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8 head-spinning moments from the world of restaurants

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About 800 restaurant operators trekked to Dubai this week for a first-of-its-kind event aimed at helping chains expand across national borders. The Global Restaurant Leadership Conference, presented by the parent company of Restaurant Business, provided a forum for chain executives to benefit from one another’s triumphs and mistakes, forge partnerships, and learn which concepts are worth following on the global stage.

The sharing provided enough head-turning moments to have attendees wondering if they were following a pingpong match. Here, in a special edition of our popular Head Spinners feature, is a look at eight particular moments of noggin rotation.

What cafe society?

Europe has the lowest percentage of frequent diners, according to data released at the conference by Technomic. About 48% of consumers there tend to buy a restaurant meal at least once a week, compared with the 90% of Middle Eastern residents who let someone else do the cooking. North America was smack in the middle, with a 70% incidence.

Didn’t we give the world Domino’s?

The United States is a laggard region in delivery, with only 17% of restaurant meals sold in North America being handed over to customers at their homes or workplaces, according to Technomic. The finding was echoed by AlixPartners, which noted how prevalent delivery has become in the Middle East in particular. An operator participating in the show mentioned that 60% of her sales at the Dubai-based Sumo Sushi & Bento come from delivery. 

Good intentions, globally different behavior

Healthy dining is as much of a feint globally as it is in the United States. Worldwide, 50% of consumers are drawn to a particular restaurant by the healthfulness of its menu, Technomic found in its research. But only 50% of those well-intentioned customers actually order the better-for-you selections.

Screw-ups come in all forms, to all players

Regardless of a brand’s resources and how thoroughly it does its homework, a U.S. operation heading overseas can still have its Doh! moments. An attendee recounted how he’d worked with a U.S. barbecued-ribs chain to open restaurants in the Middle East, where for religious reasons no one touches pork, be it pulled or in the form of ribs. The need to revamp the menu came as a staggering surprise to the home office.

Another recounted how a concept he’d imported into the Middle East featured four courses served in a specific sequence. The concept’s POS system was set up to show each course in the order it was to be served, an approach that spared servers and the kitchen crew considerable guesswork in the brand’s native country about what was up next. But locals saw no reason to eat or select their courses in a set order, and chaos ensued. The chain had to redesign its POS system to provide the needed flexibility. “You can’t just translate stuff. You need to adapt,” he noted.

A positive gender bias

McDonald’s has unassailable proof that women operate better units than men do, according to Smita Jatia, managing director for McDonald's India.

Insults from ignorance

Gender preconceptions are still solidly with us, attested Dawn Sweeney, CEO of the National Restaurant Association and a recognized woman of influence and power in the association’s home base of Washington, D.C. She recounted a pointed example from her own experiences, explaining that someone once phoned the NRA’s office to speak with its chief, whom the male caller assumed was a man named Don Sweeney. When Dawn Sweeney took the call, the man was irate about being pushed off to a woman he took to be Don Sweeney’s assistant. He wanted to speak with Don Sweeney, and by God he was going to do so.

When Dawn explained that the Sweeney in question had the first name D-A-W-N, not D-O-N, the roaring man turned into a lamb.

Casual dining is some areas’ fast casual

Consumers may have dramatically cut their visits to casual-dining chains in the United States, the country that gave rise to the segment; but the market is as hot as fast casual in other nations, with people clamoring for more casual options, according to data provided by AlixPartners.

What yellow lights?

Despite the challenges that were aired at the GRLC about going international, 80% of restaurant chains worldwide view global expansion as a key priority, AlixPartners noted.

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