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The week’s 5 head-spinning moments: Special RLC edition

Attendees the Restaurant Leadership Conference may want to slip a supportive neck brace into their luggage next year. With presentations from the likes of Bill Clinton and industry stars normally as reclusive as a Bob Dylan, heads were rotating this year like the crowd’s at a champion ping-pong match. Here are five highlights that had us speed-dialing the chiropractor:

The company Bloomin’s CEO keeps

Who knew Alan Mulally—Ford Motor CEO by day, business superhero in the darkest nights of the Great Recession—was an advisor to Bloomin’ Brands during the Outback parent’s turnaround? And that wasn’t even the most astonishing revelation offered by CEO Liz Smith during her participation in an RLC panel (click here to learn of her headquarters wall of shame.)

In case you don’t recognize Mulally’s name, here’s a refresher: When the federal government decided to save the U.S. automobile industry with a massive cash infusion during the 2009 economic collapse, Mulally calmly demurred, saying Ford didn’t need the help. At his instigation, the car company had already re-created itself and its product line to deal with new economic realities. He’d quietly pulled off the business feat of the New Millennium.

Smith recounted how she reached out to Mulally when she moved to Bloomin’ at a time when something other than its steaks were sizzling on the grill. Mulally not only responded warmly to her overtures, but went so far as to give his personal e-mail to any member of the Bloomin’ leadership team who felt in need of advice. He still listens to the casual-dining company’s financial conference calls, according to Smith, and typically sends an e-mail to executives afterward as if they knew each other from their kids’ soccer league.

If Smith herself sounds a little unfamiliar, don’t fret that you somehow missed five years of Wall Street Journals. Although she regularly scored headlines for leading Avon, and resigning after she was passed over for the cosmetic company’s CEO post, Smith has given only one interview to the press since Bloomin’ went public again (presumably with Mulally’s advice.) Having her at the Restaurant Leadership Conference was a coup akin to getting Paul McCartney to play at your daughter’s wedding.

A bonus Mulally head-turner: A few years ago, we tried to recruit him as a speaker for the RLC. In those situations, you typically have a checkbook accessible while you try to find the lure that’ll work. A big contribution to the potential speaker’s favorite charity, perhaps? Or maybe a sizeable check just for themselves? Mulally explained that money was not even worth discussing; he wasn’t going to assume anything that would distract him from steering Ford at a critical time. This man is a class act.

You don’t have to be a glasshole

Neck strain among RLC technology nerds has to be attributed to two head-spinning moments at the conference. The first was spotting an attendee who may be the first-ever Google Glass wearer to attend a top-to-top industry event. Kudos to RB Associate Editor Sara Rush for asking if she could try the technology, which amounts to an itsy-bitsy computer screen on your eyeglass viewing surface. She termed it “weird.”

The second moment when heads might have spun hard enough to spin off a Google Glass headset: An assessment of the new technology by Dunkin’ Brands CEO Nigel Travis. The Brit and admitted early tech adapter said he eagerly anticipates using the glasses at Dunkin’ Donuts arm managers with a powerful cost-cutting operational tool.  Unfortunately, he stopped short of airing the details.

Stop blaming politicians

If longtime RLC attendees had to check the registration signage a time or two, that’s understandable. This is not a crowd that cuts a lot of big checks to the Democratic National Committee. Yet listed on the program as our brush-with-greatness speaker was Bill Clinton, hardly a staunch member of the Party of Lincoln.

That’s why Advil should have been distributed to the seriously sore-necked who held on for the panel discussion featuring Travis. You could practically hear the gasps after he commented that the industry invited government meddling with its refusal to yield an inch on political matters. “There’s a tendency for this industry to say ‘no’ to any government policy,” he said. “We should have a more constructive answer.

Clinton’s Secret Service detail might have found themselves protecting another speaker.

You think you know life during wartime

Never in 35-plus years of attending business conferences have I listened to a presentation quite as absorbing, unnerving and awe-evoking as the keynoter from Marcus Luttrell, the real-life basis for the Lone Survivor best-selling book and movie. He took the stage with a therapy dog lying there, prompting a colleague to remark, “I hope that dog is safe.” This was one tightly wound dude.

But as attendee after attendee remarked in the break afterward, it was extraordinary, a real head-spinner, to hear something as raw and real. The true neck-snapper was Luttrell’s sudden aside to the audience that he was done talking about the tragedy that followed the Taliban’s murder in Afghanistan of his three SEAL buddies, leaving him the lone survivor. A helicopter—a “helo” in Luttrell’s military-speak—had been dispatched to rescue them. As it was landing, a 12-year-old local boy shot a grenade into the bird, killing all the men aboard.

The best way to die is in a blaze of bullets as you stand with your military buddies, Luttrell remarked. “That’s combat,” he said, halting in his incessant pacing of the stage to intensely gaze at the audience. Ambushing a rescue mission “is a chump move … I’m done talking about that.”

The pacing resumed.

Meanwhile, elsewhere in the restaurant world …

One of the challenges during the RLC for Restaurant Business’ editorial staff is keeping an eye on what’s happening outside the conference’s four walls in the world of restaurants. Two developments in particular slipped past the rest of the industry.

One was the reported about-face by Starbucks on its La Boulange baked-goods initiative. The coffee giant bought La Boulange, a bakery-café with a cult following in the Bay Area, with intentions of using its products to upgrade Starbucks’ breakfast options. Bloomberg reported this week that some of those items were being replaced by what Starbucks offered before the La Boulange acquisition because of customer complains. It quoted a Starbucks official as saying patrons missed the pumpkin and ice-lemon loaf cake.

The other head-spinner moment was the release of a study about what college graduates now regret doing while they were in school. Number Three on the list: Dining out too often.

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