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.


applemacgordy said...

couldn't Sun purchased these chains for the real estate. A good location could be worth more than a dying chain. Bankruptcy is no problem in that case.

applemacgordy said...

a bankruptcy doesn't stop the sale of a particular location does it? If the restaurant owns the land it's sits on, the sale price could be high,,,,