One of the hallmarks of the restaurant business, as several members noted from the stage yesterday during the industry’s largest gathering, is the willingness of operators to help one another by sharing ideas and solutions to common problems. Here are a few of the insights that were offered during the first two days of the National Restaurant Association’s annual convention.
1. Be the baddest germ killer
One of the show’s surprises was how many questions about food safety were directed to presenters by attendees, an apparent reflection of heightened concern after the industry saw how lapses destroyed Chipotle’s sales. During a show-within-a-show for fast-casual operators, for instance, a panel of C-level execs were asked how they try to instill and maintain a commitment to food safety as their operations grow.
Carin Stutz, who noted that she’s been working in restaurants since the 1970s, explained that her approach is decidedly old school—a distillation of what she’s learned while working for Wendy’s, Applebee’s, Chili’s, Cosi, McAlister’s and now Red Robin and its Burger Works fast-casual riff.
Stutz explained that she makes a point during store visits of carrying the swipes that sanitation inspectors use to detect residue on counter tops and kitchen surfaces, a suggestion to managers that they should do the same just as routinely. She also makes a show of washing her hands as the ops manual specifies.
2. Dave Thomas’ quick check
Stutz noted that she began her career by working for Wendy’s in its early days, when founder Dave Thomas was still around. One of the things she does by rote today, Stutz noted, is a quick operations check she learned back then, a technique called the “S” scan.
In her demonstration, Stutz drew a big “S” with a pointed finger, from the top of the letter down. “You scan the ceiling,” she said, moving her finger through the top curve of the S, “then the tables, and then the floor.” She acknowledged that she can’t stop herself from doing it each and every time she enters a restaurant.
3. Imagine what your replacement would do
One recommendation that had attendees of the fast-casual daylong track rapidly scribbling a note was Stutz’s response to the question about how a chain leader can stay attuned to the needs of the business as it grows and executives’ workloads soar.
She explained that one of her past employers encouraged what it called the hotshot idea. “If for whatever reason you left the company and it brought in some young hotshot to replace you, what would that hotshot do? What would they do that you didn’t?” she explained. That mental trick can jolt an executive out of complacency, Stutz explained.
4. How to buy local on a multimarket scale
Kimbal Musk opened a farm-to-fork restaurant in Boulder, Colo., 12 years ago, before sourcing locally became the big customer draw and common aim of chefs that it is today. Now he and his partners are duplicating the concept, The Kitchen, in other cities, greatly complicating the task of buying from small farms in the surrounding areas year-round without wrecking margins.
The way to do it, Musk advised fellow restaurateurs during a keynote one-on-one interview with NRA CEO Dawn Sweeney, is to think short term. “Going local, you don’t have to solve the problem for the whole world,” Musk said. “You just have to solve the problem for this week. Then you have to solve the problem for next month.
“I like to think very short term—no more than three months out.”
Musk noted that the approach works. A slightly more downscale version of The Kitchen, called Next Door, generated a 25 percent leap in comp sales for 2015, or far higher than the brand or its upscale sister have generated in 12 years.
5. The menu as your neon sign
Stutz wasn’t the only longtime veteran at the show to remind attendees that venerable strategies still work. Denny Marie Post, now president of Red Robin, noted the age-old principle of putting something on the menu as a beacon for customers, even if they won’t necessarily order it.
There’s always that tension, she explained, between the creative types in an organization who want to try something daring, and the ops or finance people who counter that something jarringly novel is not going to sell. Still, Post recounted, the chain decided to put try a ramen burger, a sandwich that uses formed disks of ramen noodles in place of bread. The sandwich is a cult favorite in New York City among the foodie set, but has yet to reach the mainstream.
“We decided to take it mainstream,” Post said. “The reality is that sometimes you need something that’s going to catch the attention of customers and the media.”
The offer of a ramen burger might get lapsed consumers thinking about Red Robin again, “and if they come in and say, ‘You know what, I haven’t had a cheeseburger for a while,’ that’s fine,” said Post, whose extensive resume includes stints at Starbucks and Burger King.
6. How to give customers more control
Post predicted that customers are going to demand more oversight in the near future of how their meals are prepared, even when they don’t set a foot inside the restaurant. She cited the close-to-home example of her son. “I used to be thrilled if I called to order pizza delivery and someone answered the phone. Now he wants to see it going into the oven, where it is in its trip, and when it’s coming to his door,” she said.
She was apparently referring to Domino’s popular online pizza tracker, which allows a delivery customer to closely track the process from order placement to a knock on the door.
Entrepreneur Aaron Noveshen intends to provide an in-store version of that experience at his new concept, a quick-service chicken restaurant called Starbird. Behind the counter will be what the fast-casual veteran calls an order-tracking wall, which will show dine-in customers the status of their order from the time it’s placed to the time it’s handed to them. Not coincidentally, the first two stores are slated for Northern California’s high-tech corridors, where unique applications can be a draw for the tech-minded locals.
7. An alternative to the drive-thru
Starbird was also conceptualized to avoid the hassles restaurants encounter today in California if they intend to install a drive-thru lane. Instead, the upstart will provide delivery to customers’ cars, but with a twist: Big numbers will be painted on the surface of each parking space so patrons can direct the runners to the right spot.