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Big 'huh?' from the NRA Show: 'Are 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. And the operations represented weren’t exactly upstarts targeting vegans and health extremists. Kale figures large in Sizzler’s new strategic initiative to address health concerns, according to CEO and co-owner Kerry Kramp, a chef by training.

Providing better-for-you options is the next phase of the 56-year-old chain’s comeback plan, but the strategy is to provide good things to eat, not dishes rendered more healthful by the subtraction   of harmful elements. “The government is telling us, ‘Don’t eat this, don’t eat that.’ We’re saying, Hey, try this. It tastes great, and it’s great for you,” said Kramp.

Health was a definite theme to the show, with restaurant operators talking about the willingness of customers to try ingredients that were once regarded as too outlandish, like plant-based meat substitutes, and quinoa. A consultant to a mainstream fast-casual chain recounted the doubtful head-shaking he drew from the client when he advised the operation to broaden its midday appeal by adding a salad that showcased quinoa. It’s now the top seller at lunch, he explained.

A CEO of a burger chain revealed that he was scouting bottled water options on the show floor to preserve his beverage sales. Patrons were shifting away from carbonated soft drinks, he said, and his operation needed to provide other options to retain the sales and profits, particularly for takeout. 

Others spoke of a surprising shift in their approach to deciding what products should be in their kitchens and what service formats—plural—should be provided to get the food in customers’ hands. They spoke of shifting more power to consumers and employees through new communication means like social media.

Several, like Sizzler’s Kramp, said they were giving customers more control by offering multiple ways to frequent the restaurant. For instance, people who wanted to get in and out quickly at lunch would be offered a streamlined experience: Here’s a plate, there’s the salad bar, eat and scoot at will.

But Sizzler is simultaneously exploring ways of making a trip to the limited-service concept feel more like a full-service experience. A line of craft beers is being eyed, and the chain is exploring table-service touches like having servers deliver a second beer to the table, according to Kramp. He also mentioned such possibilities as having the servers bring desserts to the table, instead of having customers get them as they move through the serving line.

Fazoli’s used the show to announce the spin off a higher-ticket, broader-menu option for consumers who wanted a more upscale fast-casual experience.

Empowering employees to a dramatic degree was a major theme of the keynote addressed delivered at the show by Starbucks CEO and president Howard Schultz. He noted that line employees are already the trustees of the brand; why not acknowledge that responsibility and invite them to share in the concept’s direction?  In the instance of Starbucks, “We are all wearing the green apron and we are all personally responsible and accountable,” he said.

He also called on business leaders to acknowledge responsibility for their charges, using Starbucks as part of his argument. A key moment in the chain’s turnaround, he asserted, was the decision by he and his team to accept personal responsibility for what had gone wrong.  Then, he explained, the hard work of righting the brand—by everyone wearing a green apron—could begin.

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