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Small plates from the first day of the Restaurant Leadership Conference

It’s a little-known rule of physics: Put a group of restaurant leaders in a room and you’ll get an unvarnished picture of the business. Pull almost 1,800 of them together, as we did at the Restaurant Leadership Conference, and you quickly learn what they see as the opportunities and challenges, the hype and the real successes.

Consider these tidbits, for instance: 

  • When attendees talk about the areas where they hope to get an education, the topics constantly mentioned are catering and gluten-free menu options.
  • Discussions about the gluten-free phenomenon sometimes take a surprising turn: Do you crow about your wheat-free choices, or do you make that a given across your menu? For instance, if you’re a sandwich chain, do you switch all your breads to gluten-free variations? Does that make a more powerful statement about your commitment to health?
  • One of the fast-growing sub-sectors to watch in the limited-service market, according to Technomic: Barbecue. Dickey’s Barbecue, for instance, grew 40% during 2012, a result of adding 82 stores.
  • Fast casual is still the juggernaut reshaping competition among restaurant chains. The sector now accounts for 8.1% of sales for the Technomic’s Top 500 chains, the result of a 13.2% sales jump, according to Technomic analyst Darren Tristano. “We’re probably all tired of hearing about fast casual and how well it’s doing, but there’s still a lot we can learn from it,” he commented.
  • Technomic’s breakout session, an industry overview that drew just shy of 500 people, added clarity to a picture that’s emerging from the recent sales reports of public companies: The business is still trying to shake the sales slowdown that started in the fourth quarter of 2012.
  • A shakeout of the better-burger upstarts may be underway. A rundown of chains for sale shows a preponderance of competitors in that field.
  • Joe DePinto, the CEO of 7-Eleven, echoed a theory put forth by the c-store business’ trade association two weeks ago to explain why restaurants are feeling more pressure from retailers. As online retailing gains momentum, brick-and-mortar stores are shifting their emphasis to “defensible” products. E-tailing can’t deliver ready-to-eat hot foods, DePinto noted.
  • He then detailed how 7-Eleven is blurring the line between online and in-store retailing. The chain’s units are now the pick-up location for products that consumers purchase online the night before from Amazon. DePinto said the program is bringing more consumers into the stores, giving the brand an opportunity to sell them foods, particularly snacks.
  • Chef Hubert Keller provided a chef’s prospective of the better-burger business, explaining how he came to serve a $5,000 burger at his Burger Bar in Las Vegas. In actuality, he said, it’s part of a bundled deal; you’re getting a $5,300 bottle of wine, plus the burger, all for the 5K pricetag.
  • Keller is also no stranger to the overseas march of American chains. He noted that he’s headed to Beijing on Thursday to open a branch of the Burger Bar there.

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