Friday, September 3, 2010

These dogs can hunt

The wags have it wrong about old dogs and new tricks. A few stalwarts of the restaurant business are pulling off fresh feats as if they were mere pups.

For Andrew Cherng, maybe “panda cub” would be more appropriate. He and his wife, Peggy, founded and built Panda Restaurant Group, a collection of more than 1,200 quick-service and casual Asian restaurants. With the company reporting annual sales of more than $1 billion, it may be the quietest giant in foodservice. Little has been written about it, and in almost 30 years of covering the restaurant business I don’t think I’ve met more than two people who worked for the Cherngs and moved on. It’s been a black box of information.

That’s why yesterday’s news flash was such a head-turner. Cherng has secured rights to open 150 branches of the new Tide Dry Cleaning chain being developed by Proctor & Gamble, according to the Bloomberg Business Week report. He likened the opportunity to being part of McDonald’s during its start-up mode, which suggests the venture will be getting a great deal of his attention. Panda’s website still lists him as splitting chairman duties with his wife.

The Business Week story noted that the Tide chain is one of several franchising businesses P&G is exploring with the guidance of another longtime chain-restaurant veteran, Bill Van Epps.

Perhaps it's not a coincidence that one of Tide's point of differentiation is a drive-thru lane so patrons don't have to exit their cars.

Cherng and Van Epps aren't the only long-timers taking new paths. Nation’s Restaurant News reported a few days ago that White Castle, one of the business’ oldest chain operations, is testing three start-up concepts that could be shoehorned into its iconic burger outlets.

Not long ago, White Castle’s resistance to change made In-N-Out look downright reckless. It featured its signature sliders with cheese, but that was about as much variation as the all-company-operated chain could tolerate.

More recently it moved into products like pulled-pork and chicken sliders, but it still wasn’t exactly rivaling Jack in the Box or Burger King as a product innovator.

Now, according to my former colleagues at NRN, the familiar castle-themed brand is experimenting with three retrofit-able stations, each with its own name and identity. The ventures would diversify White Castle’s into pressed sandwiches, noodles and barbecue specialties of various global regions.

I don’t know why we should be surprised to see the old guard embrace change. In-N-Out did add a new diet soda a few years ago.

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