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This week’s 5 head-spinning moments: Special innovation edition

Restaurant innovation comes in diverse forms, as several chains demonstrated this week in revealing their mid and long-range plans. Where else would a standout turkey be regarded as a potential winner?

1. Panera to sing “wholesome” from a different hymnal

Quinoa, kale and ancient grains are still viewed as kinky ingredients by much of the dining mainstream. After giving those edgy options a go, Panera is switching to something far more vanilla in its ongoing embrace of pure and wholesome foods.  Even a nun might applaud the promotional changeover this fall to sandwiches, and turkey sandwiches in particular.

“We will highlight clean proteins, including carved, slow-roasted turkey breast free of antibiotics and artificial ingredients,” CEO Ron Shaich revealed to financial analysts. He specifically mentioned an Orchard Apple Roasted Turkey and White Vermont Cheddar sandwich.

Also ready to roll: Flatbreads packing 15 grams of whole grains.

2. Buffalo Wild Wings sees no reason to plunge

Innovation these days is synonymous with a headlong rush into new technology, but that doesn’t work for Buffalo Wild Wings.

The wings-and-beer chain hasn’t been idle as competitors arm themselves with devices that enabled guests to input orders for appetizers and drinks from their tables.  “We've successfully tested menu order via tablet in two concept locations and the functionality works,” CEO Sally Smith informed investors.

She could have added, “Big whup.”

Smith explained that the real Viagra to sales will be payment at the table, a capability that isn’t incorporated into the tablet as tested. So the franchisor is holding off on a rollout until it can provide that capability as well, either through the touch pad or some alternative tabletop device. “We'll be testing both methods in the second half of 2015 and we're delaying the rollout of menu order on tablet until it is paired with payment,” Smith said.

In the process, BWW will leapfrog over a number of competitors, many of whom are still debating whether or not they can offer ordering from the whole menu via their current tabletop tech.

3. The Cheesecake Factory’s Overton converts

When chains like BJ’s Restaurants and Applebee’s started the stampede toward tablets and other tabletop ordering devices, the CEO of The Cheesecake Factory aired a decidedly contrarian view. Anything that seemed to diminish personal service, the interaction between guest and server, wouldn’t be of interest to the brand, said David Overton. The engagement with the staff is a big part of the attraction, he asserted.

Cheese Factory isn’t scrambling to find a USB port accessible to its guest tables just yet, but it’s at least considering the shift of some duties from servers to devices. An app with a pay-at-the-table function is being tested in the chain’s Thousand Oaks, Calif., branch, and “so far we're happy with the adoption that we've seen,” Overton told financial analysts. “I don't have any specific rates to share with you today, but I do know that we do have guests that are using it more than once.”

After some technical issues are worked out, the test will be expanded in the fourth quarter with the intention of rolling an app next year, according to Overton.

4. BWW as TV mogul

A Vine and YouTube vibe will ripple through company-run Buffalo Wild Wings during the remainder of the year as the casual chain turns its TVs over to customer-supplied videos. About 300 of the units will plug into B-Dubs TV, an internal network featuring “distinctive” content supplied by the chain’s vendors, said CEO Smith.

Customers will also be invited to try their hand at programming. Patrons can use their smartphones to capture the jaw-dropping moments of local sporting events and submit the amateur highlight reels to the restaurant. The 10 best Hometown Highlights of the week will be aired to the local restaurant via B-Dubs TV.

5. A flashback to yesterday’s corporate-speak

There was a time when you couldn’t Frisbee a name badge at an industry conference without hitting a speaker evangelizing the business philosophy of Total Quality Management. Many attendees likely tried after hearing preacher after preacher flog the promise of deliverance from poor financial results. The notion was to elevate product quality to a company’s core objective, a goal that should color every aspect of the organization.

Then, suddenly, some other faddish theory captured the circuit’s attention, and TQM faded faster than the Macarena. 

But old is new again at Panera. The chain is in the midst of recasting itself as Panera 2.0, an operation that relies heavily on technology and new, daring processes to attract customers who prefer alternative service methods, like not dealing with a person. The sophistication and aimed-for speed leaves less leeway for screw-ups, suggested CEO Shaich. “We use that philosophy of Total Quality Management to create our operational integrity program,” he explained.

Honorable mention: Taco Bell’s new muscle

Taco Bell’s plan to serve beer and wine inside its new, hipper restaurants was hamstrung by concerns at Site One that rowdiness would erupt during the late-night period the chain calls “Fourthmeal.” The Chicago-area franchisee allayed the concerns by offering to station a bouncer in the store on weekend nights. He also agreed to cut off alcohol sales at midnight on Fridays and Saturdays.

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