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This week’s 6 head-spinning moments: Business as un-usual

If Don King had opted for gel instead of wind-tunneling his head, things would have been different.  Drawing an eighth dwarf might’ve changed everything for Snow White and Disney. Naming the caped crusader Rat Man just wouldn’t have worked. Sometimes, a seemingly arbitrary decision can seem like brilliance, and a purposeful, highly strategic option proves a disaster.

This week, several restaurant chains and related parties decided to put that theory to a test by either purposely altering longstanding policies or wittingly staying the course happenstance had chosen for them, circumstances be damned. Consider these tweaks or non-moves:

1. ‘Happy birthday. Now drink up.’

Starbucks opted early in the industry’s digital changeover to create one of the most generous rewards programs in the business, doling out goodies like song downloads that could be redeemed at the customer’s leisure. Participants in the loyalty program were given a whole week to claim their free birthday coffee. 

Then Scrooge somehow got ahold of a green apron. The chain confirmed this week that it has shortened the birthday-gift redemption period. Fans still get a free coffee, but they have four days to claim it—two days beforehand, the actual day of celebration and one afterward.

The chain said the adjustment was necessary to make the giveaway a true birthday celebration instead of just another freebie.

2. Two weeks of paid leave? How about 16?

Restaurateurs weren’t the only ones to change their approaches to industry matters. After scoring victory after victory in states and municipalities, labor proponents decided they should aim higher in their push for mandated paid leave for all employees. It’s a benefit opposed by many in the industry because of the cost and scheduling complications.

The standard ask for labor had been two weeks of paid leave to care for a sick family member or a newborn. In Washington, D.C. this week, the city council took on a proposal to require 16 weeks of paid leave from virtually every employer. The expense of paying two people for the same job—the one on leave and the person filling it on an interim basis—would be funded through a new payroll tax that’s paid into a pool.

If that sounds like a local bummer, consider that the District of Columbia is run by the federal government. The Washington Post reported that the 16-week leave proposal has the enthusiastic support of the White House.

3. The Pope’s sales sin

Restaurants were hardly immune to Pope mania during the pontiff’s recent visit, but not always in a good way, the struggling Cosi sandwich chain said this week. It attributed almost a full point of its 4.5 percent decline in same-store sales for September to the Catholic leader’s tour through the chain’s market turf. Traffic problems and security inconveniences diverted customers, Cosi asserted.

It did not say why it continued to operate in the usual fashion instead of adjusting to the one-time event.

4. LeBron shoots, jumps!

Serial defector and basketball great LeBron James is adjusting his allegiances once again, this time without a TV special or a boo-filled send-off. The star (currently) of the Cleveland Cavaliers said he is ending his endorsement deal with McDonald’s to promote Blaze Pizza, the fast-casual chain in which James had secretly bought a 10 percent stake.  He had been forbidden to reveal the investment under his contract with McDonald’s.

There’s no confirmation that James has advised McDonald’s to adjust its roster of endorsers by traveling to Miami and talking to the Heat.

The defection wasn’t the first sign of trouble between James and McDonald’s. In February the four-time NBA MVP remarked that he made the mistake of eating regularly at the burger chain when he was an 18-year-old foolishly unconcerned about health.

5. All-day breakfast doesn’t do it?

One of the biggest adjustments in the history of the U.S. restaurant business wasn’t enough for some fans of McDonald’s. All 14,000-plus U.S. stores started selling selected breakfast items during lunch and dinner on Tuesday, addressing what had reportedly been the most frequent request from customers.

But that tweak did not go far enough for lovers of McDonald’s fries. Some, like the culture blogger for Slate, want the menu signature to be available all day, including at breakfast.

6. Turned on by tweaks

The importance of adapting menu items to a particular customer’s tastes was underscored by the numbers aired this week by Technomic’s Darren Tristano at an event at the Culinary Institute of America’s main campus.

To provide some context, Tristano noted that fast-casual sales are growing overall at an annual rate of 13 percent. But the intake of fast-casual concepts that customize orders is increasing at a year-over-year clip of 22 percent.  He indicated that about a fourth of the emerging sector personalizes each order. 

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