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Jean Birch's read of chains' yesterday—and tomorrow

The restaurant business changed during the 20-plus years that Jean Birch logged at several major chains, but she seems to doubt that casual dining was paying full attention.

When she joined the business in 1991 as VP-operations for Pizza Hut and Taco Bell, “casual dining was a little bit more of a build-it-and-they-will-come segment,” says the former president of IHOP, Romano’s Macaroni Grill and Corner Bakery. “Many of the brands were doing a terrific job. Demand was still growing.”

Supply couldn’t keep up. As with many types of restaurants back then, “you could be not so very good and still make a living,” she recalls.

Then the seat-to-butt imbalance leveled off. Construction didn’t. Consumers not only had more full-service choices, but also new options boasting food of casual-dining quality—or better—at prices closer to quick-service levels.  

“Fast-casual didn’t even exist when I started,” notes Birch, now a consultant with Results Thru Strategy, a consortium of former operators who collaborate on chain turnarounds and repositionings.  But “you could see the trend coming. It was all about convenience, quality and value.” Consumers saw it, and flocked to places like Chipotle, Baja Fresh and Five Guys. But casual dining “kind of waited until it was a crisis situation.”

In her estimation, fast-casual has already stolen casual dining’s lunch business and is now making a run for the dinner trade.

Birch attributes the rise of fast-casual to one of the more profound changes she’s witnessed in a lengthy and much-applauded run as a chain executive. “The shift in power has gone from the operator—‘build it and they will come’—to the consumer,” who now has a lot more choice and restaurant knowledge, she says.

That dynamic has forced the industry to operate more professionally. “You can’t be stupid,” says Birch. With social media and other technological tools to amplify the consumer’s voice and preferences, “you can’t hide your mistakes. You can fail fast.”

Similarly, she says, relations with employees have changed. She disputes the assertions of many industry curmudgeons that today’s new hires aren’t as qualified or capable as earlier generations were.

“I don’t think they’re any better or any worse,” says Birch. Rather, she believes they have a different mindset than restaurant employees of her vintage.

“If we manage them the way we were managed, we’re going to lose,” she declares. “They have so much information at their fingertips that now they want to know why they’re doing something, not just what it is they should do. It’s not ‘wipe down that counter.’ It’s what role that function has in the larger scheme of things.”

In her view, “back when I started, operators basically hired my hands. They had something they needed my hands to do. Now we have to hire their hands, hearts and minds.

So instead of telling crewmembers to gear up for the dinner rush, Birch recommends explaining that they’re about to help families enjoy some time together as they dine. “We’re creating celebrant moments for families,” she says.

Appreciating the importance of staff is one of the sea changes that Birch has witnessed, with most of the shift coming in the last decade. “There wasn’t much of that when I started,” she recalls. But after while, the industry noted that “operators investing as much time in developing their people as they did in developing sales were far more successful.”

In recent years, she’s seen a particular emphasis on promoting diversity within organizations. “Is it better? Definitely. Is it enough? No,”  says Birch, who’s been a driving force in the Women’s Foodservice Forum, a group devoted to fostering the advancement of women.

She believes that no management job should be awarded without making a point of considering a diverse array of internal candidates, not only for the good of the organization, but for the message it sends to the rank and file.  Considering a diverse group of promising employees stresses the opportunities all people within the operation can have if they stay in the industry.

Foodservice still has far to go in developing its management style and best practices, Birch stresses. For instance, she believes the industry is still too hierarchical, with executives at the top of the pyramid pushing down decisions that affect the rank and file at the base—even though field-level associates are closer to customers and operations.

Birch remembers some of the LTOs and new products that were channeled down during her time to the unit level “and thinking, ‘Who thought of this? Not anyone who knows how we operate. It just doesn’t’ make sense.’”

She notes that upstarts like the technology industry have pioneered new, flatter business structures—“more like a web, with lots of connections and communication between people at all levels,” says Birch.

Yes, she acknowledges, the industry has a ways to go on several fronts. Social media, for instance, is a challenge to the top-down credo that executives say, crewmembers do. “We have to join this generation and be comfortable with allowing employees to have a conversation that isn’t dominated by corporate or the legal department,” she says.

But Birch has opted to stay in the chain business, albeit it as a consultant, rather than explore other industries. “I love this business, and it continues to be important and vital and fun and interesting,” she says.

And then there are the changes she hopes to see in the next 20 or 30 years.

“I don’t think there are a lot of businesses that innovate more than the restaurant industry,” says Birch.

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