If you didn’t attend the Restaurant Leadership Conference last week, you missed a three-day version of restaurant-executive grad school, sans the textbooks, tests and beer pong. Well, two out of three, anyway. Books and exams aren’t needed when even a slab of granite would’ve left the conference with new ideas.
But, of course, our invited guests were far from blockheads—nearly 1,000 in total, handpicked to make the event an intellectual Woodstock. You can get a taste of what they learned from our extensive coverage here.
But speakers were only part of the group-think. The magic of our conference is the networking, where attendees can exchange views on problems, opportunities and the business’ future. Here are a few of the currents that arose in those discussions:
From dearth to data deluge. Not long ago, restaurant execs were bemoaning the lack of granular data about their operations. They longed for the trove of information their supermarket and retailer counterparts could get from scanner data.
Now it appears the pendulum has swung too far in the opposite direction. As one speaker remarked, you can now quantify and benchmark everything from guest satisfaction to employee productivity and food waste. But it’s overwhelming some operators. They want less data, and they want it presented in a way that requires no interpretation.
One researcher recounted how a client asked that a considerable download, chockfull of insights, be pared down to just eight key takeaways.
Other data providers showed how they’re responding to the keep-it-simple mandate. One uses letter grades so clients have an instant read of how they’re being perceived by customers on specific criteria. Another uses arrows that show whether an attribute has trended up or down.
The phenomenon was also evident in some of the presentations at RLC. C3, the family marketing specialist, teamed up with Technomic to provide new data on how households choose restaurants. Instead of downloading numbers, representatives presented the S.A.F.E. Wheel, a circle composed proportionately of the four dynamics that figure into a choice (Service, Atmosphere, Food, Entertainment). Service, at 32%, was the biggest wedge on the Wheel.
Concept development is revving up. It’s not unusual at an industry meeting to swap recommendations of new concepts to see. But seldom have I heard so many advisories, or to be asked so often about such and such a concept.
Virtually all were in the fast-casual market, and most were likened in one way or another to Chipotle.
The volume underscores the new imperative within the quick-service market to provide value in the form of quality rather than price. It also speaks to the greater availability of capital, along with the number of chain veterans who are ready to do something on their own, away from meddling investors and franchisees who don’t want to invest in the evolution of their concept.
Among the emerging concepts I was asked about or advised to see: Mendocino Farms, Little Greek, Daphne’s California Greek, Veggie Grill, Babalu Tacos & Tapas, Zinburger, Extreme Pita and Pita Express.
Wendy’s as a touchstone…of what to do right—and wrong. There were actually three Wendy’s discussed during the conference: The brainchild of Dave Thomas and Jim Near, which put a near-lethal hurt on McDonald’s, according to former USA CEO Ed Rensi; the Wendy’s that lost its way and screwed up Baja Fresh in the process, according to the opinions of several outspoken attendees; and the new, resurgent brand, which drew high praise on stage and off for trying to right itself.
So as not to leave you hanging about Rensi’s comment:
“There were two ad campaigns that almost killed McDonald’s,” Rensi said during a keynote addres. “One was, Fresh not frozen,” a breakthrough claim from Day One for Wendy’s, and ironically a competitive advantage it touted right after the show, to underscore that it’s never used “pink slime” beef.
(The other near-death experience for McDonald’s, according to Rensi: Burger King’s Broiled, Not Fried commercials.)
Savory bits that defy categorization. I’m going to try anyway.
Scariest thought. National Restaurant Association chairman Roz Mallet, on the healthcare plan currently being challenged before the U.S. Supreme Court: “Our industry research has shown that our cost will become our largest expense by 2014.” Another presenter quantified that expense at roughly $2 per employee per hour.
Best quip. Ed Rensi, on the state of the restaurant industry: “If it wasn't for customers, suppliers and employees, the restaurant industry would be really good.”
Most suprising appearance. Ray Kroc, at least in audio form. MonkeyMedia’s Erle Dardick worked a recording of McDonald’s godfather into an introduction that included a dream sequence, an unabashed pitch for Dardick’s breakout session, and even a speaker introduction. It worked, very well.
Scariest thought, take 2. We’re already deep into the planning for the 2013 Restaurant Leadership Conference. The dates are April 21-24, if you want to mark your calendar.