Tuesday, February 28, 2012

A terrible end to the mystery

A colleague heard the news from some Charleston, S.C., locals and passed along the word: The body of Tom Sponseller, the restaurant-industry leader who’s been missing for 11 days, had been found in a garage.

More details have emerged since that midday flash. Authorities say Sponseller died of what is almost certainly a self-inflicted gunshot to the head. He was discovered in a room within the garage where local workers would sometimes steal a smoke. The details suggest the Citadel graduate locked himself inside. The garage itself had been searched three times since Sponseller’s Feb. 18 disappearance, but the key to his location wasn’t available until today.

The police also revealed they’d found a note today in the deceased’s Columbia office that mentioned a federal investigation into the disappearance of a six-figure sum from coffers of the organization Sponseller headed, the South Carolina Hospitality Association. No details were disclosed, but you have to wonder how the authorities could have missed such a key clue in the last place where Sponseller was known to be alive.

Many of us from the parent company of Restaurant Business have been in Charleston for the last few days for a foodservice conference. The mystery of what happened to Sponseller has been a frequent topic of conversation. No one speculated that it could end this way. But, as several remarked, you just never know what secrets a person might be harboring.

All I know is that I interviewed Sponseller a few months ago for a freelanced story that ran on the National Restaurant Association’s website. He’d taken a group of Hospitality Association members to Atlanta to learn how restaurateurs there were reducing their contributions to landfills.

He surprised me by voicing a contrarian view of an industry initiative that has been widely praised by the business. Because he was a lobbyist, having spent 22 years leading the South Carolina group, I expected him to be politically correct, even if he had a dissenting view of something related to the industry. Instead, he said point-blank that he disagreed with a tack the trade was taking.

The developments suggest that unflattering details about Sponseller are likely to emerge soon. But anyone who met him is almost certainly wishing right now that the situation, no matter how bad, had ended much, much differently.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Learn the trends in menu development

I'll be blogging and tweeting today from Menu Directions, the think-tank convened every year by Foodservice Director magazine for the talented individuals from a side of foodservice that could teach restaurants a thing or two. They're the managers who feed thousands--sometimes tens or hundreds of thousands--through the foodservice operations of colleges, schools, offices and hospitals.

You can follow us live on Twitter, #MenuD12. If you have a question you'd like me to pass along to our presenters, pleased DM me at @peterromeo.

New twists in the Sponseller mystery

Law & Order boasted that its plotlines were “ripped from the headlines.” Hearing the new developments in the disappearance of South Carolina restaurant leader Tom Sponseller, you’d think the show’s scripts had been mined for some of the twists and turns.

As was reported here last week, Sponseller, the CEO of the South Carolina Hospitality Association, had vanished a week ago after putting in some weekend hours at the trade group’s offices in Columbia. No evidence of foul play was reported. But Sponseller’s car was in its usual parking space, and his wallet wasn’t found. The local police seemed baffled.

Now reports have emerged of Association funds having disappeared, too—to the tune of $100,000 to $900,000. The authorities haven’t alleged that Sponseller was involved in any embezzlement or theft. Rather, they’ve identified the group’s accounting director, Rachel Duncan, as a “person of interest.”

Duncan has not gone missing. But nor has she been arrested. Through a lawyer, she said that Sponseller was a good friend and that she was deeply upset by his disappearance.

Meanwhile, a federal investigation into the disappearance of the funds is continuing.

The Association has hired forensic auditors to investigate the money situation simultaneously.

As those probes continue, local police are continuing to ask the public to report anything they might know about Sponseller’s absence or whereabouts before he disappeared.

Stay tuned.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

They're ba-a-ck

If you still think chain restaurants are a career path for losers who can’t make it in a legitimate field, here’s a news flash: The world’s not flat, you can teach old dogs new tricks, and some white people have exceptional rhythm. Not only is the business the chosen route to success for people of considerable talent, but it’s an industry that few people abandon once they’ve tasted its rewards.

Exhibit A: Claire Babrowski, until recently the exception that proved the rule. When she was passed over for the top jobs at McDonald’s, she baled for retailing, becoming acting CEO and COO of Radio Shack (and reporting, ironically, to one of the few restaurant-chain executives who left for good, one-time Arby’s and Shoney’s chief Len Roberts).

I interviewed her when she headed operations for McDonald’s at a critical point for the chain. It was clear that she was a person of exceptional ability, vision and leadership. I figured I was meeting the next CEO of the Golden Arches or perhaps a cagey competitor.

Then McDonald's secret sauce soured, some of its bolder initiatives were questioned, and the company adopted a back-to-basics mindset. Futuristic notions like Made For You, a costly kitchen re-do for delivering customized orders in a flash, was suddenly downplayed.

Insiders reported that Babrowski was frustrated and ready to test herself elsewhere. After a lull, she resurfaced at Radio Shack, selling answering machines instead of burgers. She later moved to Toys “R” Us, where she served as COO until she was fired in May 2010.

Now she's once again in the restaurant business, albeit as a director rather than an executive. She was just named a member of Quiznos' new board, a role that should be familiar to her, given that she served once as a director for Chipotle Mexican Grill.

Her new affiliation, Quiznos, was teetering on the brink of bankruptcy around the beginning of the year. Now it boasts an all-star board studded with such industry elders as Doug Benham, a key figure in Arby's best years, and Kip Knight, a one-time marketing leader for KFC and Taco Bell. Apparently they can’t stay away from the business, either.

Babrowski is the latest example of what was once a rare breed: A expatriate from McDonald's. Lately that group has been growing. Former president Mike Roberts has a new fast-casual concept called LYFE Kitchen. One-time U.S. CEO Ed Rensi has a winner upstart in the gourmet burger concept Tom & Eddie's (hear him in a few weeks at the Restaurant Leadership Conference). Kevin Reddy runs Noodles & Co.

And then there's Jack Greenberg, the onetime corporate CEO who was at the helm when business went awry for McDonald's in the mid-2000s. He had made the mistake of accepting the bleak view that domestic growth prospects for the brand were dimming. He led a diversification effort that saw McDonald's buy into such concepts as Boston Market, Fazoli's, Chipotle, Pret a Manger, and Aroma, a coffee specialist.

Those brands were gone almost as soon as Greenberg retired.

But now he, too, is back in the business, though in a distant capacity. Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel has nominated Greenberg to head the operation that runs the Windy City's McCormick Place, home of the National Restaurant Association's annual mega-convention.

It's merely a big toe stuck back in the pool. But who knows what could happen? One of the NRA Show's benefits is the networking opportunities it affords.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

S.C. senate shows its feelings for Sponseller

Our society has a strange custom of showing affection and respect for people when they’re not able to bask in it. Today, for instance, members of the South Carolina senate paid tribute to Tom Sponseller, the missing chief of the South Carolina Hospitality Association, with a few minutes of silent remembrance, the politically correct way of saying “prayer.”

This is a state senate, honoring a man who’d prodded, pressed and pleaded with members of that august body for 22 years. A cynic might say it’s like a mongoose inviting a snake for a spot of tea. It speaks to the respect that Sponseller commanded, even from those who cast in the process as his sometime adversaries.

The industry’s respect for Sponseller has been in strong evidence since word of his disappearance this weekend came to light on Monday morning. He’s been lauded as someone who could maintain a southern charm as he worked diligently as an industry advocate.

Ironically, he was slated to fulfill his education and advocacy roles again this week, at the Governor’s Conference on Tourism and Travel.

Today brought few additional details about the situation. His wallet and cell phone have not been found. Authorities told local media they’re trying to retrace Sponseller’s steps by looking at credit card transactions and security cameras, but they’ve yet to reveal what if anything they’ve learned.

I join the rest of the foodservice industry in hoping for his safe return to his family.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Help find Tom Sponseller

In a terrifying development that could still have a happy ending, a restaurant leader from the Southeast has disappeared, leaving nothing but mysteries in his wake.

Tom Sponseller, president of the South Carolina Hospitality Association, vanished on Saturday after putting in some time at the trade association’s Columbia headquarters. When the 61-year-old failed to answer cell-phone calls, his family suspected something was amiss and alerted authorities.

The police found Sponseller’s car at the office, but they’ve yet to reveal any other clues they might have found.
Sponseller’s family has set up a Facebook page to share information. Authorities have set up a toll-free number, 1-888-Crime-SC, for any information about the long-time lobbyist and industry veteran.

Sponseller is 6 ft. 1 in. tall, and weighs about 160 lbs. His thin hair is grey and white.

He joined South Carolina’s main restaurant trade group 22 years ago, after working for Canteen Corp., the contract management giant.

Concept restaurants of the future?

Restaurant chains are realizing they can’t test-drive the future in vehicles conceived for the past. No wonder a growing number are opening specialized formats that leapfrog over the limitations of current designs, if not their very names and characters. They’re the restaurant equivalent of the auto industry’s concept cars.

California Tortilla was the most recent chain to take that route, announcing plans to open two scaled-down R&D units bearing the name Burrito Elito, which is also the name of the chain’s frequent-guest program. Both will be located in airports, which facilitate test marketing because they host such a broad swath of the consuming public.

BJ’s Restaurants has already generated four months’ worth of results for its R&D vehicle, a single outlet in southern California called BJ’s Grill. The concept suggests that BJ’s core brand may be looking for some tonier design accents, with features like booth seating and less of a sports-bar feel.

P.F. Chang’s has opened its lab in the same region where BJ’s has fired up its Grill. The Asian concept apparently wants to Americanize its appeal a bit; the test site drops the words “China Bistro” from its mother concept’s name, and features such decidedly American specialties as roast chicken with shoestring fries, and Alaskan black cod.

“The new Irvine P.F. Chang’s represents all that we’ve learned in 18 years, and what we hope to become over the next five to ten years,” said Chang’s president Lane Cardwell said at the time.

Those three chains follow the earlier lead of Burger King, whose Whopper Bar is serving as a testing ground for such new menu options as a shareable Whopper.

The parent of the Houston’s dinnerhouse chain also moved in that direction with the opening of the R+D Kitchen several years ago. The crucible for new ideas provided popular enough for the company, Hillstone Restaurants, to open two more.

It remains to be seen if the experiment becomes the expansion vehicle for some of the other concepts looking to do a little time-travel with their brands.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

What I learned this week

Raking through the restaurant news of any given week can unearth information gems that somehow fail to snag the general public’s attention. Here, for instance, is what I’ve learned online just since Monday:

How to eat a helium balloon. Thanks to Grant Achatz’s Alinea, I won’t be embarrassed at the next party where edible inflatables are served. As this video shows, proper etiquette calls for sticking your tongue into the sugar-based outer surface and sucking out the presumably flavored air. The bonus: You talk like Mickey Mouse afterward. Where do Achatz and his staff come up with these ideas? Then again, we should expect notions this wild from a crew that comments, “the string’s obviously dehydrated apple.”

Why feet don’t tingle at Hooters. Who knew the waitresses wear a proprietary type of pantyhose that has no feet, the result of staff complaints about tingling and discomfort? Strangely, few customers have noticed that the servers even have feet.

Don’t taunt scientific realities. A yuk-yuk boast about promoting heart attacks can be an alarming self-fulfilling prophecy, as the famed Heart Attack Grill learned last weekend. The concept’s schtick is serving food so nutritionally over the top that servers dress like nurses to revive patrons who might slip into cardiac arrest. It’s not so funny when that actually happens, as it did to a guest on Saturday. The world was stunned to learn the “nurses” only dress the part. Similarly, the proprietor-doctor is only pretending to have medical knowledge. EMTs had to revive and sustain the victim.

The high road can be bumpy. Almost exactly a year ago, Starbucks was targeted by West Coast gun advocates who wanted to flash their iron in a public place, a demonstration of what they’re permitted to do under the carry laws of many states. Clearly they were picking a fight with the coffee giant, with thinly veiled threats to exert their muscle.

Starbucks tried to sidestep the pressure, saying it would let state laws decide what guests could or couldn’t do.
"In the end, we determined that following local laws is the best approach for us,” headquarters said in a statement. “Were we to adopt a policy different from local laws allowing open carry, we would be forced to require our partners to ask law abiding customers to leave our stores."

Now gun opponents are leaning on the chain. A group called the National Gun Victims Action Committee has called for a boycott of Starbucks until it bans customers with guns from all of its stores.

In announcing the boycott, NGAC noted that a gun had accidentally gone off at a Starbucks in Cheyenne, Wyo., when a 17-year-old patron dropped her purse. According to news reports, the bullet missed a patron by about a foot.

“Not a word from Starbucks about this; this is acceptable Pro-Gun Agenda risk,” NGAC said in its announcement.

The group claims to represent 14 million victims of gun attacks, their families, and anti-gun sympathizers.

Retailers munch your lunch. New research has validated what should be a chilling fear for urban or suburban restaurants with significant takeout business: Consumers no longer regard them as the only quality option. Two out of five southern California residents believe the ready-to-eat food sold by c-stores or other retail outlets is just as good and usually lower priced, according to a new Technomic survey. Two-thirds of the respondents said they’d noticed an improvement in quality and variety during the last five years.

Translation: If I don’t want to eat inside a restaurant, why would I pay more for its food?

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Football's over. Why are some baseball names, too?

After Albert Pujols broke the hearts of Cardinals fans by signing with the Angels, guards had to be posted outside the baseball superstar's namesake restaurant in St. Louis. Management worried that jilted natives would literally scrap any connection with the first baseman, including the Pujols statue that stands outside what had been a dining shrine.

It's puzzling, even with the death of George Steinbrenner, that the tale of Pujols the Restaurant ends there. Aren't sports agents missing an opportunity to squeeze a few more bucks out of a client's stardom by selling restaurant naming rights?

Pujols' name might prompt St. Louis residents to curse and spit, if not riot (which explains why the restaurant has been renamed the St. Louis Sports Hall of Fame Bar and Grill.) But wouldn't the Pujols name be a tractor beam for any restaurant in Anaheim, the home of the Angels? A draw powerful enough to be worth some coin to a crafty entrepreneur?

It's actually not an original concept, just a rare one. Michael Jordan certainly knows the strength of licensing his name. His One Sixtyblue in Chicago just closed, but his three Michael Jordan's Steakhouses continue to soar.

The revenue potential hasn't been lost on former Bears coach Mike Ditka, either. Three restaurants carry his name.

Maybe it's a Chicago thing.

If that secondary market in naming rights was going to emerge, this is the year. We have Bobby Valentine, a coach still dear to many Mets fans, moving to the--it pains me to type it--Boston Red Sox. His Stamford namesake restaurant still remain deep in the heart of Yankee Nation.

Mariana Rivera will hopefully retire as a Yankee. But he's not getting any younger, and who knows what the front office might do? If he did play another year, he certainly could take his Mo's Grill with him.

But Pujols is the big kahuna. It's astonishing that no one in Anaheim is picking up his Q value.

What am I talking about? Get that idea out of your head right now, dear reader. And let me get Disney on the phone. I have a marketing idea for one of their Disneyland restaurants.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Phil Romano as Simon Cowell?

Concept creator Phil Romano must be taking his inspiration these days from “American Idol” founder Simon Cowell. News reports arising from Dallas say the father of Macaroni Grill and Fuddrucker’s, to name just a few of his brainchildren, is funding a restaurant “incubator” where entrepreneurs pitch their concept to a panel of chefs and potential investors, a la any number of reality talent contests.

A winning idea earns a match-up with potential backers and 2,500 square feet of space in a 13-acre complex Romano and his partners have purchased to redevelop.

The jury members recruited so far include such towering toques as Stephan Pyles, Dean Fearing and Kent Rathbun, according to the coverage. Members with more of a business background include Butch McGregor and Stuart Fitts.

Romano and other investors in the Trinity Grove project will receive a percentage of sales from any venture that’s awarded space as a result of getting a thumbs-up vote from the committee.

Romano has predicted that restaurant companies will come to the complex to scout for concepts they could develop.

He told the Dallas Morning News’ Karen Robinson-Jacobs that his group has already signed letters of intent with 14 would-be restaurateurs who want space in the Trinity Grove complex, and that 30 in total have submitted ideas.

Chipotle speaks

When Chipotle executives speak, other restaurateurs snap their heads to listen. Here to save them a little neck strain are the pearls from management’s conference call Wednesday with Chipotle investors:

Co-CEO Steve Ells, on the first ShopHouse Southeast Asian Kitchen:
While we're still working to perfect the concept, it reminds me very much of the first Chipotle when it originally opened. Many current customers aren't quite sure how the system works or what to order when they first come in and sometimes have issues with flavor combinations or the level of spice in their food. But they like it and from the very beginning, you see that the customers are coming back, week after week.

Ells, on Obamacare:
We, today, have a limited insurance program that we offer our crew. Most of our crew chose not to pick that up. And so we would go from very few of our crew being involved in the voluntary program to us being required to provide insurance to all of our employees. So it would be pretty significant change to our business
Co-CEO Monty Moran, on Chipotle’s Restaurateur management development program (where managers get a big bonus for hiring employees who then become managers):
This GM taught all of us a lesson: She came from a Restaurateur store herself and had a strong vision for what a winning team looked like. Weeks before her new store opened, she spent days on the sidewalk in front of her new restaurant, interviewing candidates for crew positions…Once she had selected her team, she trained each of them in an existing Chipotle and then invited all of them to her apartment to explain to them her vision for her restaurant and to watch videos from the 2010 All Managers Conference to be sure that each of these people understood Chipotle's unique culture. She made a commitment to each of them to help them grow and carefully described exactly how they would be able to become managers and future leaders at Chipotle themselves. At the same time, she secured a commitment from each of them to devote themselves fully to becoming part of the Restaurateur store very quickly.

Moran, on seasonal changes in traffic:
Our peak hour transactions are sort of more in the 100 range during the winter months. And during the summer months, it's historically gotten up sort of more in that 110 to 115 range…Obviously, with this coming spring and summer season, we hope to set some new records in those areas because of our new emphasis
Ells, on menu development:
One of the reasons that we continue to grow so strongly is because we continue to improve our core offerings, which is what people come for. We have experimented here and there with a new menu item. We've tried soup. We've tried chili. We've tried smaller menu items, single taco, things like this. But it seems that people keep coming back for their chicken burrito or their barbacoa tacos or whatever it is that they've landed on.

Bonus tidbit:
Brown rice, one of the chain's most recent menu additions, now accounts for about a third of all rice served by the chain.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Better forecast

With all the post-holiday hubbub, I didn't have a chance to air my forecast for 2012. It's a shame because the task is outrageously easy this year. Every major trend boils down to "better."

Not "better" in terms of business conditions, though the National Restaurant Association yesterday forecast a slightly easier time for the industry in 2012 (apparently I wasn't the only laggard in presenting year-ahead predictions. Until a few years ago, the issued its annual economic preview during December of the preceding year. Now the data isn't released until we've torn the first page off the New Year calendar.)

The byword is "better" because it's the G-string that gets the consumer's dollar these days. Palms get all sweaty when shoppers spy something of truly superior quality at a can-do price. It's as unavoidable as admiring Mitt Romney's hair.

The industry has been jabbering for years about redefining value as affordable quality. This year, talk has given way to unprecedented action. Much of the chain-related restaurant news to date has centered on better food, better service, better environment and better business practices.

Wendy's is upgrading its burgers--again. Taco Bell is "reinventing" the taco and striving to match the quality of Chipotle. Jack in the Box is installing fireplaces as part of a design overhaul. Domino's is hawking artisan pizza and a better signature side.

McDonald's is crowing about a personal connection with the farmers who grow its food. Chipotle's spin-off Asian concept features high-end small-batch beers. Panera Bread is currently promoting salmon.

On the full-service front, Ruby Tuesday is providing fresh bread and tossing its Caesar salads tableside.

The whole gourmet-burger craze is built on the concept of providing what's better. It, in turn, is part of a larger movement by high-end chefs into fast-food, where they hope to make a name (and a bagful of loot) by providing white-tablecloth-quality fare. Late last year the NRA cited that emerging fast-fine segment as one to watch.

The problem is, "better" is relative. What's a notch above the usual today becomes tomorrow's norm. So what will be the new manifestations of better?

--Better sodas. Everyone is infatuated with the fast-casual market, where several of the standouts have spec'd small-batch artisan colas and flavored soft drinks. Skinny Pizza, for instance, offers a fountain version of Boylan Diet Black Cherry soda, a favorite that I've never seen in fountain form before. Expect to see more of those high-craft drinks populating the coolers of limited-service brands, including some of the big names.

--Better condiments. There have been fits and starts in that direction, and the foodservice supplier community is certainly anticipating the process, with better mayo, catchup and salsas already in distributors' warehouses. But that might be only the start.

--Better packaging. When was the last time you said, "Wow, that's a really cool takeout package we're using"? Customers frequent a place because of the food, the convenience or the price. But a truly breakthrough sort of packaging could help in delivering that overall sense of "better."

--Better French fry alternatives. The apple slices are now a standard. Carrot and celery sticks are tight there, too. So what's next? Sweet potato fries are certainly cropping up everywhere (and are rumored to be in test by Wendy's). A personal plea: Please, someone add raw broccoli florets as an option so I can get my sister off my back.

--Better veggie options. I'm talking about new choices from the mainstream chains and brands. It's time to go beyond veggie burgers and sandwiches with the meat omitted.

--Better pizza. This isn't a swipe at Domino's, since I've not tried its new artisan pies. it's directed at all the pizzerias in the eastern regions of the U.S., and New York in particular, that have coasted on the strength of their ovens for decades. They've turned pizza into a commodity, instead of striving to do something different. Like something better than the mass of pie makers out there.

--Better prices on better drinks. I'm not lost in some nostalgic dream about nickel candy bars, but a $12 beer is overpriced, especially when I know it retails and wholesales at a completely different tier. Wine prices are also getting crazy. A $40 tab for two glasses of wine on the way home for work just doesn't make sense.

--Better office catering. I say that as a consumer. More flavorful and extensive choices, please. The portable taco bar is the last innovation I can remember in that realm.