The Power 20

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Think your job is a trial? Meet the individuals whose challenges earned them a place among this year’s leadership elite.

The measure of a leader is not merely how profoundly he or she inspires, but how readily they’ll perspire to master a challenge. Here, 20 standouts we regard as deserving of superhero trappings because of the tasks they’re undertaking. These times are a trial for most industry executives. But the situations facing the Power 20 are truly defining tests of business acumen, guts and character. Their challenge is familiar to many. But the caliber of their response—well, read on.

Elizabeth Blau
Blau+Associates; consultant, The Rainbow Room

Amy Bouzaglo
Amy’s Baking Co.

Samy Bouzaglo
Amy’s Baking Co.

Ralph Brennan
Ralph Brennan Restaurant Group

JJ Buettgen
Ruby Tuesday

Marc Caira
Tim Hortons

Sandy Cochran
Cracker Barrel Old Country Store

Lenny Comma
Jack in the Box

Steve Davis
Bob Evans Farms

Roland Dickey Jr.
Dickey’s Barbecue Pit

Pat Doyle
Domino’s Pizza

Larry Flax
California Pizza Kitchen

Bill Foley
American Blue Ribbon Holdings

Kristen Hodges
Kendall College

Kim Lopdrup
Red Lobster

John Maguire

Mike Pruitt
Chanticleer Holdings

Ed Rensi
Famous Dave’s

Wendi Safstrom

Rick Rosenfield
California Pizza Kitchen


Companies at a crossroads

Challenges aren’t limited to individuals; sometimes, a whole organization finds itself at a critical juncture on a long road of success. Many find themselves facing the question, “What now?” The answer never seems to be, “Keep sailing along as ever,” as these situations show.

elizabeth blau

Elizabeth Blau

Founder and CEO, Blau + Associates; consultant, The Rainbow Room

Challenge(s): To resuscitate a legendary icon and deliver it back to New York City in all its wonder.

Stated Goal(s): Update the Rainbow Room for a new customer while meeting the expectations of the old by creating an extraordinary experience for New Yorkers and tourists alike.

The Means: A three-fold approach: Partner with architect Michael Gabellini to harness his creative vision and preserve the art deco character of the Rockefeller Center landmark; put together a team of uncompromising individuals to create something magical; identify and hire a multitalented chef with a good pedigree and palate, strong administrative skills and the experience to work every facet of food service—from catering, to banquets, to a la carte dining.

The Rainbow Room closed in 2009 when landlord Tishman Speyer kicked out Cipriani, the operator they had hired to run the restaurant. Now the real estate company wants to operate it themselves, so they hired Blau to oversee the relaunch. With her experience creating memorable dining destinations in Las Vegas, placing a bet on Blau to restore the grandeur and lure of The Rainbow Room has pretty good odds. She knows how to create a space through design, décor and menu. And she’s adept at building and managing the teams that can fulfill her vision, as she proved with the successful bars and restaurants she supervised at the Bellagio and Ritz-Carlton hotels and Celebrity Cruises. Renovations are underway with plans to reopen in Fall 2014.

Blau is awarding equal priority to the past and future, she says. Restoration of landmark details, including the original Rainbow Room’s signature revolving dance floor, period chandeliers and double-height windows that afford a 360-degree view has begun. But plans are in the works to incorporate contemporary elements, such as a large cocktail lounge and bar and a refurbished outdoor terrace with patio seating. “People are searching for a place that’s reflective of New York; part of its storied history but also vibrant and relevant to today,” Blau says. So far, she’s staying on top of everyday challenges by keeping the big picture in focus, she adds.

Difficulty factor: 2/10 (low)

Samy and Amy Bouzaglo

Proprietors, Amy’s Baking Co. and Bistro

Challenge: Exploiting the infamy of a social-media meltdown widely regarded as one of the worst ever.

Stated goal: Correcting misunderstandings about defensive Facebook posts like “Screw all of you… This is absolutely ridiculous and pathetic how immature everyone is.” The comebacks followed a refusal of the couple to accept criticisms during Gordon Ramsay’s “Kitchen Nightmares.”

Means: A second appearance on “Nightmares,” a new Facebook page, and continued provocation at the couple’s restaurant.

Not all of the challenge seekers on our list are approaching the task from high moral ground. The Bouzaglos have earned notoriety for being so abhorrent to Ramsay that the tantrum-prone chef walked off his own show when the couple rebuffed his criticisms of their food, service and operations. The pair’s vitriolic counter-attack on social media drew more attention to their Scottsdale, Ariz., bakery-café’s shortcomings, stretching their 15 minutes of fame.

Ironically, the drama has turned Amy’s into a must-try place for tourists. But how do you maintain your fame, dubious or otherwise?

Difficulty factor: 10/10 (high)

ralph brennan

Ralph Brennan

President, Ralph Brennan Restaurant Group (Red Fish Grill, Ralph’s on the Park, café b, Heritage Grill, Café NOMA, Ralph Brennan’s Jazz Kitchen)

Challenge: Transforming the famous but bankrupt Brennan’s into a New Orleans landmark again, despite a high-profile family quarrel and a resulting lawsuit over control of the site.

Stated goal: To create a new restaurant that is a financial success and a culinary destination, while maintaining some Brennan’s signatures and traditions.

Means: Reconcept the 58-year-old Royal Street location in the French Quarter by gutting the interior of the iconic pink-painted building, reconfiguring the space and upgrading the menu and decór and improving service.

Brennan had no connection to the namesake restaurant when it hit hard times last year. But as the nephew of the Brennan who founded it and cousin to its operators who filed Chapter 7 bankruptcy, he decided to buy the Royal Street institution rather than lose Brennan’s to someone outside the family.

Ongoing lawsuits and intrafamily feuding will prevent Ralph Brennan from using the Brennan’s name when he reopens the renovated space in August. But he plans to take advantage of the prime French Quarter location by turning the kitchen out toward Royal Street to entice the throngs of tourists and locals who walk by.

Elements such as the restaurant’s pink exterior and grand staircase will remain, as will signature menu items. To update the interior, Brennan hired Richard Keith Langham, who worked with Jackie Kennedy Onassis.

Difficulty factor: 2/10 (low)

JJ Buettgen

Chairman, President and CEO, Ruby Tuesday

Challenge: Reversing a disastrous, 10-year-long drive upmarket by one of casual dining’s stalwart brands.

Stated goal: Increasing the frequency of visits by customers, recapturing lapsed core patrons and drawing new ones by stressing value.

Means: Make the brand more affordable by stealing several fast-food signatures (pretzel burgers, chicken tenders), paring back operations to two concepts (Lime Fresh, Ruby Tuesday) from six, shutting dozens of restaurants and putting “casual” back into the polished-casual brand’s uniform and store designs.

During a recent conference call with investors, Ruby Tuesday CEO JJ Buettgen was asked if his first year on the job was tougher than expected. “I think a couple of things were a little bit surprising,” replied the Darden Restaurants and Brinker International alumnus. Anyone tracking the casual chain would appreciate the understatements.

A predecessor’s Hail Mary move into five other concepts, almost simultaneously, had diverted capital and management’s attention from the Maryville, Tenn.-based chain’s core brand; it had decided to move upscale almost exactly as the economy tanked. Core customers were driven away by the higher prices and formality, while prospective converts saw little reason to abandon fast-casual or less-expensive full-service options.

Enter Buettgen. A captain lowered by helicopter onto a listing battleship would have less of a challenge—though he’d probably insist on getting a wetsuit and a lifeboat, just in case.

Within 45 days of assuming the corner office at Ruby Tuesday from founder Sandy Beall, a man not known for his collaborative management style, Buettgen showed that he could be just as steely of a leader. He pulled the plug on Wok Hay, Marlin & Ray’s, Truffles Grill and Jim ‘N Nick’s, leaving the Chipotle-like Lime Fresh fast-casual brand as Ruby Tuesday’s lone diversification concept. Then he dropped prior management’s strategic plan at the curb on garbage day and turned to a whiteboard.

Buettgen is striving to draw back the value-sensitive, salt-of-the-earth customers who kept Ruby a casual- dining standout in prior decades. That means mixing less expensive entrees into the menu, and taking servers out of the all-black uniforms that would have worked at a foodie heartthrob in New York City.

What kind of style has Buettgen exhibited in his first stint as a CEO? After responding to the question about surprises, he all but apologized to investors for not being more explicit about what he was doing and how long they’d have to wait for the results.

Difficulty factor: 9/10 (high)

Marc Caira

President and CEO, Tim Hortons

Challenge: Foster the same ardor among Americans that Canadians hold for Tim’s, as nearly everyone north of the boarder calls their nation’s leading chain.

Stated goal: Concentrate on developing carefully targeted U.S. markets while conserving capital through alliances with established American operators.

Means: Although the chain is reticent about its alliance strategy, it’s already cobranding in the U.S. with Cold Stone Creamery. According to the home office, U.S. stores will get the simplified operations, easier-to-navigate menus, new technology, fresh design and other advances that were recently hammered out in Canada.

Caira recently alerted investors that he will not hesitate to make tough choices about a brand that many Canadians characterize as their national kitchen. Nine months into the job, he’s already made moves in the U.S. that might raise eyebrows, like euthanizing stores that didn’t look as if they’d make it to profitability. It’s a reversal of the U.S. blitz Tim’s mounted after it was acquired by Wendy’s in 1995, only to be spun off a decade or so later.

Capturing American hearts remains an important objective for Caira, who’s set a goal of opening at least 70 stores here this year.  Moving south of the border in a disciplined fashion, picking markets where the concept would be warmly received, is part of a five-year strategic plan he aired to investors in late February.

The stores that post a Now Open sign in the U.S. will be different from the ones Tim’s opened while owned by Wendy’s. Those stores reportedly generated less than half the average annual volumes of Canadian units.

New stores in the U.S. will reflect Caira’s efforts to simplify the brand, which has evolved from a doughnut shop to a bakery-café reliant on coffee sales. As part of that effort, Tim’s has cut its menu by 24 items, arrayed the survivors on new digital menu boards that headquarters characterizes as easier-to-read, and adopted a new mobile ordering and payment system to boost throughput.

So far, so good: comp sales have been increasing faster on this side of the border. Same-store sales for U.S. units rose 3.1 percent year over year for the fourth quarter, compared with a gain of 1.6  percent for Canadian bakery-cafés.

“In this new era, you need to make tough choices,” Caira told stock analysts. “If an aspect of our operations does not meet the needs of our guests in a profitable manner and we do not foresee that situation changing, then we will need to move.”

Difficulty factor: 4/10 (medium)

Sandy Cochran

President and CEO, Cracker Barrel Old Country Store

Challenge: While fending off a militant stock holder who’s hell-bent on gaining control of the company, updating the menu and operations of the backwoods-themed restaurant concept.

Stated goal: Focusing on healthful and high-value menu choices while improving service levels and margins.

Means: New Wholesome Fixin’s and Weekday Lunch Specials menus; new technology; changes in operations.

Cochran hadn’t been long in her job when Warren Buffett worshipper Sardar Biglari decided that he would make a run at Cracker Barrel. Like a pesky fly at a picnic, he hasn’t let up, coming at shareholders again and again with moves that would ultimately give him a shot at Cochran’s job.

But shareholders want no part of it. They’ve repeatedly voted against Biglari in what amounts to a referendum on Cochran’s leadership. And they clearly like what they see.

In her two-and-a-half years in the big rocker on Cracker Barrel’s porch, she’s moved the restaurant portion of the business away from its perception as a place where you can get fat in at least five ways, most adorned with bacon. The Lebanon, Tenn.-based chain started 2014 with new selections like a Chicken Caesar Salad and an under-500-calorie Citrus Spice Rubbed Chicken Breast.

And then there’s the retail side of the business, a string of 625 gift shops attached to the restaurants. Cochran in essence has two chains in two completely different industries to manage, a challenge faced by few restaurant peers.

Cochran has yet to post the sort of asterisk-free results that would shut up Biglari. For the quarter ended January 31, same-store sales slipped year over year by 0.6 percent. She contends that the number would have been at least 2.5 points higher if the weather had been better in December and January. Biglari has yet to comment publicly.

Difficulty factor: 3/10 (low)

lenny comma

Lenny Comma

Chairman and CEO, Jack in the Box

Challenge: Assume leadership of a company where relatively few CEOs have all left large footprints, from Jack Goodall to Bob Nugent to Comma’s immediate predecessor, Linda Lang.

Stated goal: Build sales at the company’s namesake brand, particularly for the company’s expanding franchisee community, while repositioning Jack’s rival to Chipotle and Del Taco, the Qdoba Mexican Grill burrito chain, for broader appeal.

Means: Faster service, off-peak traffic draws and nonstop menu innovation for Jack, while putting more limited-time menu offers into development for Qdoba.

The clock is a major focus for Comma, who rose to his new position on Jan. 1. If he can streamline service at Jack in the Box, more orders can be filled during peak hours, significantly raising sales. A minute has been squeezed out of the mean transaction time already, but Comma has set a goal of reducing the average by another 60 seconds.

Throughput may not be a challenge during those slow periods when the clock hands seem to stand still, but Comma sees enough potential volume in the wee hours to angle for indulgers “out having a great time,” as he explained to investors. The bait has been Jack’s Munchie Meal Menu, but Comma says his intent is to deliver a comprehensive late-night experience, which involves everything from product packaging to lighting to music. Constant menu changes will be the hook, but the reason to return will be the package, he says.

Difficulty factor: 4/10 (medium)

steven davis

Steve Davis

Chairman and CEO, Bob Evans Farms

Challenge: Raise traffic within a concept that lags the rest of family dining, itself the wheezing old- timer of the business.

Stated goal: Overcome guests’ skittishness about the economy.

Means: Offer more a la carte items at different pricing tiers to enable guests to build a meal within their budget; outfit all stores with takeout bakeries, which have boosted sales of pies and other baked goods by 21 percent during the quarter ended October 25; wield a $2.5-million workforce management tool to lower labor costs by more than $6 million.

Menu management hasn’t been a strong point of Bob Evans. The New Albany, Ohio-based chain tried to draw more traffic by fly-casting deals like an all-you-can-eat soup, salad and sandwich special for $6.99. The lift in customer counts didn’t materialize, and the chain learned that customers don’t add check builders like a la carte sides when they can gobble as much of a three-course meal as they want.

Now it’s trying to work within customers’ self-set spending limits by giving them ample choices to build a meal. They can have a sandwich for $7.99 at dinner or lunch, or turn it into a three-course meal for another $2.

The sandwiches are part of a new array of entrees priced at $7.99. The chain is hoping that price level will click with patrons who don’t want to spend more than $10 for their food.

The pressure is on Davis and his management team to reverse a slide in same-store sales. Activist shareholders have been calling for dramatic changes in the company’s operation, including the spin-off of its food-processing business.

Difficulty factor: 9/10 (high)

roland dickey jr

Roland Dickey Jr.

CEO, Dickey’s Barbecue Pit

Challenge: Parlay the boots-and-big-belt-buckles place his grandfather opened 72 years ago into a coast-to-coast fast-casual chain that barbecue enthusiasts will take seriously, sidestepping the gopher holes that routinely trip concepts on an expansion tear.

Stated goal: Become the first truly national barbecue chain.

Means: Determining where Dickey’s barbecue style will fly, then rapidly building out the markets through franchising, thereby
preempting would-be competitors.

At one point in Dickey’s Barbecue Pit’s evolution from a smoke-scented joint in Dallas to the fast-casual growth chain it is today, the company assessed the strengths and shortcomings of the restaurant pack. “We studied every concept out there, what they’d done right and where they’d gone wrong,” says Dickey, who was turned away by his father the first time the Southern Methodist grad tried to join the family business. “I saw a lot of chains becoming what they’re not. Others got confused about what their core values were and ended up sticking to sacred cows when they shouldn’t have.”

The exercise continues to color Dickey’s strategy, the 40-year-old explains. “Every company has to find a balance: You have to remain relevant to the consumer without surrendering your core values,” says Dickey. 

For the chain that bears his family’s name, that means evolving the look and feel of stores, which once took the form of cafeterias. “I walk into some barbecue places, and it’s clear they have this image of what a barbecue place should look like—they have junk on the walls and pictures of cowboys,” Dickey explains. “It doesn’t have to be lame. It has to be cool.”

There’s room for some localization, he suggests, but only so much when it comes to the wood-fired style of barbecue at Dickey’s. Regional preferences, the biases that can turn barbecue zealots into Hatfields and McCoys, aren’t going to bastardize the menu. “It’s a real issue,” Dickey says. “It’s a tough one. You can’t be all things to all people. You have to find a balance between localizing and being true to your core values.”

He did not specify how much leeway franchisees are given to hit that balance. But he stressed that one aspect of the concept is virtually non-negotiable: The music. Every new store sports a killer sound system, and it’s not inexpensive, Dickey says. But he believes the soundtrack stokes an excitement and coolness that customers connect to the brand.

Another mark of Dickey’s is its approach to franchisee and chain support services, says Dickey. All of it, including advertising and interactive e-media, is handled in-house.

It’s a far cry, he says, from the headquarters he joined in 1999 after working in other chains and unit-level positions at Dickey’s. “Back then, you’d see four guys in our offices, and one of those was someone who drove around in a pick-up, checking stores,” he says.

Today, with more than 370 units open and 130 stores in the pipeline for 2014 alone, “we have the capabilities of a company 10 times our size,” Dickey says.

Difficulty factor: 3/10 (low)

patrick doyle

Pat Doyle

President and CEO, Domino’s Pizza

Challenge: Staying on the razor’s edge of marketing and technology.

Stated goal: Sustain the momentum of a brand makeover that has already recast virtually every customer interaction, from how orders are placed to what the pizza tastes like.

Means: Opting for scary-cool technology while stressing how awful the food and service were pre-upgrades.

Like a serial record-breaker, Doyle can’t stop now if distinction is the aim. And by all appearances it is, though the target of the effort is Ann Arbor, Mich.-based Domino’s, not the 17-year veteran of the discounting free-for-all known as the pizza segment. The question is, “How do you follow the marketing equivalent of a tightrope walk over the Falls, a marketing campaign that acknowledged what you previously sold was cardboard-y crap?” How do you top a risky feat like that?

Start with a new technology partnership that lets consumers order a pizza from the dashboard of their car. That’s a takeout pie, ordered from a delivery specialist whose units were once nothing more than unadorned kitchens in “C” locations. When virtually all of your business was delivery, what did it matter?

At Doyle’s instigation, Domino’s is now betting on dine-in restaurants with display kitchens, where customers can watch their meals being prepared. “It’s about making that yet one more area where we’re really leading,” he recently told investors.

It’s also about getting credit for better food. Even casual passersby will see that Domino’s uses quality ingredients, Doyle asserted.

And if they don’t surmise that service has improved, Domino’s can always resurrect a recent commercial that shows how problematic a phone order could be in the days before Domino’s had online ordering.

Difficulty factor: 1/10 (low)

Larry Flax and Rick Rosenfield

Founders and former co-CEOs, California Pizza Kitchen; prospective entrants in the better-pizza market

Challenge: Catch another pizza wave by once again hatching a concept that leads consumers upmarket.

Stated goal: Give their entrant a twist that distinguishes it from all the other players, newcomers and veterans alike, who intend to establish their brand as the Chipotle of pizza.

Means: Specializing in more than pizza; going beyond the Subway and Chipotle assembly-line format; tapping contacts forged during the rollout of CPK to find the best locations; franchising.

Successful prosecutors, defense attorneys, entrepreneurs and asset managers (they’ve bought and sold CPK several times), Flax and Rosenfield share a past that would prompt many business people to toss away the mobile and live to golf. Yet the duo can’t seem to resist the call of an emerging market similar in some ways to the one that led them to start CPK: Better pizza, with more individualization, served in the preferred setting and service style of the day.

The difference is that CPK had few competitors from the get-go. Probably the closest concept at the time was Wolfgang Puck’s original Spago, which Flax and Rosenfield have acknowledged as an inspiration for their first restaurant venture. It’s a different situation this time around, with a stampede of places looking to translate Chipotle into Italian.

The duo has voiced confidence that they can differentiate their brainchild from the pack. They’ve not disclosed many details, but have indicated that not all the pies will be assembled to order, a key departure from what everyone else is doing. They’ve also mentioned an intention to offer more than pizza, but have been cagey as to what those other signatures might be.

Flax and Rosenfield have said little else about their intended start-up, other than to say they’ll fire up the ovens by year’s end.

Difficulty factor: 4/10 (medium)

bill foley

Bill Foley

Principal, American Blue Ribbon Holdings (Village Inn, Bakers Square, O’Charley’s, Max & Erma’s, Ninety Nine Restaurant & Pub) and J. Alexander’s (J. Alexander’s, Stoney River Legendary Steaks)

Challenge: Revitalizing seven restaurant brands that, in American Blue Ribbon’s own words, had lost their way after successful long runs.

Stated goal: Revitalize each brand and realize its value, possibly through IPOs.

Means: Building deep, experienced management teams to which Foley readily delegates; playing off the concepts’ historic strengths, like baking and takeout whole pies; improving operations across the board; grouping similar operations together for synergies and efficiencies.

Bill Foley amasses businesses the way some people collect vintage cars: Look for a fixer-upper you can buy at a bargain, then invest the repair work.

After making his wealth in the title-insurance business, he saw an opportunity to parlay a financial relationship with Carl’s Jr. founder Carl Karcher into a controlling position within the chain, where he served as chairman and CEO. That was the springboard for an acquisition tear that included Hardee’s, Green Burrito, Taco Bueno, Rally’s and Checker’s, among other regional chains that needed a spiff-up.

When that conglomeration nearly collapsed under debt, Foley exited the restaurant industry—only to re-emerge in recent years on another acquisition binge. Through his Fidelity National Financial holding company, he’s rebuilt a sizeable portfolio of distressed casual- and family-dining chains, all definitely handyman specials. Subordinates say the company and its main restaurant affiliate, American Blue Ribbon, looked at more than 20 acquisition candidates. Foley was reportedly among the parties interested in buying Wendy’s.

Most of his restaurant repair projects have been entrusted to Hazem Ouf, the former operator of Souper Salad, Grandy’s, California Cafes and other restaurant concepts. Ouf recently told a local business paper that more acquisitions are possible.

Foley’s restaurant investments have already topped $1.4 billion in annual sales and $81 million in EBITDA.

Difficulty factor: 7/10 (medium)

kristen hodges

Kristen Hodges

Director of Career Services, Kendall College

Challenge: Properly aligning students’ skills and interests with the career opportunities offered by today’s diverse and shifting culinary job market.

Stated goal: To “best match the [students’] skill set to the right company, restaurant or location,” says Hodges.

Means: Today, placement professionals are looking beyond fine dining. While once the prime source for culinary school grads, the industry has changed, as have students’ desires. “There are now more gastropubs, high-end quick-service restaurants and other specialty restaurants that want and need to hire our students,” Hodges says.

At Chicago’s Kendall College, both the faculty and career services department strive to “open [students’] eyes to all of the possibilities in the culinary and hospitality field and assess which would be best for them and provide the most opportunity,” Hodges says. The staff also sets clear career expectations, helping students understand what they need to succeed (hard work, focus and commitment) and bringing in industry experts to reiterate realistic expectations about growth and progression in the industry.

With students potentially going in so many different directions, teaching strategies have also adjusted and broadened to best prepare a wide range of young chefs. At the Institute of Culinary Education in New York City, for example, the focus shifted from preparing students for high-end kitchens to teaching students to work with top-quality ingredients in any culinary setting, from fine-dining restaurants to food trucks, says Maureen Drum Fagin, the school’s director of career services.

Difficulty factor: 4/10 (medium)

kim lopdrup

Kim Lopdrup

CEO-elect, Red Lobster (or what it will become)

Challenge: Guide a faltering giant through a transition into a free-standing operation, separated for the first time in 43 years from a resource-rich corporate parent.

Stated goal: Refocus on consumers who fit the concept’s profile of the ideal customer, which current parent Darden Restaurants has characterized as a conservative spender more interested in value than culinary pizzazz.

Means: Playing an unknown role in arranging a spin-off or sale of Red Lobster, while righting a menu that had drifted upscale, a marketing effort that left core customers unmoved, and operations that can keep prices above patrons’ comfort levels.

Lopdrup might feel like the frontman of a blues band that’s decided to go techno-pop. Orlando-based Darden is shifting its restaurant brands upmarket, where higher tickets will mean better margins and profits. But Red Lobster’s customers want no part of the dress-up, as Darden has painfully learned. So Lopdrup is being ushered off the tour bus with the mission of pleasing the hardcore traditionalists.

Another part of the job will be satisfying whoever ends up owning Red Lobster. If the brand is spun off to Darden’s shareholders, a possiblity raised by the corporation, Lopdrup will be serving familiar masters without any buffers between himself and the activist stakeholders who view Red Lobster as a lodestone. If the concept is sold, it’s hello to new bosses.

Either way, Lopdrup has to revive the seafood chain. Darden carefully spelled out the strategic plan last month to investors: Shift the concept’s focus back to the less-fussy and value-priced foods its clientele had favored, while more effectively communicating to consumers that those are the sort of choices they’ll find. Meanwhile, take some cost out of operations both to improve profits and reflect the savings in menu prices.

Difficulty factor: 5/10 (medium)

john maguire

John Maguire

CEO, Friendly’s, Wilbraham, Mass.

Challenge: Entrusted with the childhood heartthrob of many a Baby Boomer, the longtime Panera Bread executive has to erase the ill effects of menu drift and shotgun growth to re-master restaurant fundamentals.

Stated goal: Make Friendly’s friendly again.

Means: Prune the menu, focus on ice cream, replace what Maguire calls “order takers” with real servers, and grow with discipline after shutting 500 stores.

Early in Friendly’s turnaround effort, the family chain tried to understand what had gone wrong with one of the industry’s earliest restaurant chains, a brand once woven into the lives of the Northeast’s middle class. The problem, as explained by Maguire at a recent conference: The food was bad, the service was awful and the restaurants were dirty. “Friendly’s dirty little secret was that it wasn’t very friendly,” he quipped. Other than that, he said, everything was great.

A big part of the problem was menu bloat. “Our menu was bigger than Cheesecake Factory’s,” Maguire explained at the Technomic conference. “If you’d cut that by 65 percent, our sales would have dropped 2.6 percent.” Put another way: One-third of the menu generated 97.4 percent of sales. But customers had to fight for it, and the staff had to be capable of producing everything. Or maybe not, as many customers discovered.

Menu and service issues are being addressed, Maguire said, in part because friends and acquaintances who grew up in Friendly’s home base of New England won’t let him do otherwise. “They all tell me, ‘You have to fix Friendly’s,’” he lamented.

The concept’s owner, private equity giant Sun Capital, is presumably just as adamant. After buying Friendly’s, it watched the chain file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in late 2011. Sun put it on the auction block, but no bidders came forward, so the private equity company bought the bankrupt operation from itself, working through a subsidiary.

“We’re not done yet,” Maguire says of the fix-it effort. But he says he’s not about to disappoint.

Difficulty factor: 8/10 (high)

mike pruitt

Mike Pruitt

CEO, Chanticleer Holdings (American Roadside Burgers, Just Fresh, Spoon Bar & Kitchen, Beacher’s Madhouse, franchised Hooters)

Challenge: Expand Chanticleer’s current eclectic mix of chains while hunting for acquisitions and the occasional human cannonball.

Stated goal: “Turn yet another corner, this time to profitability.” (The company lost $1.4 million on revenues of $1.6 million for the three months ended Sept. 30.)

Means: Open more restaurants, starting in the segments where Chanticleer already has a toehold (fast casual, breastaurant, new-age health and what it’s dubbed over-the-top entertainment.)

Let’s start with the 6′7″ stripper, who presumably clocks into work alongside Mini Lady Gaga, the Cat Magician, the Human Cannonball and the World’s Smallest Stripper (at 1′ 10″ tall). They’re part of the entertainment troupe at Beacher’s Madhouse, the Los Angeles cabaret and nightclub that’s being cloned in Las Vegas with $500,000 of Chanticleer’s money.

The investment was just one of the outlays that Pruitt made last year to swell Chanticleer’s restaurant portfolio. It bought the five-unit American Roadside Burgers chain and a controlling interest in the five-store Just Fresh healthy-cafe concept, and inked a deal to acquire a Dallas fine-dining seafood restaurant called Spoon. Chanticleer, which is based in Charlotte, N.C., said it will convert the chef-run restaurant into a fast-casual growth vehicle.

If you’re not racing to buy the stock (Chanticleer is traded on NASDAQ) because it all sounds a little out there, consider that Pruitt had earlier acquired international franchise rights to Hooters. Now he’s starting to amass development territories and existing franchised breastaurants in the United States. He also gets a taste of the franchisor’s profits through a 3 percent stake in Hooters of America.

Now, with 21 restaurants in the fold, all he has to do is finish in the black.

Difficulty factor: 8/10 (high)

ed rensi

Ed Rensi

Acting CEO, Famous Dave’s

Challenge: Wielding the rudder of a two-concept company in transition until a permanent leader is named, whenever (and some say if) one is.

Stated goal: While searching for a successor, seamlessly implement and refine the strategies that were developed under predecessor John Gilbert, relying on restaurant know-how forged as a one-time CEO and 36-year veteran of McDonald’s. 

Means: Continue to lessen Famous Dave’s reliance on limited-time offers by focusing on the development of permanent menu additions, like a new Burnt Ends line. Refine Famous Dave’s fast-casual spinoff and “super-charge” the expansion, in the words of chairman Dean Riesen.

Rensi had been named to Famous Dave’s board just a month before he was asked by fellow directors to step into the CEO’s job—a surprise in part because the former McDonald’s chief already had a day job. Since 2010, he’d been developing fast-casual burger concept Tom & Eddie’s. But Dave’s isn’t worried about getting short shrift. “The man barely sleeps,” Riesen remarked to investors. “He is one of the highest energy people I have ever met.”

That verve, coupled with a make-it-happen style, could be a key asset in Rensi’s new role as chain fixer, a task he assumed with reported enthusiasm after Gilbert surprised the board by resigning after 16 months in the job. Rensi will not be a caretaker, Riesen stressed to Wall Street analysts. He did not divulge particulars, but said some influences were being felt days after the change in leadership.

The board said it had expected Gilbert, a veteran of the Vermont Teddy Bear retail chain, to lead Minnetonka, Minn.-based Famous Dave’s for at least the next five years. It’s similarly taking a long-range view of Rensi’s tenure—to the point where one analyst asked if Rensi might be the next permanent CEO. No, said Riesen, but “we are under no pressure since we have such a talented leader in Ed.”

Difficulty factor: 6/10 (medium)

Wendi Safstrom

Vice President of Educational Programs at NRAEF

Challenge: Spreading the ProStart food service education program to high schools across 50 states, despite public funding constraints.

Stated goal: Involve more students, educators and restaurants in what’s emerging as the gold standard of a business and education partnership.

Means: Keeping the curriculum
real-world while using a growing body of ProStart alumni to prove the program is worth the investment of educational funds.

On the goodness spectrum, ProStart falls near sleeping puppies and hugs from grandchildren. The vocational program offers a proven career path into food service for teens who see a traditional high school experience as a sizzling skillet where they’ll likely end up as bacon. Instead of dropping out or trudging painfully toward graduation, a low-skills job waiting on the other side, they earn a rung several steps up the opportunity ladder. Everyone wins.

So why isn’t ProStart available everywhere? Ask Safstrom, who’s worked on ProStart for about 15 years, from the days it involved a handful of high schools in two or three states. NRAEF insiders say she’s a key reason the program has 100,000 students enrolled today in 2,200 high schools. Her talk isn’t of coasting into more sites, especially the two states that have held out on her.

“The problem is getting funding,” she says. “ProStart is considered an elective class, like a class in marketing.” If a high school principal or other educator green lights the program, they have to come up with the dollars to offer it. At the same time, she says, “the state restaurant associations are really the ones who are getting programs into place, and they have bandwidth issues.” Supplemental funds come from restaurant employers, “from Marriott and Brinker to mom-and-pops,” says Safstrom.

Operators are also critical partners in providing the practical experience that’s a hallmark of the ProStart program. Recruiting them as mentors has become less arduous as the NRAEF has redefined the role. Instead of a one-student-to-one-mentor ratio, it uses restaurant volunteers more as coaches and role models for a group of students, easing the time burden on professionals.

Another advantage afforded by time is the emergence of a ProStart alumni group, veritable kryptonite to early criticism that the program was just a way to create burger flippers out of would-be dropouts. ProStart can point to ample graduates turned culinary and management pros, and culinary schools have targeted kids from the program as choice recruits.

So is it changing the attitudes of young people, educators and parents about the restaurant industry as a career choice? “We wouldn’t have grown as we have if it hadn’t,” says Safstrom.

Difficulty factor: 3/10 (low)

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Elizabeth Blau | Amy Bouzaglo Samy Bouzaglo Ralph Brennan JJ Buettgen Marc Caira Sandy Cochran Lenny Comma Steve Davis Roland Dickey Jr. Pat Doyle Larry Flax Bill Foley Kristen Hodges Kim Lopdrup John Maguire Mike Pruitt Ed Rensi Wendi Safstrom Rick Rosenfield

Companies at a Crossroads

Challenges aren’t limited to individuals; sometimes, a whole organization finds itself at a critical juncture on a long road of success. Many find themselves facing the question, “What now?” The answer never seems to be, “Keep sailing along as ever,” as these situations show.

Buffalo Wild Wings
Challenge: Secure a second growth concept.
Response: Experiment with the PizzaRev better-pizza concept while exploring acquisition opportunities.

Chipotle Mexican Grill
C: Become the “Chipotle” of other markets
R: Enter the pizza and Asian fast-casual markets, via ShopHouse and Pizza Locale, respectively

Darden Restaurants
C: Become a growth company again
R: Cut loose Red Lobster, focus on younger brands

C: Get back in sync with customers
R: Maintain value and convenience appeal while creeping upscale

C: Satisfy investors as well as guests
R: Use new offerings to earn “The Best Place for Lunch” title; grow 10 percent a year

C: Emerge and stay out of bankruptcy
R: Shed debt, units

C: Appeal to more than coffee fans
R: Launch fresh-squeezed juice, tea and bar concepts

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