Friday, May 31, 2013

Meanwhile, in other weirdness...

Did the industry sneak off to Colorado or Washington for a few now-legal bong hits? How else could the business have brainstormed jaw-droppers like these?

Whoppers you can eat hands-free: The sandwich hasn't changed, but Burger King is encouraging customers in some foreign markets to try a new device that holds the Whopper in front of their mouths so they can take a bite without occupying their hands. If Bob Dylan ate Whoppers on stage, this is the gizmo he’d use. It’s basically a variation on his harmonica holder, with the Whopper situated where the mouth harp would go. It smacks of a colossal put-on. But certainly it’s getting attention.

Krusty Burgers to become real: A cameo on The Simpsons is still the only current way to guzzle a Duff’s at Moe’s with Barney and Homer, but give it some time. In the not-too-distant future, you won’t have to become a cartoon character to banter with Moe, grab a donut from Lard Boy, or lunch on a Krusty Burger. Orlando’s Universal Studios has announced that it’s expanding its Simpsons-themed attraction into a veritable Springfield, complete with all the dining options that any fan of the TV show would know. And, yes, there is buzz that Apu will have a Kwik-E-Mart on the premises.

Tarnished Golden Arches?

I’m worried about McDonald’s. The pronouncements and decisions flowing out of headquarters in recent months have been real head-scratchers, from the ouster of the ketchup-blooded Jan Fields to the recent observation from CEO Don Thompson that Europeans control their weight through walking.

The latter was an addendum to Thompson’s revelation that he’s lost 20 pounds while still eating McDonald’s food everyday. If see a connection between those two dots, let me know, because I’m shaky on the relevance, and certainly the importance.

Then there was Thompson’s bombshell pronouncement that salads, which currently account for 2 to 3 percent of McDonald’s sales, will never be a major business driver. Huh? So why all that marketing and advertising effort in recent years to change the impression that McDonald’s is all about burgers, fries and shakes? Aren’t better-for-you products a major part of that effort, and aren’t salads among the key new options?

That surprise followed Thompson’s dressing down by a 9-year-old at McDonald’s annual shareholder meeting. The cute little grade-schooler implored the board to stop advertising to her, generating headlines that made the chain sound as if it were kicking puppies. Many riffed on the idea that Thompson was defending Ronald McDonald against a youngster who knew better than to fall for a shill in clown’s clothing.

That kerfuffle erupted after management signaled that it might have to emphasize deals again to hold market share—right around the time it introduced a new super-premium, highly priced wrap.

Thompson’s predecessor, Jim Skinner, ardently pursued a turnaround and growth program called the Plan to Win. It’s familiar to just about everyone within the chain, probably because it worked so well. Indeed, it’s the sort of credo that should be studied in business schools.

Maybe it should be studied a little more in McDonald’s headquarters. Perhaps every day.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Untold stories from the NRA show

Zipping around the industry’s annual Woodstock, you may have missed a few developments that added color to this year’s gathering. While feeling is returning to your feet, here’s your chance to catch some of the unsung moments from the National Restaurant Association’s annual convention:
--One of the shuttle buses that haul attendees to McCormick Place got lost en route, according to an eyewitness account from an impeccable source. The driver drove around and around until he found McCormick, then got lost again in the subterranean labyrinth where the buses unload, then hit the streets again. The passengers finally demanded that the driver let them out so they could walk the rest of the way.
--This might’ve been the Year of the App—not because of what was hawked on the show floor, but as a result of the new technology attendees used to navigate Chicago and show-related parties. Show-goers (including this intrepid blogger) used the new Hailo Taxi app as an alternate way of snagging a cab.  Sadly, a shortage of cabs is a shortage of cabs, whether you’re whistling or punching a button on your smart phone. Attendees of Groupon’s party at The Aviary were encouraged to download a virtual-ticket app to get in, and attendees of Ecolab’s posh event were each provided with a smart-phone-like device to bid in a silent auction benefitting ProStart. Attendees keyed in an item’s number to learn the high bid at any point. They could enter a higher offer via the device, then learn if (or when) they were out-bid.
--The Council of Hotel and Restaurant Trainers (CHART) is working with Technomic to benchmark industry training practices. National Restaurant Association officials say Technomic is also assisting that association in spotting new opportunities for “study groups,” the small gatherings of executives with similar business interests or responsibilities (i.e., the Marketing Executives Group, the Fast-Casual Council, the Pizzeria Industry Council, etc.) One possibility mentioned: A group for officials of Asian chains.
--The show’s big draws, as reported to us: Any session on the new healthcare law; Howard Schultz’s keynote presentation; Anthony Bourdain; and, in a further continuation of a trend that has been building for years, the smaller booths that showcased American regional ingredients and organic choices.
--Best quip heard at the show: The executive of a sandwich chain was asked how his concept’s signature product differed from the bargain-priced sandwich of the segment’s leader. There was a long pause. “Well,” he said, “we use meat.”

Monday, May 20, 2013

Big 'huh?' from the NRA show: 'We in the right place?'

Regular attendees of the National Restaurant Association’s annual convention could be forgiven for wondering if they’d descended on Chicago’s McCormick Place during the wrong week this year.  How else to explain all the talk about products and management strategies that would’ve been dismissed a year or two ago as decidedly on the fringe?
Consider, for instance, how conversations with chain executives on the show floor routinely brought a mention of their new hot sellers: Kale and quinoa.

To keep reading, click here.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

The extreme is now the mainstream, if NRA conversations are a compass

Let us share the experiences of accommodating what were once health extremists, because my world is fast becoming yours.
If you think seitan is a province of Cambodia, you’re probably oblivious to the pain that has been mine for 27 blissful years. Being married to a vegetarian who wouldn’t consider anything remotely indulgent, never mind animal-sourced, I’ve had to navigate menus that would keep a permanent thought bubble of bacon above your head. In reality, it means eating replacements like bean burgers, tempeh, tofu-based meat replacements, and the filet mignon of analogs, seitan. Olive oil is viewed as the equivalent of cake frosting.
Based on the conversations I’ve had during minus-one days to the National Restaurant Association’s annual convention, you should start thinking about how you can offer the same sort of menu options. Twenty-four hours before the official opening of the show, I’ve spent an inordinate amount of networking time in discussions of meatless, salt-less, dairy-less, an utterly unprocessed (if not uncooked) options for mainstream menu items.

Even when the conversation didn't stray into those zones, the talk repeatedly gravitated to concepts with a definite health halo, if not a foot in the health camp--chains  like Zoes Kitchen, Veggie Grill, LYFE Kitchen, and that non-restaurant that specializes in restaurant-caliber fare, Whole Foods.

Among the new hot sellers that chain executives said they're seeing: quinoa bowls, or salads and sides where sweet potatoes are key (and we're not talking fries here.)
I’ve met at least two suppliers who are attending the show because they sell what were once fringe-products, but are on the cusp of going mainstream. Think soy milk, natural soup bases, or alternative beverages to sip with your tempeh stir fry.
My conversation mates weren't people in ponytails and Birkenstocks; these were mainstream restaurateurs who see their customers veering considerably to the left, or foodservice vets who learned the business pitching mainstream products abounding in sugar, salt or fat. Now they’re betting a career on opportunity in the health market.
What were once fringe preferences for restaurants have by all accounts gone mainstream, judging from the conversations of the last two days. Tomorrow I’ll test that theory by seeing what health options I see on the show floor.
Stay tuned. Stop by as you munch your seitan burger with organic greens.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Something fishy in chains' thinking

According to the samplers hanging in your finer Mongolian yurts, “If the herring stings when slapped across your face, don’t suggest a flounder.” Actually, I made that up, but you can almost see the scale marks on the faces of fast-food executives these days, so there’s some license to be taken. Besides, all of them should be dispatched to Mongolia if they go ahead with what they’re considering.
Their mackerel moments are the result of setbacks in the efforts of virtually every large quick-service chain to upgrade the quality of its food and operations. Consider the big product introductions of recent months: A high-quality wrap for McDonald’s, a pulled-pork sandwich for Burger King, a big-brand taco and chef-inspired entrees for Taco Bell. Wendy’s whole comeback program is built on the promise of delivering food that’s at least a notch above its competition. The goal is to entice consumers to higher-ticket items, instead of having to provide change when the patron hands them two bucks for a meal.
But now the bunch are wringing their hands and wondering if they should revert to the Great Recession-era prices that desperation forced on them in 2008. Taco Bell is widely reported to be working on a new dollar menu, and Wendy’s is talking to investors about right pricing, which is nothing more than discounting with a slight asterisk.
Reverting to those strategies is a bit fishy. We know now that the two-percentage-point increase in employees’ FICA taxes was a significant cut in consumers’ spending power. The psychological chill likely did more damage. And the uncertainty that prevailed as the government dickered over a budget was a veritable arctic blast.
We shouldn’t forget those factors and abandon a positive strategy for the sake of what should at best be a break-glass-in- emergency tactic.  Reverting to deep discounting is only going to delay the industry’s recovery.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Investors can be real bad-asses

Back in our schoolyard days, the most effective bully was the early bloomer who used his physical advantages for ill. In the arenas where most of us play today, a head-thumper’s might is more likely a function of money than muscle. Just look at what’s happening at Tim Hortons, a concept that could teach McDonald’s a thing or two about market dominance, at least in Timmy’s homeland of Canada.

The company just announced that it will change CEOs for the second time in roughly two years on July 1. Ostensibly the shift has been coming since then-CEO Don Schroeder left headquarters in May 2011. Former CEO Paul House dusted off his old business cards to fill the vacancy on an interim basis until a permanent replacement was named this summer.

That timeframe has been accelerated; the board said yesterday that it found the ideal hire in Marc Caira, previously president of Nestle Professional, the company’s foodservice-supply operation.

It’s merely a coincidence that the earlier-than-expected change came amid pressure from a major shareholder in Hortons, Highfields Capital Management, to change the company’s direction. Highfields, which owns about 4 percent of Hortons’ shares, wants the doughnut powerhouse to focus on its Canadian operations, to the point of abandoning its expansion into the U.S.

And who’s been plotting that charge into the States? Paul House. 

Did I mention that he'll leave Hortons in early July, or roughly in the timeframe when the company was  expecting to name a permanent new CEO?

Highfields is the latest example of an investor second-guessing how a company should be run. House has spent 21 years in the C suite of Hortons, and also served as a director of the chain’s former parent, Wendy’s. 

But Highfields is convinced it knows better. And it looks as if it’s getting its way.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Concepts generating some New Age buzz

A hot new concept typically fosters considerable talk among restaurateurs scouting for the next big thing—i.e., virtually anyone in the business. But internet communications promise to change the dynamic, just as social media and other forms of digital connection have altered the speed and tone of the consumer grapevine. You no longer need to keep an ear to the ground at industry events; a mouse in hand seems to work much better.
So what concepts are getting the hot word of mouse today?
Here are a few that we’ve seen snagging some attention online: PDQ, PizzaRev, Red Door, Maison Keyser. Here are a few points about each.
PDQ: One of a growing number of acronym-named concepts (see our story on LYFE Kichen), this one says its birth certificate actually reads People Dedicated to Quality. It’s another fast-casual upstart that’s trying to replicate within its sector what Chipotle did in Tex-Mex. PDQ’s specialty is the chicken tender, offered with dipping sauces for the purist, or as a sandwich or salad topping. Hand-cut fries and milkshakes are also pillars of the menu, and there are a few off-beat signatures, like blueberry coleslaw.
Although PDQ has been around for some 19 months, it’s been snagging Kim Kardashian-league attention in recent weeks because of the company it’s lately been keeping. The oft-praying Tim Tebow is the latest boldfaced name to be connected with the chain, which could field a helluva touch football team. Former QB Vinny Testaverde is also reported to be a backer. Tampa Bay star Derrick Brooks is also among the celebs who are putting up money.
The roster also includes several All-Stars from the chain restaurant world, including Outback co-founders Bob Basham and Tim Gannon. Like the early Outback, PDQ is growing through joint ventures rather than franchising.
Keep reading...