What it means to lead

Some of the most successful restaurant brands are those that blaze their own trail.
Photograph by W. Scott Mitchell

top 500

In April, Winsight was proud to host the 21st annual Restaurant Leadership Conference (RLC). More than a thousand restaurant executives attended, sharing ideas and seeing innovative products from nearly 200 sponsors.

The theme of the conference was “Lead With Courage”, and as I thought about that phrase, it occurred to me that sometimes leadership means having the courage to not do things.

Consider Chick-fil-A. In the most recent Technomic Top 500 Chain Restaurant Report, Chick-fil-A climbed all the way to the No. 5 spot. Unlike the other chains in the Top 10, there is not a single Chick-fil-A outside the U.S. That’s not to say it won’t go global—it has announced plans to open in Canada in 2019, and is exploring other options—but it’s going to do it at its own pace. Until Chick-fil-A was certain it could replicate its legendary customer service and fantastic food, it wasn’t going to do it. It hasn’t slowed them down too much.  

Consider Texas Roadhouse. A few years back, I would joke there was a federal law mandating that every restaurant conference speaker use the word “millennial” at least three times a session. I’ve updated that joke with the word “delivery.”

Chains that don’t deliver want to do it. If they do it in some units, they want to do it in more. If they do it in all of them, they want to do it better.

But not Texas Roadhouse. Investors and analysts have been asking its leadership about delivery plans, and here’s what Kent Taylor, CEO of Texas Roadhouse, had to say: “We encourage all our competitors to do as much delivery as they can so they can deliver lukewarm food to the people who order it. We’ll stick to our guns on this.”

Texas Roadhouse continues to thrive, growing sales by nearly 10% in 2018.

Consider In-N-Out Burger. We talk a lot about menu innovation.  Well, last year In-N-Out added its first new menu item in 15 years! And that item, hot cocoa, wasn’t exactly new. It was on the menu in the 1950s—so the chain decided to add it back on.  

In-N-Out does virtually no menu innovation—and it continues to perform at a high level. It grew sales by more than 5% last year.

But of course, courage can mean massive change and innovation.

Consider Yum Brands. Yum has enjoyed enormous success with overseas expansion. There are currently 44,000 Yum restaurants outside the U.S., and CEO Greg Creed has announced plans to double that number.

As for delivery, if there’s a chain in the QSR space that rivals Texas Roadhouse’s success in full service, it’s Domino’s Pizza. And, uh, I’m pretty sure Domino’s does delivery. The chain has been lauded even outside our industry for its innovative deployment of tech in its delivery business.  

As for menu innovation, I’ll return to Yum—specifically Taco Bell—and not just because Creed was awarded Restaurant Leader of the Year at RLC. Doritos Locos Tacos, rolled out in 2012, was arguably the most successful restaurant item of this century, one that significantly drove sales and traffic. As for this year’s rollout of Nacho Fries, well, it’s not often a fast-food chain introducing fries on the menu becomes a social media sensation, but that’s exactly what happened.  

Menu innovation is part of the reason Taco Bell has climbed all the way to No. 4 on the Top 500.

If there is something we see time and time again among the most successful restaurant concepts, it is truly being a leader, and not a follower.   

Sometimes being a leader means having the courage to try things nobody has. Sometimes it means having the courage to not do what everyone else is doing.

This column was adapted from Chris Keating’s opening remarks at the Restaurant Leadership Conference.

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