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.

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