Thursday, August 23, 2012

Two takes on boosting bakery traffic

Everyone loves a decadent treat, but how many times can you indulge? That’s the question two baked-goods specialists are addressing in new bids to boost traffic, and the answers are as different as cake and pie.

Krispy Kreme walked investors through new research yesterday on the public’s perception of donuts in general and the chain’s brand in particular. Among the bombshell findings cited: People like donuts.

In fact, explained Kripsy execs, consumers said they want more excuses to eat donuts, presumably without guilt. Respondents said they’ll eat ‘em anytime, day or night, if there’s half a reason. And Krispy has an edge, the officials continued, because it’s an iconic brand that provides an experience, from the Hot Doughnuts Now sign to servers’ retro paper hats, rather than just a sugar jolt.

So, explained CEO James Morgan, “the domestic menu needs to stay close to the core donut offering.”  The strategy will be to give patrons more occasions where a donut and a coffee would be appropriate.

Contrast that approach with the exploration underway by Cinnabon, the cinnamon bun meister.  Specializing in a gooey delight means you might not have as many visits per week from customers as you might like. But complicating the challenge is Cinnabon’s concentration in malls, where you’re not going to get an impulse buy from someone walking down the street in a search for lunch options.

In a surprise to no one, Cinnabon is testing savory options, including a mini fresh-baked pizza, a line of breakfast sandwiches, and croissants.  Right now the experiment is being conducted at just one unit.

It’s not ignoring the allure of treats. One of the products on the trial menu is a cupcake, for instance.

But unlike Krispy, Cinnabon is figuring that a treat is a treat because it’s a rare indulgence. 

Friday, August 17, 2012

Proof some people have too much time

If you want to out-snoot your know-it-all foodie patrons, take a laptop to the bar, type “Yelp dramatic” into the YouTube search field, and then snort uproariously as you watch what’s retrieved. The fedoras will fall off their heads as they realize you’re an early joiner of the next craze for the dressed-in-black set: Watching real actors read actual Yelp reviews with all the effect they’d muster for a Scorsese audition.

“I order the broiled crab cakes. [Long pause]. And they were really good,” hams the familiar TV character actor Chris Kipiniak, reading verbatim a citizen-reviewer’s post about a diner. He goes on to explain that he loved the crab cakes so much that he called the manager to give his compliments. But, he recounts with clear sadness, the manager was unreceptive.

“He seemed like he was in a rush,” Kipiniak says through obvious pain, slowly shaking his head. “I don’t think I’m going to eat there anymore [dramatic pause] because if the manager isn’t nice, what does that say about the business you’re running? And the people in it?” By that point Kipiniak is choking up.

The screen fades to black.

Upscale and trendy restaurants aren’t the only ones whose customer postings are read with thespian flourish. There are also emotive readings of what customers have said about P.F. Chang’s and Subway, not to mention pizzerias like the one featured in the reading above.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Better healthcare through Cheesecake Factory?

Restaurant chains are often viewed as social pollutants, a sort of capitalistic abomination that quashes artistry and uniqueness for the financial benefits of uniformity and mass-production.  Contrast that with the viewpoint put forth in the current issue of The New Yorker, of all places, which suggests that an operation like The Cheesecake Factory could hold the solution to one of the country’s dire problems.

If Cheesecake Factory can bring high-quality cuisine to the masses at an affordable cost, why couldn’t its methods be employed for the same end in healthcare?
So asks Dr. Atul Gawande. In a book-length article, he brings readers into the kitchen of a Cheesecake to show them how standardization, technology and a strict adherence to best practices are delivering a once-elitist dining experience to the mainstream. In short, it's realized the ideal of democratic healthcare.

It's not as if the rigid processes have left no room for a cook’s skill and insight, a point Gawande stresses. There's still creativity on the plate. Indeed, the controls serve as cost and satisfaction guarantees, arguably enhancing the customer's satisfaction. In one scene that other chains should memorize, a kitchen manager reviews a beef dish with the line, complimenting the cooks for nailing the proper grill time and leaving impressive grill marks, but pointing out the mashed potatoes weren’t presented in an artful way.

Gawande shows that you wouldn’t find a similar unity of approach and delivery in medicine. Ask three clinicians how to handle a situation and you’re likely to get three widely varying responses, even from doctors within the same department of the same hospital.

Data might show that a particular protocol is the most effective, but doctors often resist its adoption out of sheer ego. Changes in routine are similarly resisted, as are high-tech observation methods that enable a peer to flag a departure from practices that research has proven to be best.

The article is a celebration, a long overdue one, of something the industry’s many critics fail to observe. Yes, some artistry and chef discretion may be lost in the standardization and processing that chains prefer. But the counterbalance is often high-caliber fare at a price within reach of most consumers. People can access foods and preparations that would otherwise fall beyond their spending limits.

As Gawande cogently argues, hasn’t Cheesecake done what healthcare reformers are struggling to figure out?

Monday, August 13, 2012

Ruby Tuesday sets stage for bigger news

Ruby Tuesday stoked expectations today that P.F. Chang’s, a competing chain, may soon announce the appointment of a new president and director. Then again, the announcement of a new Ruby CEO may come first. If this sounds a bit confusing, buckle your seatbelts and follow along.

Ruby, a grill-and-bar chain with a sister Asian concept pitted against P.F. Chang’s Chinese Bistro, released a press release to hoot about its two new directors. One of them is 34-year veteran Lane Cardwell, identified in the release as having “most recently served as the President of P.F. Chang's China Bistro from 2011 to 2012.”  Note the past tense. I know I did. And that led to embarrassing geekiness in tracking down a little-noticed securities disclosure that Cardwell exited his post at Chang’s by mutual agreement on May 17.

But don’t feel bad for Lane if you missed it, too. Within a week, Chang’s had offered Cardwell an unspecified post in an “executive capacity” for another year, at a compensation level of $350,000.

It’s just salary; Cardwell opted to waive any equity compensation. In return, Chang’s agreed to unshackle Cardwell from his non-compete agreement.

Fast forward to today, when Ruby announced Cardwell’s appointment. He’s serving the chain as a director, not an executive. But that’s an exact parallel of how he ended up in Chang’s “C” suite. Plus he knows Ruby, having served as a consultant to the chain before taking his post at Chang’s.

It’d all be wild-hair speculation if it wasn’t for the announcement awhile back from Ruby founder and longtime CEO Sandy Beall, who said he would step down as soon a successor was selected.  

Will Cardwell be that heir apparent? We’ll keep an eye on the situation.

Key to fighting child obesity: Light sabers

It’s official: Nothing prods kids to healthier menu choices like a light saber can.

A Canadian researcher said as much after discovering that youngsters will buy a healthier fast-food meal if that’s the only way to get a replica of Luke Skywalker’s favored weapon or some other toy.   Take two meals that differ in calories and fat content, bundle each with the same toy, and offer it to youngsters ranging from 6 to 12-years-old.  The researchers discovered that only one in five children will opt for the choice that Mom and Dad favor.

Take the toy out of the less-healthful meal and put the same choice to them, and the percentage opting for the lower-calorie/lower-fat meal more than doubles, to 40%.

The study was conducted at a YMCA camp last summer by the University of Waterloo in Ontario.

Friday, August 10, 2012

News you can use

Slogging through the daily torrent of restaurant info, you occasionally find something stuck to the hip waders that merits the rare designation of news you can use. Here are a few pieces of flotsam that may have floated past most restaurateurs the first time around:

Applebee’s gets its freak thang on: A franchisee of the family oriented chain has hit on a promotion that’s spreading through the system as a way of broadening the restaurants’ customer base. In essence, the places are adding a second Happy Hour through a late-night program called Club Applebee’s.  A younger, more drink-oriented crowd is invited to take advantage of half-price appetizers and discounted cocktails while they enjoy the karaoke or dance music.

It’s a grass-roots program that franchisees are building into a chain signature, complete with its own website.

Red Lobster’s job description re-write: The Orlando Sentinel revealed that the granddaddy of casual-dining chains switched to a new service structure last month. Other observers are speculating that the net reduction in dining room staff could be a preparation for Obamacare, since head counts determine an employers’ costs under the reform measure.

The revamp eliminated busboy-runners and broadened servers’ scope to four tables instead of three. Tables will be cleared and meals delivered by what the chain is calling a service assistant, or sort of a server in training. Anyone who wants to become a full-fledged waiter or waitress will have to start in that post. The assistants get a tip-out from the servers they help.

J. Alexander’s handles the spike in beef costs: The regional dinnerhouse chain, which is in the process of being acquired by onetime Carl’s Jr. kingpin Bill Foley, said it had no trouble offsetting an 11% year-over-year jump in beef prices during the second quarter. The company’s food costs actually fell by more than a percentage point, to 31.6% of sales because of price increases and counterbalancing trends in the costs of other menu ingredients, which the chain didn’t disclose.

The price increase apparently didn’t dampen sales. J. Alexander’s comp sales rose year-over-year by 4.2%, for a weekly per-unit average that topped the year-ago figure by nearly $4,000. 

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

A dying wish, a humongous tip

You might’ve heard about the server in Kentucky who was tipped $500 a few weeks ago on a lunch tab consisting of a single pizza. What might've slipped past was the $500 gratuity left last weekend for a dish of penne, the latest installment of what the big tipper has envisioned as a weekly event.

That’s because we’re not talking about some eccentric millionaire here. The cash is being left by Seth Collins, who’s paying tribute to his late brother, Aaron. After his death in mid-July, the Collins family found a request on Aaron’s computer that a server be left a $500 tip on a nominal order, like “on a fucking pizza.” Problem was, they didn’t have $500 to give away that casually.

So, in Age of the Internet fashion, the family built a website—Aaron’s Wish—and asked for donations. When they hit the $500 mark, Seth taped the presentation of a tip in that amount and posted the video on YouTube, where it snagged the sort of viewership that’s usually reserved for skateboarding dogs.

Now the donations are flowing more readily. A counter on the website says more than $51,000 has been pledged, or enough to tip more $500 to more than 100 waiters or waitresses.

So if you’re waiting tables in Kentucky, don’t be surprised if a customer leaves far more than 20%.

Busting some myths about youngsters' preferences

If you don’t have the time or money to conduct a focus group of tomorrow’s prime restaurant customers, take a look at our new issue. We decided to slip into the minds of the Next Generation by paying young consumers from age 4 to 27 to keep a journal of what they ate for a week. With the littlest participants, parents were invited to pitch in, not only recording what their kids ate but what impressions and assessments the tykes voiced along the way.

Sure enough, the project yielded some surprises, which we mined for a series of stories on where consumer preferences are heading. Who would’ve thought, for instance, that a 13-year-old boy would eat so much yogurt, as we saw very clearly in the diary of Ben Whitcher (son of our content editor, Joann Whitcher)? Or that Whole Foods would have the same cachet for youngsters as Chipotle or Panera?

Stoked by those and other counter-indications to prevailing wisdom, we decided to re-examine other articles of faith on the matter of kids’ dining.  Here are some of the myths that should be busted:

The toys in kids’ meals are what land the business.  Despite the experiences of diarist Wren Smith, who said she urges RB editor and dad Sam Smith to hit the Golden Arches because of the kids-meal premiums, giveaways may be losing their allure for youngsters. Or maybe Mom’s just less of a softie these days. In any case, NPD CREST found a 6 percent decline (2011 vs. 2010) in the number of restaurant visits where kids get a free toy, even though the traffic of pint-sizers held steady.

It’s all about the food. Not according to research presented exclusively at the Restaurant Leadership Conference by C3, a family-marketing specialist, and Technomic. They reported that service is more important, accounting for 32 percent of a family’s reason for visiting a particular restaurant. Atmosphere was next, at 30 percent, followed by food at 25 percent. Entertainment accounted for a mere 13 percent.

Young adults want nothing to do with their parents’ choices. Nostalgia apparently isn’t wasted on the young, contrary to conventional thinking. The favorite restaurant chains of Millennials don’t sound much different from their parents’ picks, according to Technomic. What places do they regard as having the best food? Try Jimmy John’s in fast casual, Cracker Barrel in family dining, and Red Lobster in full-service.