Do not play poker with the restaurant executives behind this week’s batch of industry surprises. While working for months on projects that could trigger changes far beyond their own operations, they remained as stone-faced as undertakers. No wonder some revealed their gambits with apparent delight, the cat eagerly shooed out of the bag.
Here’s a rundown of what was revealed—though not always by the keepers of the secrets.
Wendy’s ghost-of-breakfasts-past menu
Any serious industry watcher knows Wendy’s is one of the few fast-food burger chains that doesn’t serve breakfast chainwide. Why, then, does its recently updated website feature a whole section on the morning meal? And why does the selection extend to nine food selections, including a Morning Melt Panini, steel-cut oatmeal, an egg wrap and several biscuit sandwiches? It’s not as if the fixings for those products are also used for lunch and dinner.
Last month, the chain announced that it would switch to using cage-free eggs for its breakfast products.
We’re not the only ones who’ve noticed the chain’s morning surprises. A writer for Eater.com recently tried a signature of the Wendy’s breakfast menu, the Honey Butter Chicken Biscuit, and declared it “the best breakfast sandwich of all time.” That prompted other tests, duly reported on sites like Business Insider. Even if the product is not new, the interest is.
For the record: An estimated 300 to 400 of Wendy’s 2,800 U.S. restaurants continued to offer breakfast after headquarters decided to scrap a longtime, far-reaching test of morning service about three years ago. Featured at the time was the same menu that’s now prominently displayed on the chain’s website.
During a financial analysts’ conference held around the time the breakfast program was scrapped, Wendy’s CEO Emil Brolick volunteered an answer to the question he knew to be on attendees’ minds. “Oh, and breakfast? Maybe in 2016,” he said.
As recently as last summer, right after Taco Bell added breakfast service, Brolick said publicly that his chain was in no hurry to return to the morning market.
Whatever the timeline, he won’t be around to see the return. Brolick is retiring next month.
We asked Wendy’s if there is indeed anything afoot in regard to breakfast. It had not yet responded as of this posting.
Cracker Barrel’s ‘kitchen of the future’
The announcement of a fast-casual spinoff almost overshadowed the other news this week from Cracker Barrel. One of those tidbits: CEO Sandy Cochran informed analysts that a new high-efficiency equipment package called the fusion kitchen will be the back-of-the-house standard for all new stores.
The new kitchen was designed to cut food waste, save energy and generally streamline operations. A second generation is about to be tested in Idaho, following the opening of the prototype last year in North Carolina, Cochran said.
Some of the new kitchen’s features will be retrofitted into existing stores, she added. For instance, a food processor used in the fusion layout will be rolled into all of Cracker Barrel’s restaurants, for a savings in each of about three hours of labor per week.
Popeyes’ next can of spinach
After a seven-year streak of exceptional financial results, how does the Popeyes fried-chicken chain intend to maintain the momentum? Good question, acknowledged CEO Cheryl Bachelder.
“The most frequent questions I get asked of late are, ‘Cheryl, what is next?’” she remarked to investors this week. Then she unrolled a plan that calls for increasing support staff, stepping up crewmember training and adopting more technology.
Specifically, Bachelder said, the franchisor intends to hire enough additions to its field-level operations support team to double the number of times the “coaches” visit a store each year. Next month, franchisees will be given new performance goals and introduced to a score card that gauges their success in meeting those targets and how they stack up against fellow operators.
Meanwhile, the chain has hired a new chief information officer and retained a consultant to give operations a firm technological foundation, said Bachelder.
She predicted that the changes will raise the average annual sales of a Popeyes restaurant to $2 million, from the current mean of $1.4 million, in as soon as seven years, and no later than 10. Margins should improve to 25 percent, for an average per-store profit of $500,000, she added.
Popeyes also revealed this week that it developed 28 menu items between 2009 and 2015.
‘Let them eat (better) steak.’
Some of the changes unfolding for Fiesta Restaurant’s soon-to-split Latin fast-casual chains are taking place beyond the view of customers, though investors are likely noticing.
Late last year, Pollo Tropical revised its recipes to incorporate more dark-meat chicken, a move that had a significant impact on food costs, according to Fiesta CEO Tim Taft. It saved on white meat by buying and cubing larger-sized breasts, he added.
Now similar tweaks are being made at the company’s other brand, Taco Cabana. “We are replacing our skirt steak with prime rib as steak fajita meat, which is not only [a] superior product, but also provides some savings to our commodity basket,” said Taft.