties.

Unless you’ve put a foot through the TV this NFL playoff season, chances are you’ve heard about these breakthroughs in healthful dining—boons like Taco Bell’s new Drive-Thru Diet, or the just-added frozen treats that Baskin-Robbins is touting as “better for you.”

One day, chains are touting bellybombers that should’ve come with their own stents and defibrillators. A few days into the New Year, they’re touting low-calorie sandwiches, egg-white-only breakfast wraps, and waist slimmers like peppercorn-coated steak.

Snarkiness aside, the new options provide a long-sought alternative to dishes that often had cardiologists hyperventilating. Starbucks, for instance, is inviting fans of its calorie-packed Frappucinos to offset their guilt with a new line of panini sandwiches containing fewer than 400 calories each. The coffee chain has also snagged bragging rights to being the first mega-sized chain to add an organic option, a line of Peter Rabbit-brand organic snacks.

Starbucks, as one of the industry’s New Age concepts, may be able to pull off the we’re-actually-healthy assertion. But are consumers going to redefine a chain like Dunkin’ Donuts as the place to promote your health (the chain just added the option of having its morning sandwiches and wraps prepared with egg whites)?

Hey, egg-white-only sandwiches deliver a benefit, even if your other breakfast options include a crème-filled, deep-fried ball of dough. But you have to wonder if the chains are underestimating the impressions they’ve stamped on the public consciousness through decades of touting high-indulgence items. One day a system is touting a selection that would’ve made a decadent Roman shudder, the next they’re pushing something as being heart-healthy. Is the public memory so short?

Credibility will no doubt be further strained by research indicating the calorie counts posted on some chains’ menus are low-balling the tallies by as much 50%. If the big brands are underreporting their love handle contributions when disclosure is required by law, how much trust can the public put in unverified health claims?

The industry will need to win public faith by telling the truth about its health initiatives, which should be as simple and sensible as they can be. Claiming a better-for-you bacon just won’t cut it. But swapping carrot sticks for fries would be a believable way of cutting calorie and fat intake.

Most important, the business can’t afford at this stage to make unfounded claims. If it squanders the public trust by trying to make a lard burger sound like the healthiest thing since acai, it deserves the backlash that will no doubt come.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

A Texas-sized restaurant hurt?

The Fourth Ring of Hell, once thought to be California or Michigan, may turn out to be Texas, at least for restaurants, according to officials of the Sonic drive-in chain.

In true Texas fashion, the Lone Star State had largely fended off the economic downturn that gut-punched restaurants in most other places, the executives explained during a conference call with financial analysts.

Most of those investors were likely well aware of the recession’s impact on places like southern California or the greater Phoenix area, and especially Michigan. Unemployment and a drop in economic activity, from car manufacturing to buying a restaurant meal, had turned those locations into locales right out of a Steinbeck story. Restaurants had suffered accordingly.

But in Texas, “the economy seemed to hold up longer,” observed Sonic CFO Stephen Vaughan.

Not any more, he and his colleagues lamented. The state
“is now possibly suffering more on a trend basis in terms of increasing unemployment rate” than the regions that went off the cliff long ago.

President Scott McLain noted that sales taxes collected in Texas during October had fallen 12% from the level of a year earlier, and the total had dropped by 14% in November. Economic activity is clearly down, he suggested, and that’s having more impact on Sonic’s sales than competitor’s moves like cutting breakfast prices, he suggested.

That’s very bad news for Sonic, which has a very big presence in Texas. But, with the state second only to California in the number of restaurants it hosts, the late and severe downturn could prove awful for a lot of restaurant operators.

Of particular concern is unemployment, since that’s having a direct impact on the breakfast sales of restaurant chains. If people don’t work, they’re no longer buying a muffin and coffee on the way to the salt mines. They may not have that money altogether.

For Sonic, a chain known for its burgers and custom-mixed soft drinks, morning traffic “has actually held up relatively well,” said Vaughan. “It has not been a growing day part for us but it has not been one of our weakest day parts, either.”

Friday, January 1, 2010

The uncelebrated change-makers of 2009

2009 was clearly a year of defense for the restaurant business. Aim One was to survive. Most operations were ecstatic if they just held steady or didn’t have to cede too much. When else have single-digit sales declines been disclosed with high fives and boasts of out-performing the pack? Few indeed were those brands that actually managed to increase the top line.

But while that retrenchment was squarely in foreground view, a few acts of audacious innovation could be spotted farther back, in the off-stage areas where a few of us poke around the sandbags and pulleys of the business, reporter’s notebook in hand. For us, the play’s the thing—the processes for supporting a restaurant business, not the art on the plate. And for we business journalists who scribble about food costs and new grills, menu strategies and better hiring, LTOs and menu items with stupid names, 2009 was a year of notable breakthroughs.

Below are my picks of the standouts. The list is admittedly biased toward the communications aspect of the business, since that’s the machinery most plainly in my view. And it’s no coincidence that virtually every honoree proved a master of social media, undoubtedly the industry’s Rookie of the Year for 2009.

The whoot-worthy of the year:

Dunkin' Dave: Dunkin’ Donuts’ parent company went through some significant personnel changes in the last year or so, including key departures from its communications staff. Fortunately, they didn’t deter Dunkin’ Dave from demonstrating how a consumer brand could use Twitter to carry on a new sort of conversation with customers, current or would-be. Tweeting from what he calls the “DD mothership,” Dunkin’ Dave, a.k.a. Dave Puner, kept up a steady patter with the public, highlighting new products, promoting special deals, relaying compliments from brand loyalists, even publicly defusing the occasional complaint. Random suggestions that a Dunkin’ coffee would hit the spot sent me scurrying to my local outlet more than once. And Dave does it with a humor and a dose of personality that perfectly fit the medium.

If you want to know why there’s so much hubbub in the business about Twitter’s potential, join the 40,000 DunkinDonuts followers who hear from Dunkin’ Dave throughout the day.

Honorable mention: The designated tweeters for Carl’s Jr. and Kimpton Hotels; schnitzeltruck; RickshawTruck.

Ellen Malloy: If you don’t know the name, you probably never write about restaurants. If you’re a food or restaurant writer and still don’t know it, shame on you.

Malloy, a chef-turned-publicist, has hit on a way to provide the information we journalists appreciate and actually use, a sainthood-worthy departure from the usual approach of burying writers in hyperbole and flowery bullshit about clients. Church choirs would no doubt sing of her if they had to wade through clunky releases studded with words like “brilliant,” “trend-setting,” “world-renowned,” or—brace yourselves, writers—“exciting.” And that might be for a shrimp de-veiner.

Instead, through her virtual Restaurant Intelligence Agency, Malloy offers journalists the capability of receiving short, precise e-mailings containing actual news about her clients, on topics we’ve specified—menu changes, say, or business issues and trends, or green initiatives. They often provide surprising nuggets that are filed away for future round-ups or trend pieces.

I can’t say I look at each e-mail that hits my inbox, but the volume is reasonable enough to usually merit a scan. And seldom do I write a story that’s menu or trend-related without searching for examples embodied by the agency’s clients.

Best of all, I can do it all myself, without having to call a publicist, wait for a response, then wait to see if an interview can be scheduled, then go back and forth about the logistics. Everytime I’m on that hamster wheel, I visual the old movie scenes where pages fly off a wall calendar. With RIA, info is provided to contact the restaurateur or chef directly, and I’ve done it a bunch of times now. They’ve figured into a number of my stories, and I’ve even used the site to line up a speaker for a panel.

Honorable mention: Lauren Barash for Moe’s Newsroom, the Wordpress site she set up to provide a quick, easy-to-digest overview of developments within the Moe’s Southwest Grill chain. It works.

People Report Best Practices Conference: Those of us who’ve had the waterboarding joy of trying to find replacement dollars for lost ad revenues know meetings are usually high on the list of possible sources. And for awhile, the opportunities were indeed sweet. If you could come up with a compelling reason for people to get together, chances were high that you could draw paying participants, then line up sponsors. Ka-ching!

Then came the gold rush, when any meeting idea that worked was copied two or three times by media, associations or seemingly anyone who could print a name badge. There were too many meetings chasing attendees who all but staggered from conference fatigue. And the brain food served up at many of those purported intellectual buffets was of the overcooked-pasta variety: Decidedly unsatisfying mush. Half the restaurant industry’s meetings could disappear without anyone but the producers caring.

All of a sudden, from a part of Dallas you’d hardly call a destination, came a blizzard of tweets and other bloggings from attendees of Best Practices, a human resources conference presented by Joni Doolin’s People Report restaurant research consortium. From the very first event, a field trip to prepare free meals for the disadvantaged, participants proclaimed the conference a life-changing event, and I’m not exaggerating when I say that. Clearly the content spoke to them, professionally and personally. The postings made the conference sound like a cross between a religious retreat and Allen & Co.’s famous Sun Valley Conference.

Following the tweets from afar, I felt as if I was sitting home while the rest of the industry was at Woodstock.

I won’t make that mistake again.

Honorable mention: The Culinary Institute of America, for have the chili peppers to hold a foodie fest on street fare (Frontiers of Flavor, held at its Greystone campus in Napa). Remember, this is the CIA, the industry’s version of Harvard, an institution with a mission of preserving culinary classicism. Convening the nation’s food intelligentsia for an immersion in peasant food is like scheduling Green Day instead of a Mozart tribute.

U.S. Foodservice, for having the cabbages to try a radically different form of marketing to restaurant operators.

There isn’t a supplier or service provider in the business that isn’t fretfully watching the boom in new media and wondering how to wield it. “Oh, yeah, we know we have to use Twitter, Facebook or YouTube—but we’re not sure how.”

U.S. Foodservice took the plunge of backing the Clockless series, a videotaped and hyper-tweeted 24-hour blitz of a city’s restaurant scene (first Las Vegas, then Los Angeles). The look at little-known gems and cult favorites, including places even the most daring sports diner might’ve missed, was aimed at consumers rather than restaurateurs. But by trying to inject pizzazz into customer restaurants’ home markets, the distributor was presumably fostering relations with its own clientele.

For those of us who are frustrated by the reluctance of suppliers to shift more of their marketing to new media, USF’s efforts provided a ray of encouragement.