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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.

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