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.

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