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3 restaurant leaders being put to a test

Peter Romeo blog

Recent days have brought no fewer than 12 changes in the leadership of restaurant brands, a reflection of how precarious the big job has become in an industry beset by sales problems and impatient investors.

Some situations are tougher than others, to be sure. But the head-turning tests of strengths may be a trio of situations where the ink is long dried on the new exec’s business cards. These three have snagged our attention both because of the scale of their challenge and the smarts they’ve shown in starting the climb up Mount Everest. Whether they meet success or failure, chances are high it’ll be spectacular.

Here are the three whose tests of mettle could land them in the company of X-Men like McDonald's Steve Easterbrook, Inspire Brands' Paul Brown and Domino's Patrick Doyle.

John Cywinski, Applebee’s

The industry abounds in turnaround situations, but few of the scale Cywinski is facing as president of Applebee’s, a 2,000-unit all-franchised operation that’s undergone the sort of fall that knocked ancient Romans out of their sandals. The effort requires nothing less than trying to erase years of cross-dressing as a high-end concept with steakhouse aspirations, a purposeful but ill-conceived move that drove away core constituents while failing to draw new users.

Enter Cywinski, who was summoned back to the chain as president after leaving as CMO before the brand tanked. Franchisees say they led the drive to get Cywinski back, harping to the new management of parent Dine Brands that the veteran brand builder understood Applebee’s essence. After all, they noted, he was the midwife of the chain’s catchy “Eatin’ Good in the Neighborhood” ad slogan.

Cywinski comes at the job after heading up the marketing for Chili’s and Burger King’s domestic operations, and serving long ago in a brand-development post for McDonald’s. He’s also had experience as a brand president, serving in that capacity for KFC USA. An important attribute to Applebee’s franchisees was the Notre Dame grad’s time as a franchisee himself, with Dunkin’ Donuts and Sonic Drive-Ins in his fold.

Since rejoining Applebee’s in early March, Cywinski has resurrected the “Eatin’ Good” campaign, brought back the chain’s signature Riblets dish for an instant $48 million sales pop, and overseen a store triage that will thin the chain by as many as 150 units when it’s completed. Franchisees say he was instrumental in convincing Dine Brands to give the brand its own support services, instead of having the same team also serve Applebee’s sister concept, IHOP.

Strategically, “This is a classic case of a brand getting back to its roots and embracing its essence,” Cywinski told Dine Brands shareholders last month.

He’s also pledged to build a sophisticated business and consumer-behavior analytics team for his charge.

Dave Hoffmann, Dunkin’ Donuts USA & Canada

Establishing an identify for a brand is tough. Significantly modifying it, after cultivating a die-hard following for 68 years, can trigger a flashback to New Coke. Yet that’s the mission for Hoffmann, who’s widely seen as a likely successor to his boss, Dunkin’ Brands CEO Nigel Travis.

Just to keep things interesting, he’s also overseeing the brand’s re-entry into California, where it bombed years ago because few knew it or respected its cult status back east.

Like Cywinski, Hoffmann is an alumnus of McDonald’s, where he worked for 22 years, starting as a crewmember in high school. The two should practice the secret McDonald’s handshake and compare notes; Hoffmann would hear firsthand the dangers of moving a brand away from its roots and alienating its core.

In Dunkin’s case, that means even changing the name on a new generation of stores, and putting far more emphasis on drinks and sandwiches. The goal, and Hoffmann’s mantra, is to recast Dunkin’ as a beverage-led on-the-go brand.

Dave George, Darden Restaurants COO

Watching this situation is like seeing Tiger Woods step up to the tee. You know he can do it, but will he have the stuff this time?

Many in and outside of Darden regard George as one of the best operations specialists in the business. This, after all, is the guy who served as president of Olive Garden during what could only be described as a Lazarus period for the brand. He brought it back when even many in the company seemed to believe it was over-boiled. Now it’s a dominant force in casual dining again, so George has been promoted to a new set of operational challenges.

Chief among them is assimilating Cheddar’s Scratch Kitchen into Darden. The 154-unit operation, acquired by Darden about a year ago for $780 million, had gone through a brand correction not long beforehand, with expansion suspended while management righted sales. Now it’s being retrofitted with the systems, controls and home office support for which Darden is known, a process complicated by Cheddar’s traffic of about 6,000 customers per week.

These high guest counts create some unique operational challenges that we will address, primarily through simplification,” Darden CEO Gene Lee told investors two weeks ago. “This will take time.”

It will also take the attention of George, who was given oversight of the brand with his promotion last month. Said Lee: “This is a complicated process. We know we’re throwing a lot at the restaurant teams, and we know it’s distractive.” Meanwhile, the concept’s comp sales remain negative.

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