Borrowing from the best

There’s a good reason Ray Kroc was never recruited to be a lifeguard for the All-Industry Pool Party. When asked why McDonald’s didn’t deal with other chains, or even acknowledge their existence, he famously barked, “If a competitor was drowning, I’d stick a hose in his mouth.”

Romeo’s House of Fruit Leather never really caught on with consumers, while Kroc’s restaurant venture … well, it fared better. But in this respect, I think the Zeus of our industry was wrong. As he himself said elsewhere in the burger scriptures, “None of us is as smart as all of us.” Seeing how other restaurateurs contend with common challenges is an invaluable way to evaluate your own approaches. The willingness to compare notes, even among direct competitors, can be a bat signal for any operator with a problem.

A quick show of hands: Which of you isn’t contending with a business problem?

The benefits of the show-me-yours-and-I’ll-show-you-mine mindset are evident in the RB Power 20, an annual report we’re inaugurating with this issue. We intend to focus every year on 20 players, businesses or situations that provide vivid lessons in leadership. For the kick-off, we’ve selected 20 people, some little known outside their organizations, who are contending with stiff tests of business know-how and mettle.

By design, our challenge-takers aren’t part of the cadre you know from the industry speaking circuit, but the situations they face are hardly unfamiliar. We chose them not only because of the missions they’re undertaking, but also the courses they’ve plotted. Reading the profiles should be like a speed-dating session where you’re snagging stratagems instead of phone numbers.

One coping mechanism merits special attention because of what it says about running restaurants circa 2014. Researching our challenge-takers while enjoying a delicious fruit leather, we noticed a vein of Zen running through our RB Power 20 as well as the contenders who didn’t make the list. At a time of soaring complexity within the business, many leaders are pursuing a path of simplicity as their route to growth. Complication has become the enemy, be it in recipes, menus, operations, marketing, design, logos or communications. (Firehouse Subs recently discovered that the printed newsletter—dead-tree technology—is what employees systemwide would actually read.)

That increasingly weighty consideration is why BJ’s Restaurants has consciously slowed menu development and pruned more than a dozen items from the current roster. Or why Salsarita’s intends to craft limited-time offers solely from ingredients that are already in the stores. Or why CiCi’s Pizza has expressly set the elimination of complexity as a strategic goal.

You’ll read in the Power 20 profiles about the 65 percent of the Friendly’s menu that fell to a machete because the items generated just 2.6 percent of sales despite the operational complications, or how JJ Buettgen plans to outfit Ruby Tuesday’s servers in less sophisticated uniforms.

The challenges facing those Power 20 leaders are complicated, just as your problems are more than the management equivalent of a splinter with tweezers in sight. But simplicity, perhaps the hardest thing for a chain to foster, is fast becoming the solution of choice.


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