The week’s 5 head-spinning moments

Buffalo Wild Wing’s pizza play gears for growth

More announcements than actual pies have been cranked out of the emerging better-pizza sector, but few merit more than a click on desktop trash-can icons and a plea to IT for tighter spam filters. Not so the communication this week from PizzaRev, the entrant backed by Buffalo Wild Wings. The upstart trumpeted several reinforcements of its infrastructure, not through C or even VP-level additions, but the hiring of support personnel far down the ladder. Included were franchising, human resources and marketing specialists with director or coordinator titles. Clearly PizzaRev is building a deep team in anticipation of rapid growth.

Count on BWW to contribute at least two and possibly six new stores to that development effort in 2014, according to CEO Sally Smith. The first two will be labs of sorts to gauge how large the next generation of units should be and how the concept is received outside of its home base of California, she recently commented.

And yet another stealth pie maker is uncovered

Chipotle wasn’t the only big restaurant brand to quietly creep into the pizza business last year. Texas Roadhouse was asked this week during a call with financial analysts about plans to add other restaurant concepts to its stable. An analyst, not the chain’s executives, remarked that Bubba’s 33 appears to be a possible secondary growth vehicle.

Bubba’s 33? Doesn’t sound familiar? You’re not alone in scratching your head once it stops spinning. Turns out the casual dining chain had quietly opened the prototype last summer in Fayetteville, N.C. The concept’s three signature menu lines are Stone Baked Pizzas, made with hand-tossed dough and fresh-cut toppings; burgers; and “33-degree beer,” or suds cooled almost to freezing.

But this is not a Pizza Rev-style entrant in the Chipotle model. Bubba’s offers full service and is aimed at the Bubba in all of us, to quote the marketing description.

The fast-casual sector isn’t being ignored by the company. Two Texas Roadhouses were recently opened in Oregon with a fast-casual service set-up. Patrons order at a counter and the meal is brought to them. “We’re still reading results,” said president Scott Colosi.

The first Bubba’s was converted from an Aspen Grill, an upscale concept Roadhouse tested in several locations.

Roadhouse management declined to comment on Bubba’s during the conference call, but has said in the past that Aspen Grill is history.

Manning to Papa John’s—SCORE!!!

Meanwhile, back in the mainstream pizza market, Papa John’s clearly has the touch-football team to beat. Peyton Manning may not have been the quarterback who hoisted the winner’s trophy after Super Bowl XLVIII, but he’s a hero to Papa’s management, which says he serves as far more than a spokesman. “He has been a big part of our success,” Papa John’s founder John Schnatter remarked to investors. Indeed, he noted that the company’s market value has risen to $2.2 billion from $900 million since the future Hall of Famer suited up for the chain.

In addition to serving as Papa John’s spokesman when Schnatter himself doesn’t assume the role, Manning operates 25 franchised Papa John’s units in Denver.

The relationship “will continue to pay dividends for the brand for years to come,” said Schnatter.

“Any company or organization that has an opportunity to get involved with Peyton Manning and or the Manning family should jump all over [it.]”

Casual dining’s C-suite dominos game

Looks as if the next thing to sizzle on the grills of challenged casual dining chains is the butt of the top exec. With that segment still in a sales stall, some big names are walking out the door, though it’s not clear at who’s instigation.

Last week, heads were turned by the departure of Mike Archer from the president’s job at Applebee’s. His exit follows the resignation of John Gilbert as CEO of Famous Dave’s, a development the board acknowledged as a complete surprise. Earlier, Richard Stockinger exited the CEO’s office of Benihana’s with a box of personal effects in tow, leaving a clean desk for Steve Schlemon to decorate with knick-knacks from his 12 years as president of Carrabba’s.

Searches are underway for permanent successors to Gilbert and Schlemon, meaning dominos could fall at other casual chains in the near future.

Tech talk. And more talk. And still more talk.

Those of us who routinely digest restaurant companies’ conference calls with financial analysts are finding far more of the conversation devoted these days to technology. In many instances, the analysts are as interested in a chain’s initiatives on that front as they are in menu changes.  

Here are some of the things that analysts wanted to learn this week:

Will tablets appear on the tables of Outback, Carrabba’s and the other brands run by Bloomin’ Brands?
Don’t hold your breath, advised CEO Liz Smith. Tests are underway, but she characterized the strategy as “go slow to go fast.”

Does Applebee’s, an early adapter of tablets, intend to expand the capabilities so users can order a whole meal?
The functionality will evolve, said Julia Stewart, CEO of parent company DineEquity. For right now, the tabletop ordering choices are limited to drinks, appetizers and desserts.  That will expand by year’s end, and social media and a mobile interface will likely be incorporated by the end of 2015.


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