Wednesday, June 19, 2013

I want my pie

The McDonald’s at JFK International Airport had an inventory discrepancy after I recently ate there. If it reconciled sales of the just-added Strawberry Pie with how many pies were still on hand at the end of the day, the count would have been off by one.  So would the tally of satisfied customers, because I never got the pie—despite a wait of easily 30 minutes (hey, the restaurant was by my gate.)
The chain’s mounting service problems couldn’t have been on starker display. Except, perhaps, for the snafu I witnessed three weeks later at a unit almost in the shadows of the chain’s headquarters.
Personal experiences are a shaky foundation for sweeping characterizations, but the chain has acknowledged its service problems, though internally, not to the public.  Executives addressed the issue in a webcast to franchisees earlier this year.
According to reporters who saw the presentation materials, the Golden Archers noted a climb in complaints about speed of service.
Amen to that. It’s routine now to step away from the counter and wait, and sometimes wait a long while, for your order, even if it’s nothing out of the ordinary.
The store in Oak Brook, where a fellow customer waited about 20 minutes for three ice cream cones, at about 3 in the afternoon, is printing numbers on its receipts. Place your order, then pick up your food when the number’s called.
That’s a sign of plague. At the very least, use the customer’s name, not a number. Talk about depersonalizing the customer.
But the bigger issue is losing service speed when convenience is your M.O.
It’s a classic case of speed being sacrificed to add more menu choices. The next rung down the ladder is losing quality to complexity. McDonald’s should wise up and be sure that doesn’t happen to what is still the service and quality standard of the quick-service market.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Hottest food craze of 2013. For now.

If you’re unfamiliar with a restaurant creation called the Cronut, there’s probably not a bit of black clothing in your wardrobe. And don’t embarrass yourself by asking youngsters on the staff if Daft Punk is sort of like The Sex Pistols.

You need to catch up with the times, man. The Cronut is the strongest infatuation for New York foodies since the chocolate martini. It’s also the most brilliant business innovation the industry has seen in some time.
Imagine a light, flakey croissant in the shape of a doughnut. Voila: The Cronut. So what’s the big deal?  The New York purveyor, Dominique Ansel Bakery, bakes only 200 of the delectables a day, then sells them for $5 each.
People line up in the vain hope they’ll be graced with one. It’s harder to get for die-hard New Yorkers than a rent-controlled two-bedroom.
No doubt bakers and chefs are trying to concoct their own versions as you read this. But they should be careful. The industry has seen its share of flashes in the pastry pan. Consider these past skyrockets:
 The Chipwich: Picture an ice cream sandwich made with oversized chocolate chip cookies as the outer parts you hold. For a summer not long after the Sex Pistols era, you had to buy one regularly from a fleet of Chipwich sidewalk carts if you wanted any respect from fellow trendinistas. Then it was gone as quickly as it started. But savvy marketers learned a lesson: If I recall correctly, the Chipwich was outrageously expensive for street ice cream—I think three or four bucks. It proved you could charge almost anything for a product that was deemed trendy. It was also a harbinger of the trucks and street food crazes.
Fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies: Around the same time, debates would erupt at the water cooler over which purveyor had the best cookies: Famous Amos, David’s, or Mrs. Fields. Again, you paid considerably more for that new batch of cookies, which had to be fresh-baked, if not still hot, if you wanted the full effect. Hail the first flush in modern times of the relatively small (and hence relatively guiltless) indulgence, sold at a super-premium price.
Modern day s’mores: Not the old Girl Scout version, dripping with molten chocolate after the marshmallow is melted over a campfire.   These were much more of a stylized version, usually offered in components that dessert eaters could prep at the table.
Krispy Kreme doughnuts: Yes, they’re still around. But their current popularity is a step down from the craze they spawned in the 1990s when that Hot Now sign flicked on. They were proof that an old standby can suddenly look chi-chi if you put enough molten sugar on it.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Divorce restaurant-style

One of the downsides of my job is watching the very public divorce of a chain and a top executive whose proven abilities have earned your respect for years. Few of those breaks have been as painful to witness as Wednesday’s parting of Cosi and its CEO for just a short stretch, Carin Stutz.
It’s dismaying because of what Stutz gave up to take the job—a shot at the loftiest posts of a multi-billion-dollar operation—but hardly surprising. Reviving the one-time poster-concept for fast-casual made a comeback of Vanilla Ice seem like a lay-up. The concept had been rushed into an IPO before it was consistently profitable, and has wandered since. The buildings are operational challenges, the menu is confusing, and opportunities like selling a better cup of coffee have been squandered. Even the floor doesn’t look or feel too good in many stores.
A few weeks ago, Stutz unveiled an ambitious and extremely detailedplan for invigorating sales and bolstering profits. “After months of practice and trial,” Stutz told shareholders at the time, “we finally figured it out.”
Her remedies for reversing a sales and profit slide extended to a new kitchen set-up for moving customers through the Chipotle-like prep line faster and more smoothly. She also detailed plans to offer a gluten-free bowl, and the adoption of more natural products, like a chicken that actually cost less than the inferior-sounding version it will replace. Clearly few aspects of the brand hadn’t been questioned, prompting many to be tagged for tweaks, adjustments or complete overhaul.
It was a long, long to-do list that would clearly take time. But either the board didn’t want to wait, or Stutz grew tired of mounting such a moon shot. In any case, it wasn’t a pleasant ending. Divorce, modern-day restaurant style.
The irony is how few people could boast of Stutz’s qualifications assuming a rebuilt like that. She has grown up in the business, rising through operations posts first in Wendy’s, then in Applebee’s. Many of us pegged her as potentially the next CEO of Applebee’s. But then the chain was sold to IHOP, and Stutz was considering new career paths.
She was recruited by then Brinker International CEO Doug Brooks, no operations slouch himself, basically to bring her into that organization. According to the grapevine, Brooks told Stutz he wanted her in the organization, and here were the jobs that were available at that time.
First, Stutz facilitated the overseas expansion of Brinker’s workhorse concept, Chili’s. Her later responsibilities were broadened so that she apparently had more impact on domestic operations.
Then came the jump to Cosi, where she’d have the chance to run her own chain.
Picking the aggrieved party in a situation like this isn’t fair unless you have an impeccable mole inside corporate headquarters. I, admittedly, do not. There’s also the reality that an exec’s strengths and a chain’s immediate needs can slip out of sync. When the parent company is public, as Cosi’s is, not much time can be provided to adjust the disparity.
Hopefully neither party will regret the parting.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Forget the transvestite dwarfs in the trailer park

If you’ve ever wanted to start a “Jerry Springer”-style show for the restaurant industry, this is the week to do it. Insults and chairs will be flying before you can say, “I caught my spouse cheating.”
Consider the fisticuffs that would erupt with these guests:
--Chipotle Grill founder and CEO Steve Ells and renowned chef David Chang, who could tag-team with another chef named Kyle Connaughton. Their tale, as reported in the New York media, has more intrigue than a “Game of Thrones” episode, so follow closely.
Connaughton, a former protégé of British kitchen god Heston Blumenthal, is suing Ells for reputation damage. The plaintiff contends that he was fired by Ells for accusing the CEO of stealing intellectual capital from Chang.
According to press accounts of the suit, Ells had hired Chang, the proprietor of Momofuku, to consult on a concept that would become ShopHouse Southeast Asian Kitchen. Ells and Chang squabbled and split, but Connaughton felt that Ells was still using Chang’s ideas, without letting the chef know or paying him for the ideas. When Connaughton objected, he was canned, according to the suit.
Chang reportedly is not part of the legal action. But his comments have suggested a lingering anger from the situation. So let the furniture-flinging begin.
--The management of the New York Hilton and one of its higher maintenance guests. Some suggested props for the segment: A typical room service breakfast play, set next to the grab-and-go choices that’ll have to suffice for an in-room breakfast. The convention hotel is phasing out room service, figuring a food shop can fill the need.  We’re not talking about a Red Roof Inn here; the Hilton’s room rates are high even by New York standards. But the property sees no business value in delivering thirty or forty dollar breakfasts to guests’ three or four hundred dollar rooms.

--Taco Bell’s marketing team and the co-founders of YouTube.  If a donnybrook erupts, expect other chain execs to fight alongside Yum’s biggest brand. The industry is tired of contending with videos that knuckleheaded employees or customers post on the site to gross out customers. In this instance, an employee is licking a bunch of taco shells. Taco Bell was quick to counter the fallout by declaring with assurance that none of the shells made it to the production line. There was no apology for hiring the sort of jack ass who regards pranks like those as the height of hilarity.
--Hardee’s/Carl’s Jr. CEO Andy Puzder and McDonald’s CEO Don Thompson. Puzder, a lawyer by training, stars in a new guerilla marketing campaign from Hardee’s and Carl’s parent, CKE Restaurants. In videos posted on a website called, Puzder addresses McDonald’s customers who might be upset by the Golden Arches’ elimination of third-of-a-pound Angus burgers from the menu. Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. haven’t deprived Angus fans of their burgers, Puzder explains. For a limited time, the chains will be selling their premium sandwiches at the same price that McDonald’s formerly charged.