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How the pandemic is restructuring restaurant companies

Big-name players are realigning top management to provide more flexibility and give additional attention to new revenue streams.
Photograph: Shutterstock

When COVID-19 up-ended the business back in March, restaurant executives had few signposts to guide them through the catastrophic unknowns.  It was like navigating a kayak through Class Five rapids while blindfolded, with the crash of waterfalls signaling a cliff ahead.

But the survivors discovered an unanticipated benefit. Forced to virtually suspend operations, headquarters realized they had a chance to re-think policies and procedures almost from the whiteboard stage, including how a restaurant company could be structured for maximum agility while the rules keep changing.  Or as the creator of Twin Peaks and Velvet Taco put it, quoting Winston Churchill to explain the company’s complete recast into a new concern called FB Society, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.”

FB Society, formerly known as Front Burner Restaurants, decided on the basis of its pandemic experiences to broaden its development efforts beyond the full-service sector, where it has a presence with such concepts as Whiskey Cake, Sixty Vines and Mexican Sugar.  To facilitate a push into the fast-casual market, and to begin franchising its new ventures in that arena, the company realigned c-suite duties. President and chief creative officer Jack Gibbons moved up to CEO, where he will focus on distilling an idea into a restaurant venture with potential scale, and company founder and longtime chief Randy DeWitt ascended to chairman, with a charge of identifying what strategic undertakings should be next for the company.

“While so many brands were forced to retract, or even shut down during the current crisis, we made a decision that Front Burner would not only survive, but emerge smarter, stronger and more cohesive,” DeWitt said in a statement.

The Dallas-based operation isn’t the only restaurant company to rethink its structure and operations as a result of what it learned during the pandemic. Even with the industry’s surge in delivery sales, Texas Roadhouse chairman and CEO Kent Taylor hasn’t dropped his refusal to try a third-party relationship. But he has rethought what his role in the company should be. In mid-December, Taylor relinquished the role of president to an operations specialist, development partner Jerry Morgan, so the CEO could focus on new enterprises.

Those endeavors include the development of a new drive-thru concept called Jaggers and a direct-to-consumer retail steak business, a la Omaha Steaks, called Texas Roadhouse Butcher Shop.

“Going from three jobs to two, will allow me to focus my additional time, energy, and creativity on our future growth,” Taylor said in a statement. “I also want to expand our To-Go operations and have several other ideas that I think will propel Texas Roadhouse into the next decade.”

A day after Texas Roadhouse revealed its management change, the parent of arch-rival LongHorn Steakhouse announced that it, too, was changing some nameplates in its c-suite. Darden Restaurants assigned CEO Gene Lee the additional responsibilities of chairman while delegating his role as president to then-CFO Rick Cardenas. 

With the change in Cardenas' duties, Darden has "an extra set of hands to be able to do some things and look at things maybe a little bit differently,  giving Rick the freedom and the time to look across the organization and see where we can pick up some additional synergy," Lee explained. 

Darden’s extensive portfolio includes Olive Garden, Cheddar’s Scratch Kitchen and The Capital Grille.

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