Tuesday, December 27, 2011

'Next Stop: Last Century'

Restaurateurs must’ve had their hearts broken this holiday season. All they found under the wrapping paper were iPads, flat screen TVs and the latest smart phones. What they really wanted, judging from recent news stories, was a time machine.

Not just any decades-jumper, but one that can take them back as well as forward, to the days when counter servers wore peaked paper caps. They want to capture the magic that made Hot Shoppes and A&W the dominant chains of their day. Why else would they be opening a new chapter for the brands?

In case you missed the particulars, Marriott Corp. is planning to open a Hot Shoppe in a Washington, D.C., hotel in early 2014. If you’re not familiar with the concept, it was a cross between a soda fountain, family restaurant and fast-food joint, serving up shakes, fries and burgers to the generation that’d parent the Baby Boomers.

It was also the foundation for the Marriott hospitality empire, which was originally known as Hot Shoppes, Inc. Founder J.Willard Marriott started in business as a restaurateur, first as an A&W franchisee (more on that in a minute), then as the builder of the Hot Shoppes chain (beginning in the late 1920s), and then as architect of the Big Boy system, which operated under a slew of regionalized names (Shoney’s, Frisch’s, JB’s, Abdow’s, Azar’s, etc.) Hotels would come later, largely under the tutelage of Willard’s son Bill, who’s about to retire.

Hot Shoppes gave more than the Marriotts a taste of the good life. At a time when full-service restaurants were largely upscale joints, it provided a way for workers and the lower middle class to have someone wait on them. My mother often recounted how she’d occasionally get a milk shake at a Hot Shoppe when she was studying to be a nurse in Washington, D.C., during World War II. She’d say it with the wistfulness of someone who’d just had tea with the Queen.

Hot Shoppes would plug along as a curiosity, a bit of nostalgia making too many concessions to the times, until 1999. Marriott has apparently decided that a 25-year gap without a Shoppes is too long.

Maybe it’s just a coincidence that a new chapter also opened this week for the brand that preceded Hot Shoppes in Marriott’s business model (the first store was converted from Willard Marriott’s A&W franchised unit). A&W has been quietly plugging along, gaining and losing stores, for eons. For a long while it shared resources with the likes of Taco Bell, KFC and Pizza Hut, serving as a co-branding partner for those sister Yum! Brands holdings.

But now A&W is on its own again. The brand was spun off to franchisees right before Christmas. They’ve vowed to grow the business, in part by taking advantage of A&W’s heritage. No doubt they’re looking to cruise back to happier days and bring that popularity back to the current day.

But that’s not the only time travel the industry is pursuing. As Restaurant Reality Check reported earlier, P.F. Chang’s hopes to get a glimpse of its future via a new one-of-a-kind bistro in southern California. The restaurant is intended to serve as a lab for how future stores will operate, right down to their menus and serving style (i.e., a heavy reliance on small plates).

Chang’s isn’t the only chain that’s asking itself, How can we anticipate what’s next for the brand if our test site is a facility built for today?

As some of Yelp’s citizen-reviewers have noted, BJ’s Restaurants has opened a downscale version of its signature concept, called BJ’s Grill. Management has stressed that the smaller riff is meant to be a testing ground for such futuristic touches as new technology, not a prototype.

Indeed, some of the features under scrutiny seem far afield from the current-day BJ’s. Yelp posters noted that the menu has a decidedly Mediterranean bent, with kabobs and hummus on the bill of fare.

The idea of building a futuristic unit is hardly new. Houston’s, the upscale chain whose restaurants sometimes operate under the Hillstone name, also runs an outlet called R&D Kitchen. As the name implies, the restaurant is a little more on the edge than a Houston’s.

Apparently it’s already given the time machine a try.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Zombies & other missed opportunities

So much attention is focused on the year ahead that some crucial here-and-now issues are being overlooked. Where, for instance, are restaurant zombies?

The flesh-eating un-dead rallied at the end of 2011 to rival vampires as the scary characters of the moment. They’re the stars of cult TV shows (“The Walking Dead”), movies (“Remains”), video games (Plants vs. Zombies), literature (celebrated novelist Colson Whitehead’s “Zone One), and music (the slash-metal band Terrorizer is scheduled to release “Hordes of Zombies” in February).

No longer are zombies thriving on the societal fringes populated by pierced youngsters sporting weird black shoes and heavy eyeliner. New York magazine, a favorite of Big Apple hipsters, recently featured a nine-story special section on surviving a zombie attack (“Know Thy Enemies,” “Should You Stay or Go?”, “Hole Up Here.”)

They’ve even inspired a prank. The billboard-style road signs that highway departments use to warn of detours or construction ahead are being hacked and reprogrammed to alert drivers of an imminent zombie attack.

So where’s the restaurant-zombie connection? No one would dispute that restaurants are as much a part of American life today as sports and having a couch. Zombies are an entertainment phenomenon of our time, but they’ve yet to spill over into the restaurant business as promotional stars, the inspiration for menus, or the foundation for a new concept.

No Snarling Undead Burger. No Flesh & Blood Café. No zombie McDonald’s character.

But this is hardly the only missed promotional opportunity for the restaurant business. Consider the other social phenomena that somehow slipped past without a tie-in, or at least not much of one:

Nigel Tufnel Day: Tufnel, of course, is the fictional lead guitarist of the quasi-fictional band Spinal Tap, the focus of the Rob Reiner mockumentary, “This is Spinal Tap.” One of the movie’s memorable moments was Tufnel’s explanation of why he loved his new amp so much: The volume dial goes up to 11, not 10, as most amps do. Reiner sheepishly asks how an 11 is any different from a 10 if they both represent the maximum output of a similarly powered amp. Tufnel’s defense of 11 led fans to dub Nov. 11—a.k.a. 11/11/11—as Nigel Tufnel Day. But did you see any LTOs geared to the occasion. NO (that’s on volume setting #11).

Ugly sweaters: Actually, this one hasn’t been totally overlooked by restaurants. The Chick-fil-A in Chicago’s Water Tower Place is offering a deal to anyone who shows up with a really, really bad sweater. And D.C.’s Café Saint-Ex hosted an Ugly Sweater Party, where the patrons with the worst knit-job won $50 gift certificates.
Those places were among the few that took advantage of the sleeper Ugly Sweater Phenomenon. There are actually online ugly sweater stores, and “ugly sweater” is quickly emerging as a new category of retail apparel. The movement even has a celebrity spokesman of sorts in talk show host Jimmy Fallon.

But have you seen Ronald McDonald in a red-and-white monstrosity adorned with garish reindeer and Santas?

I rest my case.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Don't let these gems slip past

In the roar of prognostication that erupts every year-end, some of the most intriguing predictions are lost in the din. Sadly, it’s even happened this year with the standout of the breed, the National Restaurant Association’s annual survey-based forecast of trends. Consider, for instance, the finding that 61% of chefs are considering the start-up of a food truck.

But that’s not the only jaw-dropper. One-third of the 1,791 surveyed chefs said their restaurants have a garden that supplies produce. A shift to vegetable and vegetarian options was forecast to be the hottest trend in appetizers during 2012, and No. 30 on the list of 223 expected shifts was increased use of “ancient grains” like spelt and amaranth (and, presumably, faro). That’s opposed to the proliferation of dishes made with quinoa, which dropped to Trend #40.

The spread of beer sommeliers was predicted to be the 58th hottest trend. No doubt they’ll be knowledgeable about gluten-free beer, No. 39 on the ranking.

It’s intriguing that North African or Maghreb cuisine was predicted by the canvassed chefs to be hotter in 2012 than Korean food, contrary to most of the other forecasts for the year. Indeed, I don’t remember another one that mentioned North African food. But they were certainly bullish on Korean and Nordic fare.

Perhaps they’ve been sipping once-banned absinthe, No. 138.

Similarly, pies have repeatedly been touted during Forecast Season as the treats that supplant cupcakes as the hot indulgence of the day. Yet pies finish last on the NRA list, right behind Italian cuisine, which I put high on my personal prognostication list.

The list of trends begins as you might expect, with variations on the local and sustainable boom (the shift to local or sustainable foods accounts for six of the Top 10). You can find a review of those expected currents anywhere. But treat yourself to a drill-down of the list. You may be very, very suprised.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Is P.F. Chang's smarter than Chipotle?

Place your bets and get out of the way. We’re about to see who’s nailed the right future for an Asian restaurant chain, Chipotle or P.F Chang’s.

Unless you’ve been really, really preoccupied with Herman Cain’s political complications, you’re probably aware that Chipotle intends to launch a chain of fast-casual restaurants featuring authentically flavored Asian fare. Management hasn’t shared much information about the early performance of ShopHouse Southeast Asian Kitchen, which borrows Chipotle’s serving-line format. But founder Steve Ells has commented that patrons have complained about the spiciness of the food, much as customers did when Chipotle started. He’s proudly cited that pushback as proof the concept is positioned where few ethnic chains have dared American taste buds to follow.

Contrast that push-the-margins approach with the new direction P.F. Chang’s is exploring. The company announced that it’s opening a test lab of sorts today to try the recipes, design features and other elements that will likely figure into its namesake concept’s future. It’s “what we hope to become over the next five to 10 years,” said chain president Lane Cardwell.

Currently under test are seven entrees available only at the new southern California outpost. There’s a roast chicken served with shoestring fries, jazzed up with a Sichuan rub and other Asian touches (the fries are tossed with “crispy sesame,” for instance). But it still sounds a lot like roast chicken and fries, just with a little more spice.

There’s also a steak frites, served with fries, and a double-cut pork chop, which is fast becoming a casual-dining staple.
You can also get Alaskan black cod, Scottish salmon or Alaskan halibut, all served in one grilled entrée. Here again, the spices are Asian, but the foundation of the dish hails from elsewhere in the world.

Indeed, it sounds like Chang’s is trying a more mainstream American approach, perhaps to counter a traffic drop-off that’s been steeper than the slowdown for many grill-and-bar-type competitors. The change in strategy is surprising because Chang’s has always been a bit of a niche player, with a menu that goes far beyond what you'd find in your order-by-number neighborhood Asian joint.

The directional adjustment--and remember, it's still under test--may prove to be a smart strategy. It's just contrary to the body of 2012 prognostications, which almost unanimously foresaw exploration of unfamiliar ethnic dishes and flavors.

Then again, Chipotle might have the better idea. Or maybe authenticity works in the fast-casual market, but not in the full-service arena.

Whatever happens, it’s one of the most marked recent examples of chains moving in directly opposite directions.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Not this pigeon

As I type this, a con man is trying to swindle me because he thinks I’m a restaurateur, and a gullible one at that. It’s the classic big-order scam. If you’re never been the target, here’s how it works.

On Dec. 6, I received an unsolicited e-mail from a David Moore, who said he wanted to place a catering order for 150 grilled-chicken salads for next week, Italian dressing on the side. It’s for his mom’s birthday, he explained. Just e-mail him the bill and he’ll pay by credit card.

The e-mail was addressed to Owner/Manager, and I’m sure I was one of hundreds if not thousands of recipients. Our names were likely taken off some list the sender somehow secured, maybe from a recent industry convention whose directory they snagged. Or he might’ve plucked it from a past blog where I invited readers to e-mail me questions for the conference speakers I was covering. But that’s pure speculation.

In any case, because the solicitation came from a private individual using a Gmail account, it wasn’t caught in my spam filter. Clearly the perpetrator is playing a numbers game.

If I’d played along, I’d have sent Moore a bill, which he’d have paid with a credit card—somebody else’s. Then, right before the scheduled pickup (3 p.m. on Dec. 15, the e-mail specified), he’d have cancelled the order. I’d bet he’d have told me that his mother had gotten sick, or maybe even died.

Then he’d have asked for however much of a refund he was due. But could I send a check instead of refunding the credit charge?

How could I have refused a man who’s mother just died? Besides, I’m too busy with holiday matters to quibble. Just send him the damn check!

I was tempted to play along for a first-hand experience, then turn the matter over to the authorities. Instead, I wrote Moore back, saying I’d like to call him to discuss the order.

To my astonishment, he responded (and this is verbatim, complete with grammar and capitalization mistakes)): “i will like you to know that am hearing impaired so i can only contact you via email so i will like you to email me back with the grand total plus tax.”

Usually, the order-placer is a little craftier, calling a particular restaurant and ordering off the online menu. In my situation, all plausibility was dashed by what was clearly a mass e-mail approach. I may not be the shiniest penny in the fountain, but I couldn’t swallow that someone would casually send a large order to an unfamiliar restaurant. And, of course, I’m not a restaurateur, and my e-mail wouldn’t suggest I’m one.

Clearly the ploy must work, or the scammers wouldn’t bother. It’s like all those unsolicited e-mails that purportedly come from the Sultan of Swami, who needs only a few hundred dollars to claim millions in inheritance, which he’ll gladly share with you.
Apparently the Sultan enjoys a grilled-chicken salad from time to time.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Fast-casual form or substance?

After being kicked in the mints by fast-casual upstarts, a number of full-service restaurants are about to learn why.

To counter the challenge, they’ve trumpeted plans in recent weeks to whittle their concepts into fast-casual versions. So Famous Dave’s now has BBQ Shack. Red Robin has Burger Works. IHOP has IHOP Express. P.F. has two down-market versions, Pei Wei Asian Diner and the just-announced Asian Market—the list goes on and on.

The variations may hale from all sectors, from fine dining (Rick Bayless, with Xoco) to family restaurants (Denny’s, with Denny’s Cafe). But all share the strategy that less is better. Burger Works has a smaller menu. IHOP Express has less service. Virtually all have a smaller footprint.

There’s no doubt that scaled-back service is a big draw for the fast-casual sector, since it spares customers from having to tip. But that 15 or 20-percent saving would mean nothing if the buyer wasn’t getting food of unexpectedly high quality. And that’s where some of the trading-down chains may be deluding themselves.

They’re still working the old fast-casual formula: Food like you’d get in a casual restaurant, sold at a price closer to what you’d pay in a fast-food joint, served at a speed somewhere between grab-and-go and sit-and-order.

They should’ve learned in their market research that much of today’s fast-casual fare surpasses what customers expect from casual chains. Yet the companies hatching fast-casual formats haven’t said anything about the food being better than what the mother brand sells. They wouldn’t dare.

The closest they’ve come is touting the greater convenience and portability of what’s available from the spin-offs. If those benefits were key attractions, traditional quick-service concepts wouldn’t be losing fans to fast-casual.

Instead of standing pat, many of those conventional fast-food sellers are upgrading their menus and designs to compete with the likes of Panera Bread and Chipotle. Like the down-traders, they’re turning fast-casual themselves, but by aiming higher.

So Tim Hortons is testing a variation called Café & Bake Shop. Subway franchisees have more than 20 Subway Cafes open, and Burger King is growing its collection of Whopper Bars. Pizza Inn has lined up $4 million in to build Pie Five Pizza Co., a fast-casual riff that’s generating sales at an annual rate of $920,000, with operating margins of more than 20%.

One of the strange things about this economic downturn has been the boost it’s given to quality. Customers want value, but often that means higher caliber food for an attractive price.

So which fast-casual interloper is better addressing that need, the casual chain that enters the market without a significant food upgrade, or the fast-food specialist that trades up? I know how I'd bet.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Myth busting

A confused figment of my imagination writes, “Hey, Restaurant Reality Check, how am I supposed to tell fact from fiction in the age of The Onion, the Borowitz Report and KFC’s publicity department? Some of their made-up restaurant stories sound more believable than the real thing. How can a non-cynic know when he’s being fed a whopper?” (signed, Believing It—Or Not?)

Dear Believing,
I was discussing the very thing yesterday with Henry Kissinger and the Fonz. You just can’t tell these days who’s pulling your leg and who’s merely covering the Republican presidential candidates.

Fortunately for you and your confused peers, Restaurant Reality Check can recount how a few persistent myths were disproved, decidedly, by recent industry developments.

Wall Street firms have a hammerlock on executive compensation outrages. A Friendly source—note the capital “F”—blew that one away. In case you missed reports in mainstream media like The Wall Street Journal and The Huffington Post, the restaurant industry has its own instance of a CEO enjoying big-dollar privileges while the corporate rank-and-file burn their pink slips for warmth.

According to the reports, Friendly’s CEO Harsha Agadi billed the company for $234,000 in day-to-day expenses in the year preceding the restaurant franchisor’s recent bankruptcy filing. The charges didn’t include the $190,000 Agadi submitted for relocation.

The contrast with the plight of Friendly’s workers is what made the story a hot one. More than 600 lost their jobs when some 60 stores closed.

We can also refute at this time that the Fribble lobby has secured a federal bailout for the family chain.

E-mail is killing letter writing. Not in the restaurant business. Hundreds of stationers could pop for a second home this year because of the business they’re reaping from disgruntled shareholders and the chains they’ve targeted for takeover.

This morning, for instance, Cracker Barrel shareholders were sent a letter from CEO Sandy Cochran, spelling out why they should rebuff Sardar Biglari in his attempts to wrest control of the family chain from current management. She countered Biglari’s assertions by explaining the chain’s business-building strategies, point by point.

The communication was in response to an 11-page letter that Biglari sent last week to the same recipients. Taken together, the two missives might have made Cracker Barrel’s shareholders the most informed in the business.

But that’s not the only volley of letters helping the Postal Service. Cosi and Brad Blum, the Olive Garden alumnus who wants to run the fast-casual chain, have stamp dispensers churning as well.

Ditto for the CEO-turned-advisor of Wendy’s, Roland Smith. Recent SEC filings include Smith’s resignation letter, which in turn referenced other missives during the summer. The communications indicate that Smith stepped down because he didn’t want to leave Atlanta, where the chain is currently headquartered. It’s moving back to the suburb of Columbus, Ohio, where it was founded.

Smith has been succeeded as CEO by Emil Brolick, who’s collecting $1.1 million in salary, with the opportunity to earn another $1.6 as a bonus. Smith was in the same ballpark.

Survival has supplanted concept development. According to the conventional wisdom, restaurant companies are too preoccupied with survival to consider the development of new concepts.

Not any more.

The last two weeks brought announcements of new concepts from such celebrated operators as Starbucks (Evolution Fresh Juices), P.F. Chang’s (Pei Wei Asian Market, which of course has nothing to do with Chipotle’s launch of ShopHouse Southeast Asian Market), IHOP (IHOP Express) and Jamba Juice (JambaGo, the juice chain’s riff on an express format).

Okay, enough myth busting for now. In our next installment, we’ll take on Yeti and the promises of restaurant unions.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Catching up on the future

Swallows’ return to Capistrano seems like an iffy thing compared with the outpouring of restaurant predictions at year’s end. The 2011 crop of prognostications is looking like a bumper yield, mounting faster than the national debt after an unusually early start. If you were too busy putting away the summer patio furniture to notice, here’s what the soothsayers have foreseen thus far for the business.

A bad, bad year for independents. New York restaurant consultant Michael Whiteman, a recovering editor, has predicted that almost 10,000 non-chain places will fire down their ovens for good next year. The problem, he asserts, is the mom-and-pop’s inability to borrow what they need to stay in business until sales rebound.

Con-fusion returns. Whiteman is one of the sages who expect more mixing of ethnic specialties next year, a reversal of the march toward the purity, if not authenticity, that was heralded in prior times. Like 2010.

Top imports? As to what ethnics might wax in popularity, just throw a dart at a globe. There are several predictions of Korean food going mainstream, but that’s hardly a new notion. Ditto with the prognostications that Thai will be the new Japanese. Peru is getting some lip service, too, as is Nordic fare. Our bet: simple Italian. Spaghetti and meatballs, differentiated from the past by quality, will be the dish of the year.

Can you sing oom-pa-pa? Dust off the lederhosen for your research dine-arounds, because there’s a consensus that beer gardens are the Concept of the Moment.

Comfort food will get a creative shot. There’s agreement among the cognoscenti that customers will still crave the safety of old favorites, but maybe with a dash of adventure to break the monotony. Southern fried chicken, for instance, might be passed over for Korean fried chicken (fried in olive oil rather than other shortenings). Technomic terms the phenomenon “familiar with a twist,” and suggests that it’ll go beyond a sharp cheddar (whoa!) in the mac and cheese.

Full disclosure. There seems to be no misreading the tea leaves on this one: Consumers will be demanding—and getting—more info about what they’re eating. Smart restaurateurs will decide they should be the source. Others will let their patrons fill the void via social media and citizen-reviewer services like Yelp. We’re not just talking quantitative assessments in 140 characters, but a mini-snapshot of what’s in the meal.

We’ll be adding more predictions, here and via monkeydish.com, as they spew from the crystal ball.

Meet your potential customer

I'll be blogging today from Consumer Insights & Engagement, a conference presented by the parent company of monkeydish.com and Restaurant Business, CSP Information Group. The content is skewed toward convenience stores, the audience of our sister publication, CSP. But the consumer is the consumer, whether he or she is buying an Egg McMuffin or a breakfast sandwich at a QwikStop.

The best way to follow the thread will likely be from the bottom up.

1:50:A retailer in the audience has asked what seem to be key questions for merchants interested in mobile payment: Will they need to upgrade their technology, and what happens if the system goes out? How could they charge if a mobile wallet isn't transmitting?

The plan, according to Isis, is to issue a companion card that mobile wallet users could wield to charge in an old fashioned way.

The Google representative pointed out that mobile wallets would be an alternative to credit cards, not a replacement. People will still carry traditional magnetic stripe cards.

Neither really responded to the question about tech upgrades.

1:25: The speakers are talking about the security and privacy aspects of using mobile wallets. They've stressed that effective safeguards are in place, but that consumers need to be educated. There's agreement that customers need to see mobile payment as the next evolution, not some scary, radical development.

12:55: A Google specialist on mobile commerce is explaining the rationale behind the tech giant's new mobile payment system, Google Wallet.

One of the main drivers, according to Serge Kassardjian: The payment process "is not optimized." Translation: It's a boring pain.

The objective is making the payment process a lot more fun and thereby strengthening the tie with the customer, Kassardjian explains.

"Why are we doing this?" asks Kassardjian, noting that Google is not taking a commission on transactions right now. One of the attractions, he said, is delivering extremely effective ads to targeted users.

!2:45 p.m.: The afternoon session of the conference is opening with a panel discussion of the mobile payment phenomenon. It's not about transactions, says Isis' Tony Sabetti, it's about a new way of communicating with consumers.

Isis is a "mobile wallet" payment system that's being created as a joint venture of AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon Wireless. Once the system is up and running, the app will replace most of the cards in a consumer's wallet, from credit card to frequent-customer cards.

The whole idea is to combine multiple accounts into one payment system, says Sabetti. The process is attractive to consumers because it simplifies their lives.

For retailers, one of the benefits is having a new channel for reaching customers. Special offers or pitches can be delivered to them via phone, for instant redemption at the point of purchase.

9:00: Sansolo just asked how many chains in the audience have a tattoo or piercing policy. Once, any retail business blanched at the thought of having an employee with a visible tattoo. Now, tattoos are mainstream. They just need to be tasteful, in the eyes of many service businesses.

8:55:A prime illustration of the "generational divide," points out Sansolo, are the differences evident in musical tastes. The Black Eyed Peas were hailed as the best Super Bowl halftime act ever--by Gen Y-ers. Anyone above 45 abhorred them, Sansolo noted.

"What music do we play in our stores?" he asked.

8:45 a.m.:Speaker Michael Sansolo is talking about the challenges about understanding the various generations--plural--that compose today's retail clientele. He pointed out that conventional wisdom called for focusing on one generation at a time. You take a bead on, say, Baby Boomers, then switch at some point to Gen X-ers, etc. Today, he notes, there's a hodgepodge of generations, all very different, all with their own hot points, all in need of being addressed.

For instance, he asked how many of the Millennials in the audience used a watch. There were several who did not. Sansolo explained that Gen Y-ers use their smart phones to tell the time.

"The chasm that exists today is wider because it's technologically enhanced," said Sansolo. "This generational divide fueled by technology is getting wider and wider."

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Meet your potential customer

I'm blogging live today from a conference on the consumer. The thread is best read from the bottom up.

2:05: Uh-oh. It's starting to get ugly. Krista Lorio, senior manager of consumer insights for General Mills, is talking specifically about how c-stores can counter the challenge from quick-service restaurants at breakfast.

This is after noting that QSRs are really being aggressive in packaged-food sales--the packaged cookies, the grab-and-go pie slices, etc. Once, convenience stores owned that market. Not anymore. And like other speakers, she's noted recent indications that McDonald's is about to mount a major, major push for sales of desserts and sweets. That factor will undoubtedly bolster QSRs' sales of packaged foods.

"So how do c-stores win? When you're driving down the road and see the Taco Bell or the Golden Arches, how do you become synonymous with food?"

First, Lorio says, you have to become part of the "hunger solution." You have to establish your c-store as a place for attractive food.

Second, the emphasis has to shift to quality and freshness. Lorio suggested such cues as labeling when the coffee was brewed, or what employee is manning the roller grill.

Finally, she says, c-stores have a major advantage because of the breadth of their inventory. You can have a hotdog, but you can grab a bag of chips with it.

So, QSRs, be forewarned.

1:45: Restaurateurs should be very afraid. Kraft's Johnson says a key to bolstering convenience stores' appeal to Millennials is upgrading the food, particularly in regard to health. "The food offering is especially important," he explains. "They've laid out three pillars for us: It has to taste good, it's gotta be good for me, it's gotta be 'real food,' and they continue to want easy and fast."

A step in that direction will not only offset the competition from fast-food, a traditional rival, but also the rising challenge of drug stores stocking food and snacks, Johnson says.

1:30 p.m.: Is the young c-store customer much different from the Millennial restaurant patron? Data being presented at the conference might suggest a yes on first glance. But, on further contemplation, maybe not.

The top three motivators for c-store patronage in that age bracket, according to Eric Johnson, senior director of marketing/immediate consumption for Kraft Foods, sound as if they also hold true for restaurant customers. They're just seldom expressed that way.

Those drivers: Boredom, a need for energy, and a desire to be pleased.

11:40: Hispanics are twice as likely than non-Latinos to buy hot food from a c-store to eat there or take home, according to Garcia.

11:25: Carlos Garcia, an expert on the Latino consumer, has taken the microphone.

"You can see Hispanics as a segment unto themselves, but they can be segmented themselves," with separate behaviors and preferences, says Garcia. "Segmentation must move beyond just language. If you don't get the behavioral stuff right, the language stuff is irrelevant."

"You have to identify with them, with how they see themselves. It has nothing to do with Latinos;" all consumers want to be treated that way, says Garcia.

Word of mouth is essential, he explained. If a service experience is a good one, a Latino will tell 14 others, or double the usual audience for a non-Latino. If the experience is bad, a Latino will tell 20 people, according to Garcia.

11:12: Women tend to book vacations, and they tend to do it after 9 p.m. on weeknights, or during the mornings of weekends, according to Morris. Her observations suggest that restaurants should be cagier about when they promote themselves as a dining option when a family is on the road.

10:55: Only 24% of families meet the definition of "traditional," according to Morris.

10:50: Morris has just introduced a new term: LAT, or Living Apart Together. As she explained, more than 3 million sets of married couples live in different cities, a reflection of the tight job market.

"How can you help them with the logistics they are facing?" she asks.

10:45: Speaker Susan Morris, a former Marriott executive, is making a convincing case that women should be the consumer in a business' cross hairs. They control 33% of the nation's wealth and "are the Chief Purchasing Officers, the CPOs," said Morris. "Is anyone else ready to follow the money?

"Are you getting in the heads of women? Are you getting in the shoes of women?"

Morris is explaining that Citibank has a whole division devoted to landing more female customers, called Women & Co., "This is the type of thing you might want to look into," says Morris.

10:15 a.m.Shhh. I'm writing this from deep inside the camp of what many of you view as the enemy, the convenience-store industry. I'm attending a conference called Consumer insights & Engagement, a meeting presented for retailers by monkeydish.com's parent company, CSP Information Group. The conference delves into the attributes and behavior of consumers. Because those individuals are the same ones whom restaurateurs are trying to land, I managed to get inside the meeting rooms. I'll be blogging the relevant tidbits I hear through tomorrow. So stay tuned.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Enter the mid-tier burger

Faster than you can say “Forget 99 cents!,” two big fast-food chains are unwrapping burgers that could lure customers away from the low-priced choices that eased the brands through the Great Recession.

Call them mid-tier burgers, priced to fill the gap between each chain’s new premium choice and the smallest sandwiches on their respective menus.

Indeed, “mid-tier product” is the description Wendy’s uses for its W burger, which will be rolled out in December. “This is going out at a $2.99 price point,” new CEO Emil Brolick explained to investors yesterday. “One of the things we want to do is put a product out there that we think is going to encourage people to trade up. Perhaps those individuals that are purchasing [a] 99-cent item will trade up to this product.”

The lure, he said, is a strong flavor and a high-craft aspect to the burger, which has about “two, 2.5 ounces” of fresh beef.

That seems to be the same strategy Burger King is employing with its new BK Toppers line. The burgers are dressed with flavorings like Swiss cheese, mushrooms and barbecue sauce. They’re heftier than the W’s, with 3.2 ounces of beef, but will be priced at $1.99, according to franchisee Carrols Restaurant Group.

That puts it between BK’s regular and Mini burgers on the low-price end, and the new BK Chef’s Choice at the high end, with a price of $4.99.

The two giants aren’t alone in sandwiching mid-priced burgers between their bargains and their biggies. Carl’s Jr. recently added new Steakhouse burgers, arrayed on the menu between its Six Dollar Burger line (typically priced around $4) and its Famous Star singles.

Missing among the converts is the segment’s true king, McDonald’s. First in size as well as sales growth, it’s been relying with stunning success on its beverages and snack-type items, leaving its burger line-up largely untouched since the rollout of the Angus line.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Keeping up with BK's test kitchen

Burger King’s test kitchen has been such a hive of activity that it’s hard to recollect all the new or newly revised products that have recently moved beyond the test phase. Carrols Restaurant Group, the chain’s largest franchisee, provided a recap to its investors yesterday. Here are the highlights:

--A new, thicker cut French fry that’s being quietly rolled out. Quality Restaurants, another large franchisee, switched to the new sides a few weeks earlier. Carrols adopted the thicker cut in late October.

--Better bacon. The coarser-cut strips are delivered raw to stores and cooked on the premises so they’re a fresher garnish or breakfast side.

--The Chef’s Choice, a one-third-plus (5.5-ounce) premium burger with a price to match: $4.99. Although Carrols officials didn’t say it, the sandwich appears to be Burger King’s answer to McDonald’s one-third-pound Angus line.

--BK Toppers, a line of garnished, 3.2-ounce burgers priced as a middle option, at $1.99. The array fills the gap between the new BK Minis, the sliders that were introduced earlier this year, and the Chef’s Choice and Whopper.

--Soft-serve ice cream, introduced this summer as a loss leader (buy a meal, get one free; Carrols said it provided 100 free cones a day during the warmer weather.)

--Smoothies, which appear to be still in the refinement stage.

Carrols said it’s encouraged by the performance of the products it’s recently adopted. “We are optimistic and hopeful that as we move forward, Burger King will begin to regain market share, expand its customer base and experience sustainable traction in its performance,” said president/COO Dan Accordino, who’ll be taking over the burger operation when longtime CEO Alan Vituli retires at the end of the year.

Accordino didn’t acknowledge the menu change that made headlines this week, the rollout of new kids meals that bring back the chain’s giveaway crown, once a BK signature. The meals are available with apple slices instead of French fries, a counter to the health-oriented option that McDonald’s is currently adopting.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Before I shelve the program guide...

Some final thoughts on last week’s People Report Best Practices Conference:

The meeting has emerged as one of the industry’s major conferences, and this year’s gathering proved the annual event is no longer merely an HR confab. The number of c-suite residents in attendance dashed that impression once and for all. The focus was on human capital, but the scope of attendees underscored the importance of that resource for all levels of a forward-thinking organization.

Steve Jobs was very much with the conference in spirit, cited by speaker after speaker as an example of an individual who pursued his own way, flouting conventional wisdom at every step. With so many attendees pecking away at their iPads, iPhones and Mac Books, we needed no reminder of that philosophy’s success.

To a surprising degree, the Occupy Wall Street movement and its worldwide spin-offs also drew attention, in conversations between attendees as well as from on-stage speakers. Although the comments were often critical, there was an unexpected level of sympathy with the protestors’ core objection that essential social values have been corrupted by greed.

That dynamic was one more hammer blow to the old certainty that any gathering of chain-restaurant officials will be more solidly Republican and conservative than a bankers’ convention. The diversity of thinking on social issues was evident in the Twittersphere, where posters using the hashtag #prbpc showed a diversity of opinions on matters like economic stimulus programs. I moderated a panel on politics where Craig Miller, a candidate for the U.S. Senate seat from Florida, said he’d rebuke the unemployed to “get off their asses and get a job.” That drew a storm of 140-character objections, and a direct counterargument from a keynote speaker.

The balance in perspectives was underscored by a session at the conference on “connected capitalism,” or aligning business with the interests of communities. The panelists emphasized that conscience needn’t be incompatible with the profit motive. "An unconnected business is not a sustainable business. Period," declared Kat Cole, the president of Cinnabon.

Best new phrase I heard: “One-percenter,” the label used at my dinner table by futurist David Houle to designate a person of outstanding wealth.

A new industry star emerged in the person of John Bettin, the CEO of The Palm steakhouse group and chairman of this year’s PRBPC. I’ve pinned enough conference name badges on my lapels in bygone years to risk Carpel Tunnel Syndrome, yet I’d never had the pleasure of hearing Bettin, who provided a very engaging account of how he’s turning around his upscale charge. He repeatedly flashed a humor and warmth that were very much appreciated by all.

One of the more noteworthy observations from PRBPC co-host Wally Doolin: The imperative of any restaurant chain CEO today has to be to drive sales. He suggested the constant rallying cry of recent years—cut costs with abandon—is waning in its effectiveness as a profit driver.

The overriding takeaway from the conference had to be the essential role that culture plays in employee recruitment, retention, performance, and a restaurant business’ overall success.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Get the petition started

This is an open plea to Jerry Deitchle from the attendees of the People Report Best Practices Conference: Please, do a book.

Write down all the pearls you shared today about your role as CEO of BJ’s Restaurants. Give us a single handy resource for your folksy expressions, which pack an intelligence that'd prompt any self-respecting consultant to double his rates. We particularly loved how you characterized your current role at one of the industry’s best-performing brands, and how it differs from your prior responsibilities as a CFO:

--You’re no longer a profit optimizer, now you’re a sales driver, instilling that sales-building mindset into the organization’s very DNA.

--You’re no longer the caddy, now you’re the golfer, “the one who actually has to drive the ball,” as you put it.

--You’re a stagecoach driver who’s leading—not driving—a team of really good horses, i.e., your staff.

--“I’m a recovering accountant.”

--Your LinkedIn bio lists your title as Chief Dishwasher.

Some of us might’ve been skeptical about the humility that was ascribed to you by our conference hostess, Joni Doolin. She recounted how you responded when she decided to present you with a People Report award: “What, have you run out of people to give it to?”

But you convinced us with the things you said, like being uncomfortable with having your picture in the program guide alongside the luminaries who’ve previously won the Legacy Award (Doug Brooks, Joe Lee, Lou Kaucic, Phil Hickey.) “Maybe you can put the BJ’s logo in place of my picture in next year’s listing,” you suggested. And we don't think you were kidding.

Finally, we want to hear more advice like the nugget you offered at the close your presentation, which was basically an explanation of how you came to appreciate human resources specialists after initially failing to understand their value. That was a dicey admission to make to an audience of HR specialists.

But you redeemed yourself with your tip: “Never take that first no from your CEO as the final no.” If there’s an HR initiative that’s stoked your passion, come back at him or her, using data—“Always use data; drive data points whenever you can,” because that’s what’ll get to them.

So, Jerry, let’s get to it. Fire up the keyboard and give us some more of your thinking.

Play pooper?

Live from the People Report Best Practices Conference. See the posts below for some context.

My favorite comment of the conference thus far came from Ken Schiller of K&N Management, operator of several franchised Rudy's and Mighty Fine Burgers restaurants. He was talking about the principles that earned his company a Malcolm Baldrige Award and distinguished it as one of the best places to work in Texas. One of those, he explained, is fun.

"This happens in spite of me," Schiller said in a complete deadpan. "I’m not a good role model in this respect. [Long pause.] But some of our crewmembers are really, really good at it."

During the session, it came out that K&N picks one aspects of its operations to address every year. Everyone in the organization, from CEO Schiller to the part-time crewmember, is expected to focus intently on that one thing.

Another unique aspects of K&N's operations: It has a staff chaplin. "If someone's worried about the lights going out because they can't pay the bill, that person isn't going to be very good at delighting customers," says Schilling.

A chaplin provides the care and attention that make employees better at the job. "How many of you spend time solving other people's problems?" asked his HR chief. A forest of hands went up.

The chaplin handles those situations so other people can focus on their job.

Losing out to iPads

I'm live blogging from People Report Best Practices Conference. For clarity, you may want to drop down a few installments and read your way upward.

Here's what's happening right now:

Comments from the stage suggest that restaurants' toughest competitor may not be the convenience store, the supermarket, or even the bank that holds a potential patron's mortgage. From what the presenters have been saying, the challengers really hurting restaurant sales may be the Apple Store and BestBuy.

Several speakers have mentioned the paradox of people cutting their discretionary spending, then lining up to buy iPads. It's part of what seems to be a far more sophisticated trend than the usual straight line indication that the economy is improving or declining. For instance, it was noted that sales of craft beers and wines are improving, at the expense of less expensive choices. They may be dining out less often, but the indulge a little when they do. Or they take the money they saved and go out and get a big flatscreen TV.

That, they suggested, tends to explain why macroeconomic gauges indicate the economy is improving, but things don't look that good when you drill down.

Turnaround tale

I'm blogging more or less live from the People Report Best Practices Conference. Here's the first installment for the kick-off afternoon session:

We’re literally 20 minutes into the first general session of the conference, and already we’ve heard a turnaround story that pushed the ROI on attendance into positive territory. It was John Bettin’s account of how The Palm survived during the economic downturn.

In early October of 2008, when the financial community plunged into near-ruin, fine-dining fell like a rock. About a week later, Bettin joined $85-a-head Palm as the first CEO to be recruited from outside the founders’ families. “At least I could claim [the collapse] it wasn’t my fault,” he cracked to the audience of about 300 chain execs.

The private owners of The Palm pulled him aside on Day One and said, point blank, forget about the usual transition into the job. We want you to focus on meeting our obligations to the banks.

Bettin plunged into the task. Given the direction of the economy and fine-dining sales, he realized right away that the venerable steak brand wasn’t going to meet its financial obligations. It was a life-or-death struggle, a crisis that required extraordinary measures.

One of the questions the situation raised was what to tell the Palm’s venerated staff, who could make or break a recovery with their attitudes. “We decided to be 100% transparent,” explained Bettin. “We let them know that we were in trouble, that we would be trying different things, that our plan might change daily.”

As the negative trends continued, the company had layoffs and salary cuts. “Be we also launched a recognition program with Tiffany pens that cost us $100,000 a year. We started a newsletter that cost us $40,000,” recounted Bettin.

The company wanted the employees to stay engaged and play a crucial role in the survival struggle, even as the bad news was communicated to them.

“Your grandmother told you, ‘Honesty is the best policy.’ I can alter that and say transparency is the only path if you want to succeed,” said Bettin. “We celebrated every day we were less negative than we had been.”

As a result, “we came out of it faster than a lot of people,” and same-store sales have remained positive, he said. “It’s not me, it’s not the leaders, it’s our 1,600 employees.”

If you'd like me to focus on particular aspect of the conference, just e-mail me at promeo@cspnet.com, or send me a message via Twitter, @peterromeo.

'So, what do you remember about him?'

So many industry leaders have been called by reporters for comment on Herman Cain that the solicitations were a topic of conversation at the People Report Best Practices Conference party last night.

Cain would be pleased to know he’s remembered by his former colleagues in foodservice, but all professed they declined to reminisce about him with the media.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

What's the right way to grow overseas?

Wally Doolin, chairman Of Black Box Intelligence and a recovering chain executive, doesn’t flinch at bringing up the sometimes controversial issue of brand ownership. At last year’s People Report Best Practices Conference, he lobbed the firebomb observation that control of a concept by an investor, like a private-equity company, might prove a troubling change for an industry that was built largely on entrepreneurship. “Usually,” he noted at the time, “enterpreneurs make the decision that’s right for the business.”

At this year’s conference, which started today with a new session on the international market, he touched on a sensitive issue again by asking two U.S. brands what ownership model they’d have preferred to use in their overseas expansion. If they could do it over again, he asked officials of Starbucks and T.G.I. Friday’s, would they do more franchising? Less? How about joint ventures? What do they see as the ideal ownership model when you head abroad?

Nick Shepherd, CEO of Friday’s parent company, said it’s not a matter of what was right or wrong. Friday's chose a particular route because of factors that prevailed at the time. Any U.S. chain looking to grow abroad may have to make compromises because of it's situation, like not having enough capital to blitz a market. That would suggest franchising. But to woo a local partner, and maybe local financiers, a chain might have to hold a stake in the overseas stores. That'd mandate a joint venture.

Joint ventures can work beautifully, he stressed, but it’s important to structure it correctly. Having less than a 50% stake can mean surrendering too much control of the brand to the local operator.

You might have to start with a smaller stake, just to have some skin in the game, but it doesn’t make sense to have 15 or 20 percent because it puts you in a passive position, agreed Shepherd’s fellow presenter, Joe Canterbury.

Canterbury, Starbucks’ VP of international business development, noted that the coffee giant now wholly owns its restaurants in a number of foreign markets, a far cry from the small stake it held when it established its first beachhead, in Japan. But back then it needed to "have some skin in the game" because the brand was untried outside of the United States.

Franchising provides more control, they suggested, but at some point the local operator’s interests are going to diverge from the franchisor’s. Canterbury characterized it as inevitable.

Whatever model is pursued, they agreed, the key is finding the right local partner. The tenor of that relationship will be crucial in good times and in bad. A good partner can get you the sites and people that ensure success, stressed Shepherd. And even when interests diverge, a strong relationship enables you to resolve the situation amicably.

Shepherd noted that everyone in the room has had the experience of picking a franchisee who looked great on paper but failed to meet expectations as a business partner. It happens overseas, too, but what goes wrong in a store in Singapore can spread across the globe in a flash.

Doolin ended the session by asking the pair to recount one of the humorous instances that U.S. chain executives invariably encounter abroad.

Canterbury recalled how Starbucks worked with local authorities to resolve a trademark dispute. During the negotiations, they sat in front of a 20-foot-high portrait of Russian strongman Vladimir Putin, trying not to show the intimidation they felt.

Shepherd recalled a business presentation he co-hosted before his days with Friday's. His boss stressed at the time that they were not to mention an obscure sporting event to the 500-plus Europeans in attendance because it might offend them. Instead, he made a reference to Nazis in jackboots. Then he threw the emcee duties over to Shepherd.

What do you want to know?

On Thursday morning I’ll be moderating a panel on what restaurateurs need to know to participate in the political dialogue leading up to the 2012 elections. During the session of the People Report Best Practices Conference, we’ll be fielding questions about issues of particular interest to the business. We want to arm the trade with the knowledge and confidence to counter partisan bickering with reasoned, substantive discussion.

If that brings to mind any questions you’d like me to ask the panel, please drop me a line via e-mail (promeo@cspnet.com) or Twitter (@peterromeo). The group consists of Dawn Sweeney, CEO of the National Restaurant Association; Craig Miller, the former restaurant-chain chief who’s campaigning to become Florida’s next U.S. Senator; and Josh Davies, the Sage Hospitality executive who ran for a seat on Denver’s City Council.

I look forward to hearing what you’d like me to ask. If your question is posed to the panelists (and I’ll do my best to get them heard), I’ll try to cover the responses here.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Raising a glass to Happy Hours

If you doubt the Happy Hour is making a comeback, consider the sales elixirs two heavy-pouring restaurant chains are currently sucking down.

The pair acknowledged this month that they’d uncorked what’s again becoming the most common sales lubricant in casual dining. Brinker International was the more recent to join the likes of P.F. Chang’s and Cheesecake Factory, announcing Wednesday that its Chili’s chain was rolling a “full-blown Happy Hour program,” in the words of CEO Doug Brooks.

Speaking to investors, Brooks was sketchy on details. But he divulged that the lures for the post-work crowd would include sangria, an upgraded version of Chili’s signature margaritas, and new food offerings at the bar.

He described the push for evening guests as one of Chili’s “very big initiatives” for rebounding from the Great Recession, which walloped all of casual dining. The rollout is right up there in strategic importance with the redesign of the concept and the changeover to more efficient kitchens, he stressed.

The financial analysts listening to Brooks refused to let his tease pass without amplification. Pressed a bit, Brooks described the new program as a natural outgrowth of Chili’s re-imaging, which extends to such bar enhancements as the installation of better flat screen TVs. He also spoke cryptically about changes that put the bartender in a position to field more drink orders.

But Brooks rebuffed requests for any sales info from the program’s market tests, which he characterized as having just concluded.

Three weeks earlier, Ruby Tuesday provided a few details about its Happy Hour program, which is already in place at the diversified company’s namesake chain (Ruby Tuesday now has more brands in its portfolio than some of the bigger private-equity firms.) CEO Sandy Beall noted that the draws include half-price appetizers and $2 tacos and sliders.

“The investments we've made in our beverage lineup and bar program should help us reach our long-term goal of increasing alcohol sales to 12% of revenue,” Beall said in Ruby’s conference call with investors.

Looks as if Ruby Tuesday is going to have a lot more competition in getting there.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Only yawning over new products is coming from the R&D team

Here’s a link that restaurant chains might want to check out for the well being of their menu development staffs. It’s an eBay listing for army cots. Clearly R&D teams have little time to swap chef’s whites for PJs when they’re cooking up new customer draws at the current pace.

Oh, and don’t forget to visit this site, too. It’s an online pharmacy that extends a price break on big tranquilizer orders. The products coming from the big brands’ test kitchens have typically been make-or-break products. Did the team come up with a new menu milestone, or will their handiwork be remembered as the new New Coke?

Burger chains are changing their burgers, pizza chains are reformulating their pizza, coffee chains are re-percolating their core coffee line, Mexican chains are rethinking what they put in a tortilla.

Think about it: With McDonald’s about to add a new chicken finger food called McBites, and Burger King introducing the Chef’s Choice this week as its new premium burger, almost all of the major fast-food chains are fiddling with their menu signatures.

What’s more, the alterations are introduced with direct or implied criticisms of the versions they replaced. Domino’s has made the most noise on that front, all but asking customers, “How could you have eaten what we formerly sold you?”

But Wendy’s isn’t much more discrete in its push of new French fries and burgers. Ditto with KFC and Kentucky Grilled Chicken. The only one showing subtlety is Taco Bell, which is quietly taking some salt out of its signatures.

McDonald’s hasn’t revealed what sort of noise it’ll make about McBites, a chicken version of popcorn shrimp (essentially deep-fried pieces of chicken meat, like the popcorn selections that have long been on the menus of KFC and Popeyes.) You can bet it won’t knock Chicken McNuggets or Chicken Selects in the introduction, but you have to wonder if customers will nonetheless regard McBites as an obvious alternative to McNuggets.

We’ll find out when McDonald’s rolls the new product next year.

The remake of fast-food signatures won’t end there. As RestaurantRealityCheck noted last week, Burger King is trying a new, thicker fry. Its stated goal of appealing to more women and children portends even more changes in products.

Might there even be some riffs on the Whopper?

This isn't the first time that such a thing has happened. In the mid-1980s, BK indeed changed the specs on its holiest of signatures, revamping the size of the Whopper's patty.

McDonald's tried to rejigger its bigger burgers so they could be garnished with lettuce and a tomato slice that wouldn't be rendered unpleasant by the heat of the patty they topped. Later, KFC introduced a bone-in roasted chicken, and Taco Bell tried reduced-calorie versions of its main items.

They all joined the Edsel in the annals of product failures.

But there are different dynamics--and learnings from those misfires--in play this time. Technomic noted in releasing some research yesterday that the fast-casual sector is influencing restaurants of all stripes. No where is that impact more obvious than in the traditional quick-service market, which has the most to lose from fast-casual's rise. Is it really a surprise that former Wendy's CEO Roland Smith publicly compared the chain's new burger line to what's available at Five Guys?

Talk amongst yourselves about it. But try to keep the noise down. The R&D teams need to catch up on their sleep.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Forget Twitter. Chipotle scores big with foil.

Social media may be the new frontier in restaurant marketing, but Chipotle Mexican Grill said it did just fine this summer with nothing more than some gold foil.

The industry’s non-conformist chain decided to call attention to its push for better ingredients by wrapping the concept’s torpedo-sized burritos in gold instead of the usual silver foil, which has figured into billboard campaigns in the past. The notion was subtle, to say the least. The gold standard—get it?

Well, people did. Executives revealed to investors yesterday that 94 percent of customers who saw the gold foil understood the implication that Chipotle uses better ingredients, strongly reinforcing the chain’s Food with Integrity pledge. Research also indicates that the campaign boosted awareness of Chipotle by 19 percent, said Steve Ells.

Unconventional marketing is being used more frequently by the burrito maker. Ells noted that an animated short movie illustrating the comeback of small-scale farming is currently being shown in 10,000 theaters, where some 20 million people will view it. It was funded by Chipotle as a way of calling attention to better agricultural methods.

It’s already been viewed more than 1.7 million times on YouTube, Ells said.

He noted that a message about sustainable farming was delivered about 32 million times through coverage of Cultivate Chicago, a recent food and music festival sponsored by Chipotle in the Windy City. The event drew some 16,000, who came to sample the specialties of big name chefs, hear some big-name bands, and maybe learn about sustainable farming in the process.

“We've always believed that if people discover where their food comes from, the more they'll appreciate what we do at Chipotle,” Ells told investors during a conference call.

Ells said that a second Cultivate festival will be held next year, most likely in the chain’s headquarters city of Denver.
Not on the schedule, he noted, is the development of a second ShopHouse Southeast Asian Grill. The company plans to focus on fine-tuning the prototype, which opened a few weeks ago in Washington, D.C.

Ells disclosed that patrons of the first ShopHouse have complained about the spiciness of the food. Those were the same sort of comments that he heard when the first Chipotle opened, Ells said.

Friday, October 14, 2011

With apologies to good publicists

Recent times have certainly scrambled the conventions that restaurants once knew as standard operating procedures. Most were adjustments to the grueling economic conditions. But if you have an explanation for the self-serving practices some public relations agencies have adopted to rep restaurant clients, please pass it along.

Consider this announcement from today: “Phoenix Marketing Associates restaurant client Tryst Café named one of Phoenix’s Best New Restaurant by Phoenix Magazine.” That was the headline of the press release, and in case you missed it, it was repeated in the first paragraph, or what we in communications know as the all-important lede.

I’ve always been the target of public relations, not the practitioner. But someone who’d just been thawed from a 50-year-long cryogenic nap would know the client’s achievement should get higher play than its affiliation with the agency hawking the news.

I shouldn’t pick on that one agency, because it’s hardly alone. It stuns me to see announcements on the news wires about a PR outfit picking up the 1-2-3 Café or the XYZ Burgers chain as a client. If that’s the best news hook an agency can find about a new customer, then the business might want to rethink its choice. The objective there is to draw journalists’ attention to the operation, and I for one am not going to pick up the phone for a story or online posting because someone new will be taking my call. Give me some substance.

It’s no better to use an attributed quote from an outside PR rep, no matter how prominent he or she might think they are, in press materials about a restaurant or chain. I’m not going to give your firm free publicity by using a quote like that. My readers are interested in the operation and its executives, not the information gatekeepers.

The fellow traveler of that puzzling phenomenon: Listing a PR or communications outfit as the agency of record for a chain. (Note that I didn’t say the advertising agency of record, which is a whole different matter.)

That’s growing more common as brands contract outside parties to handle their social media efforts. But unless the client is selling records as part of its business, I don’t care who its agency of record might be. I want substance, not whom I might refer to a restaurant acquaintance looking for media help.

A final word of advice to restaurateurs looking to get the best representation from their PR agency: If “exciting” is the most frequently used word in a hired PR gun’s press releases, buy him or her a Thesaurus. That sort of hyperbole went out with Ramblers.

The same holds true for “delicious,” if you’re talking about food, or “world famous” and “stunning,” regardless of what’s being hyped. Show, don’t tell. Those words translate for any journalist into “I don’t have a clue as to how to make my client’s products or services sound enticing enough for coverage, so I’m lapsing back to the safe and vapid.”

To the many, many friends who admirably handle public relations for restaurants, my apologies for raising a criticism about your profession. Your efforts in helping me get accurate information on a timely basis is appreciated. I could do without the attempts at spin-doctoring, but hey, I know who’s cutting the paycheck.

But your profession needs to keep its head in these tough times. Confusing your business interests with those of your clients is not going to help your cause in the long run.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Bagging chain conformity

Once upon a time, the only matter left to the discretion of a restaurant franchisee was the route he or she drove to work. Exact conformity to a chain’s procedures, design and menu were enforced with a vigor that had Third World dictators muttering, “Whoa. Those dudes are serious.”

Contrast that with some recent chain-restaurant openings. At the new Burger King in Ionia, MI, you’ll be served a thicker French fry and coarser cut bacon. Further north, on the other side of the border, your options include two new poutines, or sauced fries.

At the new Johnny Rockets in Sunrise, FL, you can play arcade games or watch pro sports on TV in the bar. It’s also the only restaurant in the chain to offer pizza.

The newest franchised Johnny Rockets in Cincinnati lets patrons get wine and beer to go. Breakfast is also available.
The list goes on and on. Clearly iron-fisted conformity is out, and adaptation to the realities of a local market, even an individual block, is the smarter business mindset that’s replacing it.

That’s partly due to the growing militancy of franchisees. No longer can the home office dictate how their businesses will run. When the franchisor tries, it’s likely to end up in court, as Burger King, Wendy’s and KFC have learned.

But it’s also smarter business. Patrons in downtown Miami might not want the same choices as the snowbirds staying by the choice or the trendinistas roller-blading through South Beach.

One of the trends that’s subtly helped fast-food in recent years has been the embrace of market-by-market pricing, which is really a version of yield management. Chains still advertise a chainwide bargain to get the most from their ad budgets, but they do it more selectively.

Another other factor is the undeniably increase in importance of franchisees. Chains have mothballed the rule of thumb that one-third of the system should be franchisor-operated to keep the home office focused on day-to-day functions.

But perhaps the main impetus is the realization that franchisees are the best consumer sales force a chain can have. No one knows the business and customer preferences like the ones who are immersed in the field every day.

No wonder headquarters are loosening the reins. It one of the most positive after-effects to emerge from the Great Recession.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Do restaurants have a height bias?

Working in a restaurant kitchen is a tough calling. It's hot, laborious, high-paced, often involving big egos and hot tempers. But here's a challenge that was new to me. It's offered here in hopes of stimulating some dialogue on a challenge of restaurant kitchens that's been unaddressed, as far as the writer and I are concerned. It's an unsolicited note that I was e-mailed last week:
First off I have been in and out of the food business for 20 years and the reason I had to get out of it was because the same problem exists where ever I would apply. I have a handicap which more and more cooks and chefs are experiencing and is an ever growing concern for doing what we love. I would have stayed in if there was reasonable compensation but there really isn't any that I know of. I am 6 foot 5 inches tall and the industry is based for people 5 foot 1 inch to 5 foot 11 inches.

We have to work in short spaces and deal with hitting our heads on hoods that don't have a standard height minimum of 7 feet.

I feel this needs to be addressed if you really want the industry to be fair. The longest I ever stayed was when I had my own restaurant and everything was built for my height.

If you need a spokesperson just call, but I feel you might have plenty of others you know who would be happy to start the ball rolling. I mean [everything] from equipment to tables and seating is based on the shorter individual. If you say one size fits all then please say that all recipes should taste like Betty Crocker. I even had to leave the Culinary Institute of America because my lower back couldn't take the low work surfaces and that was a dream I hated to give up on.

I love cooking so much it has never been employment to me. I'd cook for free if I knew the rest of my bills were covered.

Here is a chance to help thousands of us tall lovers of culinary arts to remain in the field we have devoted our selves to. If you have any questions please feel free to contact me.
--Steven Bodley
Warren, Ohio

So I open it up for discussion: Any other chefs or cooks out there who've encountered the same situation? And what do the rest of you think?

Friday, October 7, 2011

A-ha's that might've slipped past you

You can’t miss a wave that’s reshaping the restaurant business. Harder to spot are the ripples that could swell into powerful forces. Consider these recent developments, for instance:

‘Menu disclosure’ is redefined. The term was once synonymous with posting calorie counts and other nutritional metrics so consumers could make an informed choice. Now we’re seeing a secondary designation.

Amid all the hoopla over the opening of Chipotle’s ShopHouse Southeast Asian Kitchen was a little-noticed detail brought to light by the Washington Post: Not everything on the menu was what it purported to be. Two of the sauces for vegetarian were actually made with fish stock, a huge no-no to the more orthodox non-flesh-eaters.

As the Post subsequently reported, ShopHouse quickly rectified the situation by adding an asterisk to the menu listings, alerting customers that the sauces are non-vegetarian.

It must’ve been déjà vu all over again for the concept’s parent. About a week beforehand, a tweeter with a large following voiced 140 characters’ worth of indignation that Chipotle’s pinto beans were flavored with bacon. Co-CEO Steve Ells called the tweeter (he’s an editor of Maxim, the breasts-and-beer magazine), apologized, and explained that the menu description had been corrected.

Meanwhile, Wendy’s drew fire because of its switch to buttered hamburger buns for the new Dave’s Hot ‘n Juicy line. Websites pointed out that the butter could be a hazard to consumers who are allergic to dairy products, and faulted the chain for not flagging the newfound danger more clearly on its website.

Franchisors could be seriously ding’d by the tax man. It slipped past almost unnoticed, but KFC lost a landmark court decision this week that should worry every franchisor. The U.S. Supreme Court rebuffed an attempt by the Yum! Brans holding to keep Iowa from assessing it for state income taxes.

The franchisor pointed out that it doesn’t operate a single restaurant in the state; all the units there are franchise stores. It doesn’t even have a single employee.

But the Supreme Court rejected the appeal. KFC will have to pay the $250,000 that Iowa says it’s due in income taxes on the franchise royalties and fees that were channeled to chain headquarters in Kentucky.

Two days, two bankruptcies of Sun Capital holdings. Are economic realities catching up to the private-equity raiders?
No PE investor gobbled up as many restaurant brands before and during the Great Recession as Sun, whose portfolio extends from Captain D’s to Bar Louie. The acquisitions included stakes in Friendly’s and Real Mex, parent of the Chevys, El Torito and Acapulco chains, both of which are now being run under the scrutiny of a bankruptcy court. Sun is undoubtedly the owner of more concepts than any other entity in the business, and is likely one of the bigger operator-franchisors as well.

It’s become an industry parlor game to speculate about what Sun will do with those holdings. An IPO for a select chain? Or for several, packaged together? How about a sale to other PE companies? Or to a strategic buyer? Maybe some will be crunched up and sold piecemeal for their locations, the way an auto is sold for parts.

It’s safe to say that Sun didn’t buy anything with a hope of seeing it go bankrupt. What does that portend a company with that much vulnerability to a restaurant downturn on its books?

Looks as if the parlor game has just been updated.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Danny Meyer's 4-star break with convention

I’ve witnessed some amazing things in 27 years of covering restaurants. What Danny Meyer is doing with Eleven Madison Park is definitely on that list as of today—ironically, the very day Michelin awarded the midtown restaurant a third star.

Meyer will have a chance to relish the resulting upsweep in business, but not for long. As New York Times reporter Glenn Collins reported in a Times blog, Meyer is selling Eleven Madison to its manager and executive chef.

The reason? The pair admitted to the famed restaurateur that they hoped to build something of their own while still on the payroll. Meyer wasn’t comfortable with his employees doing double-time as competitors. But he didn’t like the idea of parting with the duo because they were critical to maintaining Eleven Madison’s quality and success. It has a four-star rating from the New York Times, which is harder to land than a rent-controlled two-bedroom apartment with a doorman. In Gramercy Park.

So, Meyer said, he decided to sell them the place. No bidding war, no pitting suitor against suitor. Just a deal hammered out between mentor and protégées.

One more extraordinary thing: The turn of events is spelled out not in Meyer’s blog, but on the galleys of a book that will be published next month. Meyer provided the account in the forward to “The Eleven Madison Park Cookbook.”

He stopped short of revealing the specifics of the deal, like the price. But Collins reported that the transaction is expected to close by Jan. 1.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Finally! A list of the most common restaurant office sounds

There’s no shortage of rankings in the restaurant business, as you’ll discover when the October issue of Restaurant Business arrives (you can also view it via our free app from iTunes.) As we report, at least five new listings of the best and most loved restaurant chains were released toward the end of summer—revealing that the industry has no fewer than four “best” chains (add a fifth if you believe one of our competitor’s rankings, which appeared too late to be included in our print round-up.)

There’s none of that confusion in the roster that’s been conspicuously overlooked in the recent fit of ranking, listing and arraying. Damn the politics!

Here, plugging the gap at long last, is the Loudest Sounds Heard This Summer from Chain Headquarters:

'Hmmm.' The industry has been agog over the debut of Chipotle’s ShopHouse Southeast Asian fast-casual concept. But cooler heads have remembered that Chipotle isn’t the first celebrated restaurant operation to fire up the wok. Cheesecake Factory similarly quickened pulses when it unveiled RockSugar Pan Asian Kitchen, and Ruby Tuesday tried unsuccessfully to keep the buzz down about its purchase of the Wok Hay fast-casual concept a few years ago. Neither of those have stunned the industry. Indeed, officials of both the casual dining chains say the ventures are still in the evaluation phase, and Ruby has transformed Wok Hay into something much different from what it bought.

Factor in the evident challenges of Pei Wei Asian Diner, P.F. Chang’s fast-casual sister, and you have several counterbalances to the ShopHouse hoopla. Of course, the whole MP3 phenomenon failed to boom until the iPod hit the market. But the breathless betters on ShopHouse’s success should at least splash some cold water on their faces and remember history.

‘Kill our signature’ When you’re known for your burger, it’s pretty dicey to mess with the recipe. Wendy’s says that’s why it spent four years on the development of the new Dave’s Hot ‘n Juicy. Former CEO Roland Smith boasted that it’s better than anything you’ll get from In-N-Out or Five Guys (both of which appeared atop several of the Best lists.)

But the burger chain is hardly the only quick-service brand to mess with its signature. Witness Domino’s launch of artisan pizzas, which are specialized versions of the new pizza the chain added about a year and a half ago.

But the list goes on from there. Sonic revamped its Coney, a signature of the quirky chain. Burger King is messing with “stuffed burgers,” while Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s give “steakburgers” a try.

The one constant: All of the new items promise a considerable jump in quality, a reflection of the new mantra that value today means far better quality at a not-much-higher price.

‘I don’t care if sushi’s our specialty. Give me a burger!’ This is a really bad time to be a cow. Just when you think the upscale burger market has crested, along comes news of more big-name entrants, like Domino’s founder Tom Monaghan, or popular retail brands like Bubba Burger.

If the brand can’t do a true burger, it tries a similar product, like the steak sandwich at Panera Bread, or the countless cheeseburger pizzas that are now available.

Is it just me, or have the Chick-fil-A cows looked a little more nervous as of late?

‘Get me a headhunter! And keep them from calling the team!’ The restaurant industry has always been a continual game of musical chairs. When sales or profits sag and the music stops, a scramble erupts for new CEOs, ops specialists or marketing hotshots, which seem to be in greater than usual demand this year. Clearly we’re in the midst of that right now. Consider the recent changes: New CEOs or presidents at Wendy’s, Hooter’s, California Pizza Kitchen, Church’s, O’Charley’s, Texas Roadhouse, with a vacancy at Dunkin’ Brands’ international arm.

With industry veteran Brad Blum using his substantial stake in Cosi to demand the top job there, we might also add that situation to the tally.

Marketer changes include the departure of Dairy Queen’s chief brand officer, Michael Keller; the addition of Pepsico veteran Scott McDaniel to CEC, the parent of the Chuck E. Cheese’s chain; and the recruitment of Garfield the cartoon cat to serve as the new mascot of Straw Hat Pizza, the 53-year-old regional chain.

There are a number of executive placement services that work only within the restaurant industry. It’s a shame that they’re not publicly traded, or they’d bump Chipotle and McDonald’s as the hot foodservice stocks.

Monday, September 26, 2011

It's no rubber vomit

If you’re over 25 or haven’t worked a drive-thru window, you’ve probably not been splattered yet by the latest craze in restaurant prank-dom. But fear not, you legions who still chuckle at the thought of a Whoopee Cushion. This is no squirting lapel flower.

Indeed, coning may be the dumbest thing since the Macarena. Here’s how it works, as you can see for yourself via countless YouTube postings.

A customer pulls up to the drive-thru window of a fast-food place to get his or her soft-serve ice cream cone. But instead of taking the treat by the cone as it’s handed through the window, the perpetrator grabs it by the top so the ice cream squishes through the jokester’s fingers.

As far as I can tell, the hilarity is not seeing the ice cream fly in all directions, but in witnessing the restaurant employee’s face as the patron proves to be an ass. Ideally, the person in the passenger seat will capture the scene on a phone and post the video on a sharing site.

For added hilarity, keep holding the treat by the ice cream, turn your hand so the cone is on top, and start eating it that way, as if the situation is perfectly normal.

Video-taped perpetrators have included Justin Bieber, who should have his bowl-sculpted hair smacked, as well as several other young celebrities. Their clips have been viewed by millions of YouTube fans.

At least the prank isn’t as dangerous as the fire-in-the-hole gag that reigned a few years ago. With that fit of dumbness, a drive-thru customer would take a drink or a gooey item from the employee, yell “Fire in the hole!,” and fling it back at the staffer.

There, too, the objective was to have someone else in the car capture the scene on video and post it to YouTube or the like. But the fad came to a particularly ugly end when a prankster ran through the gag at a Boston Market, flinging a platter of hot mac and cheese at the drive-thru attendant. He suffered second-degree burns, and the jokester was arrested.

You can only hope that coning loses its appeal very quickly. Stupidity that profound is an embarrassment to us all.

Monday, September 19, 2011

'They keep pulling me back'

What is it about the restaurant industry that keeps pulling people back into the fray? In recent weeks we’ve had three more examples of grizzled vets who’ve made enough money to fund a life of leisure. But instead of spending their remaining days on a racetrack or golf course, they’re looking for a new restaurant concept to hatch or grow.

Consider, for instance, Brad Blum’s newfound interest in Cosi, the upscale sandwich concept. Blum rose to prominence as the cappo of Olive Garden, which was wheezing a bit when he took it over. He righted it and then moved on to Burger King, where a sale of the company did him no good. Most recently, he headed Romano’s Macaroni Grill, seemingly a natural fit after his stewardship of Olive Garden.

Last week Blum alerted the SEC that he’d amassed a 6.75% stake in Cosi. “As of Sept. 6, 2011, Blum Growth LLC is now an active investor,” Blum said through his investment concern.

The filing notes that Blum wants a say on the composition and top management of Cosi (its former CEO, Jim Hyatt, just resigned). I’m going to go out on a limb here and predict that Blum wants a role in each governing body.

But he’s not the only vet who’s reactivated himself for a new restaurant challenge. Craig Nickoloff sold the high-volume Claim Jumper casual chain to the private equity company Leonard Green & Partners in 2005 for a reported $200 million. The amount seemed fitting for a concept that took the California gold rush as its theme.

Just to add a little icing to the case: Claim Jumper filed for bankruptcy a year ago.

Nickoloff could be kicking back with the wife he met while she was covering him and Claim Jumper for Nation’s Restaurant News, a distinction that made her a legend among those of us who write about the business (I’ve finally relinquished my dreams of a Rachel Rae Romeo, primarily because my current wife insisted.)

Instead, Nickoloff has teamed up with acclaimed West Coast chef Michael Cimarusti (of Providence restaurant) to buy Silver Spoon, described by Eater Los Angeles as “West Hollywood’s ancient coffee shop.” The pair hasn’t revealed its intentions for the space, but official filings say the location will do business as Connie and Ted’s.

Watchers are wondering if the venture might also involve Nickoloff’s son, Nick, who owns and operates three namesake restaurants.

Meanwhile, Ohio’s Cameron Mitchell is putting the finishing touches on his eighth Ocean Prime upscale “supper club,” in the Buckhead area of Atlanta. Two more branches are under development, according to Mitchell’s Columbus-based company.
The chain building comes just four years after Mitchell sold an earlier seafood chain, 19-unit Mitchell’s Fish Market, to Ruth’s Chris as part of a $94-million deal (two steakhouses were also part of the purchase).

To call Mitchell irrepressible is an understatement. I met him when he was sleeping on the floor of a co-worker’s hotel room so he could afford to attend an industry event. He was determined to open a restaurant concept of his own and wanted to learn everything he could.

Seems that desire has only grown stronger.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Blurring restaurant lines

You can make a strong argument that line-blurring has been the most successful restaurant strategy of the last 20 years. Without the daring to nudge a familiar type of restaurant into another category’s turf, we never would’ve had fast-casual, a blurring of the lines between fast-food and casual dining, or hybrids like burger joints run by celebrity chefs (think Daniel Boulud’s CBDB’s or Marcus Samuelsson’s Marc Burger).

Now two of the earliest and most successful proponents of line-blurring are smudging a different boundary.

By the industry’s standard definition, Mimi’s Café and Cracker Barrel fall into the category of family restaurants, or what were called coffee shops in the pre-Starbucks age. A key feature was serving breakfast, a rarity among full-service places. Indeed, a heavy morning clientele was one of their signatures. Ditto for selling more soft drinks than wine, beer or spirits. And their menus were as broad and mainstream as what we in the East would find at a classic diner.

But Mimi’s and Cracker Barrel never exactly fit the specs. Yeah, they do considerable breakfast business. But these aren’t your father’s Denny’s or Village Inn. Slip into a Mimi’s at lunch and you’ll find plenty of office workers, not families. And the menu is more ambitious than the roster for many upscale casual places.

Cracker Barrel also has that casual feel, and its reliance on a country-store schtick is reminiscent of the heavy-duty theming that’s common in casual dining (think Friday’s, Lone Star or Olive Garden).

Now those non-comformists are blurring the line again, this time by shifting into the pricing strata right below them. Both have just unveiled new lunch deals that rival the value and convenience afforded by fast-food outlets.

Cracker Barrel’s new offer is a line-up of daily specials that sell for $5.99 each. Consider for a moment that $5 is the going bargain rate for a sandwich at sub specialists like Subway. At Cracker Barrel you can pay just a buck more for meatloaf and mashed potatoes, a chicken pot pie, or a turkey platter with the usual trimmings.

Mimi’s is stressing speed of service along with the low prices of its midday options. It guarantees that its new Express Lunch service will take no more than 15 minutes. For $6.99, that gets the customer servings of soup and salad. For $1.50 more, they can get the soup or salad with half a sandwich. A soda adds just another $1 to the check.

Mimi’s may be venturing into fast-food territory, but it’s not dropping its competitive challenge to casual places. Also new on its menu is a takeout deal that might turn the heads of consumers who use casual restaurants’ curbside delivery services. Priced at $25 each, the meals are marketed as sufficient to feed a family of four. The options include such comfort favorites as pot roast, chicken parmigiana and turkey.

It’s also added a new Happy Hour deal: wine flights for $5.

Clearly the chalk marks between segments are still being smudged.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

What I learned at school yesterday

Every semester I’m privileged to address a class at New York’s Institute for Culinary Education, a springboard for entrepreneurs to become restaurant proprietors. My assignment is to provide an overview of the hot and fading concepts of the moment. But I learn more than the students because their feedback provides a sense of the direction they intend to steer the business. And I’m here to attest we’re about to turn back to the classics.

The youngsters use the opportunity to ask me about the concepts that have caught their fancy and what they might like to open after graduation. In recent years their focus has been on the avant garde—places like marshmallow shops, carts of all stripes, a barbecue place that borrows the dress codes of Twin Peaks and Hooters, and a wine shop and bar for Gen Yers.

But yesterday’s class asked about formats like cafes, bistros, wings places, tapas bars, neighborhood pubs and sports bars. It wasn’t as if they were oblivious to how many examples of those concepts are in the market already. To the contrary, they were one of the more informed groups I’ve addressed; they’d clearly done their homework in scoping out the state of the industry and where opportunities might lay.

That research had convinced them there’s room in those crowded fields for a newcomer that could differentiate itself through execution. And they had some definite ideas about how they could do it better.

I was struck by how many times the students mentioned comfort as one of the attributes that would push their ventures ahead of the pack. Novelty wasn’t that important to them.

It was a marked difference in orientation from past groups, but this old-is-new mindset makes sense. The sport-dining sensibility that reached its apex with molecular gastronomy is giving way to a more grounded appreciation of fundamentals—good food in a comfortable atmosphere with friendly service.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

'Attention, Central Casting'

We’ve decided to recount the week’s restaurant-related developments in cinematic form. So heads up, Casting. Here’re the players we’ll need to play the central characters.

Grab a guy in whites and put him in a serious suit. Yesterday’s announcement of a new president for the La Madeleine bakery-café chain probably took no one by surprise. Phil Costner, as COO, was the heir apparent. Still, his appointment is remarkable, especially for industry professionals who make their living in a kitchen. As far as we know, he’s the only chain president to reach that perch through menu R&D, and he’s one of the few chefs to head a system of significant size (Steve Ells of Chipotle and Kerry Kramp of Sizzler being the others).

Put Sigourney Weaver in a Cracker Barrel cap… As tough as she was in “Alien,” the veteran actress will have to show more fortitude in her depiction of Sandra Cochran, the new CEO of the family restaurant chain. On Day Two of the job, Cochran had to contend with a demand by shareholder and takeover artist Sardar Biglari that he be ceded a seat on Cracker Barrel’s board. The demand was put forth on a website created by Biglari to blast the chain’s direction and management. And then, just to add the icing on the cake, Cracker Barrel reported a 36% decline in quarterly net income. You have to wonder if prior CEO Michael Woodhouse called to provide moral support—the Bishop to Weaver’s Ridley.

…And get me one of The Borg guys from “Star Trek” to play Biglari. “You shall be assimilated. Resistance is futile.” The thirtysomething activist shareholder followed the same plan he’s pursuing at Cracker Barrel to wrest control of Steak ‘n Shake and Western Sizzlin’. Clearly he intends to prevail similarly at Cracker Barrel, his most mainstream target to date.

Who’s today’s Jimmy Stewart? Whoever he is, get him to play Craig Meier, the CEO of the Frisch’s family restaurant chain, which also operates a number of Golden Corral franchisees. The company’s sales dropped 4.6%, so Meier took a 26% pay cut. Clearly this guy couldn’t work on Wall Street without being some suit’s bitch. The cut brought his pay down to about $700,000—for overseeing a company that brought in $303 million. Take that, Gordon Gekko.

Okay, who’d be a good Lazarus? See if you can make him look like Craig Nickoloff, the founder of the Claim Jumper chain. Nickoloff sold the chain, second only to Cheesecake Factory in average unit volumes, to private-equity concerns that watched sales drop and drop and drop. Eventually, Claim Jumper went bankrupt and was bought at a bargain rate by Landry Restaurants’ Tillman Fertitta. Nickoloff had it made. But of instead of working up a sweat on a golf course, he just teamed up with the celebrated chef Michael Cimaruti to buy Silver Spoon, a wheezing landmark of the Los Angeles dining scene. They’ve indicated that the West Hollywood outlet will be converted into a restaurant called Connie and Ted’s, but haven’t yet revealed what the new concept will be like.

Okay, time to sketch out the storyboards….

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Remembering the details

A few days after 9/11, I was staring at a blank computer screen, my fingers on the keyboard, wondering what the hell I could say. I had a column due for Restaurant Business magazine, and of course the matter on every reader’s mind would be the terrorist attack. But, even having seen the events at close range, how could I adequately address the pain and uncertainty restaurateurs were feeling along with everyone else?

We decided as a staff that the only suitable commentary would be a head bowed to the industry’s victims. I don’t know how she did it, and was advised that it might be best if I never find out, but the indomitable Andrea Cohen, now a well-known food writer, secured a list of the 74 industry employees who were known as of that point to have perished.

I skipped a recollection of 9/11 in 2001, but I vowed never to let the date pass in the years afterward without remembering it in a column or blog. So I hope you’ll indulge me a break from covering restaurants for a recount of how my business reacted to those terrible days.

I was editor of Restaurant Business at the time, working with a gifted staff unmatched in its professionalism. Indeed, that was one of our dilemmas at the time. We were smack against a deadline for our next issue, yet here was the biggest story of our time. How could we go to print with articles about Dollar Menus and new pumpkin pie recipes when the restaurant industry had just had a hole punched through it?

We begged and pleaded with our parent company, a $5-billion-a-year publicly owned bureaucracy, for the dollars needed to buy time from our printer. Astoundingly, maybe because the accountants didn’t find a yea on their lengthy list of no-no’s, we got it.

But our offices were so close to the World Trade Center that officials shut our building for several days. We actually had a staff member, now-publicist photographer Katherine Bryant, sneak into the building so we could send out our daily e-mail newsletter on Sept. 14, explaining that we’d be out of commission for a few days. (“For God’s sake, don’t worry. Just be safe,” responded a subscriber in Australia whom we hadn’t known we had.)

That didn’t stop us from pursuing several ambitious feature articles. But the stories that stick with me, and presumably always will, are the ones that were brought to our attention by restaurateurs and other journalists who learned what we were doing and knew of a situation that deserved a spotlight.

Former New York Times reviewer Bryan Miller sent me an e-mail about one of his successors, Ruth Reichl, showing up near Ground Zero in a white Land Rover, the back packed with vats of soup, to help feed the relief efforts.

Our former food editor, Paula Disbrowe, provided first-person details of those MASH-like feeding operations, where she was volunteering with then-boyfriend and Bouley Bakery chief David Norman. Famed chefs were cooking whatever they could whip together from limited supplies. We had a lot of heroes in uniform those days. A lot of them wore foodservice whites.

Most of us had stories of our own to recount. Knowing Michael Lomonaco was executive chef at Windows of the World, I had glumly presumed he’d perished, a profound sadness for me. I didn’t know Michael well, but, learning that my wife and I were hunting for homes outside of New York, he’d graciously invited us to come visit the place he’d purchased in the Hudson Valley. We’d also shared some great conversation dinner during a Culinary Institute of America event, and I of course had enjoyed his cooking a bunch of times.

Days after 9/11, I was reading my New York Times when I literally had to sit down. There, in passing, was a quote from Lomonaco. The story explained that he’d stopped by an optometrist that morning to pick up a pair of glasses. The first plane hit while he was walking toward the World Trade elevator.

The staff was walloped with sadness to see that Heather Ho, Window’s pastry chef, was also among the victims. We’d featured her in the magazine just a few issues beforehand, and she was generally acknowledged among the staff as someone whose career we needed to follow, since we was going to be a big star.

Being New Yorkers, we also had our non-industry connections to the tragedy. One of our senior staff members remarked for several days that he’d not heard from one of his friends. He presumed the guy was safe because his office was uptown. Finally, the editor checked the last e-mail he’d gotten from his friend, who worked as a computer consultant. It’d been sent from the guest account of a company headquartered in the towers during the week of the attack.

Another staffer wasn’t able to contact her sister-in-law, who lived blocks from World Trade. She was eventually tracked down to a hospital, where she’d been taken after debris from the North Tower struck her as she’d been walking the dog.

Late on the night of 9/11, I’d walked up to the center of my town where a blood drive was being held. The organizers were stockpiling supplies in the belief hundreds of injured people would be pulled the next morning from the rubble. On the way I passed the train station, where thousands of people left every morning for jobs in Manhattan. Despite the hour, there were about 20 cars still in the parking lot. I was trying to figure out why when it struck me: Those owners weren’t coming back for their vehicles.

For weeks and months afterward, we’d be jolted out of our routines by the New York Times, which had admirably decided to profile every person killed in the New York attacks. You’d be drinking your coffee and come across a mention of someone you knew from high school, a person on your floor at college, or someone you’d routinely see on your train line.

There are so many details emblazoned in my memory: Seeing the ash-covered people streaming past Restaurant Business’ offices, which were about 30 blocks from World Trade. Going to my wife’s office, which hadn’t been able to contact a satellite office across the street from the towers. Employees of that location were staggering up to the midtown skyscraper where my wife worked. Eight people never showed.

Seeing fighter planes in the skies over Manhattan. The downtown area suddenly swamped with military vehicles and personnel. Restaurants turning us away because they were hoarding supplies until distribution trucks would be allowed into the city again. The dozens and dozens of people buttonholing you in the week afterward, shoving a picture in your face and asking if you’d happened to see their loved one, who’d been missing since 9/11. Veteran newscasters breaking down on the air and crying.

As painful as those memories are, I hope I never lose them. More important, I hope the world forever remembers the tragedies, so it continuously strives to avert a repeat.

Thanks for letting me do my small part to keep those recollections.