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This week’s head-spinning moments: 5 questions asked

Sometimes the questions a restaurateur poses are more insightful than the answers. So it was this week, when a number of brand leaders raised doubts about the industry’s herd instinct.

Has customization gone too far?

Bagger Dave’s, the burger concept of Diversified Restaurant Holdings, is leading customers away from customization by adding more off-the-rack selections, so to speak.

A major point of distinction for the brand is letting customers build their own burgers by checking off the components on a literal checklist. The personalized orders are then handed to the kitchen staff for assembly. In a new tack, the chain expanded its choice of signature burgers, from an Asian turkey version to a mahi mahi option that already accounts for 4.3 percent of sales, CEO Michael Ansley revealed.

“By adding more signature burger combinations, we saw Create Your Own sales fall from 55 percent to 41 percent,” Ansley told financial analysts. “This will significantly improve our throughput and our kitchens.”

Are restaurants really testing in the right way?

Qdoba, the Mexican sister of Jack in the Box, is convinced there’s a better way to give a possible concept change a trial run. 

The burrito chain is committed to developing a new restaurant design that fits with a repositioning of the brand as a slightly more upscale choice.

“Essentially, we want to marry up the brand's bold in-your-face flavors with a bold in-your-face design on both the interior and exterior,” explained Lenny Comma, CEO of parent-company Jack in the Box Inc.

Instead of testing a new format in its entirety, Qdoba is taking more of a mix-and-match approach. Different elements of a possible new design are being tested separately—one feature in this store, another in that one. “I think that's actually going to accelerate the learning,” said Comma.

The aim is to “thoroughly evaluate each element to determine which ones work best and generate the highest return,” he explained. Then those winning aspects can be combined into the new look, hopefully faster than testing one complete redesign after another. 

Why rush a potential hit product?

The Shake Shack retro-burger chain has a hit with its first-ever chicken option, the ChickenShack sandwich, executives revealed. The three Brooklyn, N.Y., test sites ran out of supplies within two days, and an Instagram post announcing the product generated 7,500 likes, “the most we’ve ever received on a single post,” said CEO Randy Garutti.

Instead of racing to roll the sandwich systemwide, Garutti and his team are uttering a collective, Hmmm. They see no need to hurry and possibly dampen the magic, Garutti told financial analysts this week, much to the stock handicappers’ regret and apparent frustration.

Even if sales are phenomenal, Garutti stressed, a rollout is complicated for Shake Shack, which has been extremely cautious about expanding its menu beyond a core of burgers, fries, shakes and frozen custard. “We're taking our time on it,” he told one insistent stock picker who seemed as if he just couldn’t accept that decision.

How important is tech to nontraditional pizza shops?

Domino’s, Papa John’s and Pizza Hut have invested millions in technology that eases ordering and delivery processes, with phenomenal results. They’ve made telephone ordering as outmoded as film cameras, but what about concepts that specialize in takeout—and don’t even cook the pies?

Papa Murphy’s, godfather of the take-and-bake market, is about to find out. It’s rolled online delivery to about 750 stores, with 735 more to go before the target-completion deadline of mid-2016.

A complementary addition of a mobile app is slated for the next few weeks, and the simultaneous adoption of a new, uniform POS system is also underway. It’s a huge about-face for a pizza specialist that saw no need to follow the Big Three in their headlong dash into digital.

But Papa Murphy’s is starting to see the benefits. Online orders are typically 25 percent to 30 percent higher than phoned-in orders, said CEO Ken Caldwell.

The real gold, he said, will be the data collected on customers. Knowing who they are and what they prefer will set the stage for what Caldwell called “precision marketing.” Dollars will likely be shifted to those laser-focused efforts from traditional advertising, he said.

How dangerous can a roll be?

The answer may soon be provided in court. Lambert’s, a Midwestern chain whose shtick includes having servers throw rolls at patrons, is being sued by a patron who says he suffered an eye injury from the bread pelting. The plaintiff is seeking $25,000 from the self-proclaimed Home of Throwed Rolls.

Other signatures of the chain include slopping a big spoonful of potatoes and other sides right on the table.
 

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