MLB has interrupted its season for Tuesday night’s All-Star Game, a fit of hoopla that gives fans an opportunity to indulge their adoration of the game’s most spectacular players. What better time to wag a homer hankie or two for the standout performers in our industry, the talents whose leadership has wowed their most critical of watchers (that’d be us)?
Here, arranged in an ideal batting order, is Restaurant Business’ 2018 all-star restaurant team, along with a potentially surprising choice for squad manager.
Charlie Morrison, CEO, Wingstop
The best leadoff batter is the wily sort who forgoes flash to make things happen, period. Morrison has shown himself to be that resourceful can-do leader. At a time of slumping traffic for the chain sector as a whole, Wingstop increased its transactions, posting a 9.5% same-store sales gain for the first quarter of this year. That rise came despite a drop in the chain’s signature product, wings, which had been crunching margins because of their high price. Wing sales dropped 11.3%, enabling stores to bolster their profitability.
Morrison’s flexibility was evident in Wingstop’s approach to delivery. He cited concerns about moving into that arena, citing fears about the loss of quality and profits. But he’s since eased the quick-service chain into the booming market.
Dave Hoffmann, CEO, Dunkin’ Brands; president, Dunkin’ Donuts USA
A No. 2 hitter is expected to put his team into a scoring position, even if that means hitting a sacrifice fly or working a walk instead of batting for average. It can be a study in patience.
Hoffmann has shown his team orientation by adopting what Dunkin’ Donuts calls the Blueprint for Growth, a push to transform the doughnut specialist into what he describes as a “beverage-first, on-the-go brand.” A big part of that effort is streamlining the quick-service brand’s menu, a move that’s dropped weekly transactions by about 15 per store.
It’s the price, Hoffmann said, of simplifying operations, speeding service and decreasing employee turnover, the latter a result of reducing the pressure on counter workers. In exchange for that short-term pain, he told investors, Dunkin’ will enjoy sustained long-term growth.
He’s the rare executive who’ll risk investors’ wrath by managing for the long haul rather than scrambling for positive comps quarter by quarter.
Steve Easterbrook, CEO, McDonald’s
The anchor of the order is the No. 3 batter, the plate master who can slap a single to the opposite field or bounce one off the scoreboard with equal ease. It’s all about average, and no one has posted positive numbers in the last year (or two) with as much consistency as the Brit who was given the daunting task of turning around McDonald’s.
In that respect, he’s been a franchise player. From a position of having its viability questioned, the industry’s behemoth has roared back to become the market maker again. With Domino’s Patrick Doyle and Panera Bread’s Ron Shaich both technically retired, Easterbrook is likely to remain MVP for years to come.
Steve Joyce, CEO, Dine Brands (IHOP and Applebee’s)
The cleanup hitter is expected to swing for the fences. By that criterion, Joyce gets the nod, narrowly beating out Blaine Hurst of Panera. He was given overall responsibility for arguably the most trying turnaround in the business, Applebee’s, only to have its smaller sister also slide.
Joyce needs big hits to save both. He’s certainly swinging accordingly. Despite the company’s financial challenges, he switched to a brand-specific focus, which typically tends to be less economic than the consolidation of multiple chains’ support services. In particular, he’s invested in what are essentially data scientists for each of his charges.
While helping franchisees limp back to sound health, he’s not been afraid to summon lawyers when one of the operators appears to work against the common good, as he did when Applebee’s second-largest franchisee indicated it might sell or shut its units.
The tape-measure blast could be Joyce’s acquisition of a third restaurant brand, a goal he’s pledged to complete by year’s end. With two big hurts currently under his supervision, it’s a bold move to bring another operation on board.
Dennis Maloney, chief digital officer, Domino’s Pizza
The pizza chain is forthright about why it’s spanking every direct competitor and shirking off the challenge from recent delivery entrants: It’s a tech company that uses innovation to sell pizza. The phenom who’s made that strategy work is Maloney, a quiet star who’s proving technology may supplant marketing as the key way to bolster restaurant sales. His streak of (tech) hits, from chatbots to voice-recognition telephone ordering, make him the perfect designated hitter.
It didn’t happen by happenstance. Maloney had the chutzpah to go to Domino’s board in 2012 and outline the threats to the business, urging the pizza chain to become a heavy player in the e-commerce space.
Dave Scrivano, CEO, Little Caesars
Infielders are known for being scrappy. The feistiest would find a good double-play partner in the man who’s roused Little Caesars back into winning shape.
Under Scrivano, who started in the pizza business while still in college, the value-based chain has let Domino’s crow about remaking the pizza segment with technology. But it’s had breakthroughs in its own right, including a computer-controlled holding device where customers can retrieve a preordered pie without waiting in line. Quietly, it also applied for a patent on some pizza-making robotic equipment.
That’s not the only way it’s shown pluck. Instead of rolling out an app in the usual fashion, the Michigan-based chain tied the intro to the launch of a new product, the Extra Most Bestest Pizza, essentially a personalized pie spec’d via the new ordering tool. And it undercut the burger giants’ $5 lunch deals with a $4 combo featuring a four-slice reformulation of the chain’s signature Hot-N-Ready pizza.
Gene Lee, CEO, Darden Restaurants
The ironman of the squad, Lee is as solid as a Louisville Slugger in his knowledge of how the game is played. Decidedly old school, he pulled off what many believed was impossible, the turnaround of Olive Garden, and is now focused on reviving Cheddar’s Scratch Kitchen, a recent addition to Darden’s fold.
With his mastery of industry fundamentals, Lee may also be the squad’s Yoda. A competitor recently shared Lee’s advice to servers and other frontline employees: Just focus on making a difference within a 10-foot radius of where you are on the floor.
Dave George, COO, Darden Restaurants
Even competitors acknowledge that the casual-dining journeyman may be the best operations specialist in the business. If George had a baseball card, it’d likely refer to him as Mr. Fixit, a nod to his role in reviving Olive Garden and LongHorn Steakhouse by focusing on what happened within the concepts’ four walls. A recent anecdote from one competitor: When delivery was first drawing converts from beyond the pizza sector, George noted that all the entrants were chasing a $10 meal. Knowing all the effort and potential risk that went into delivery, he urged Olive Garden to forgo the chase for that minimum payback and focus instead on advance orders of at least $100.
Teammate and boss Gene Lee has cited that focus on catering as one of the reasons Olive Garden’s off-premise business has increased by 50% over the last three years, and now accounts for 14% of sales.
Peggy or Andrew Cherng, co-CEOs, Panda Restaurant Group
Consider the husband and wife team a platoon duo, the sort of two-for-one deal that Panda’s various brands are not known to embrace. The concepts can forgo come-ons of that magnitude without fear of antagonizing investors or franchisees. The Cherngs own and run all but a handful of their 2,000-plus restaurants (the exceptions being units in nontraditional locations such as transportation centers), which makes them one of the industry’s largest operators by store count.
And they’ve done a masterful job at it, quietly growing both unit counts and per-store sales within their core business, the Panda Express quick-service chain. The menu has evolved to include lighter selections, and stores have been tweaked to facilitate off-premise sales (wall signs designate a pickup area). But the chain has not gotten away from its core principle of serving Americanized Chinese food—items that are readily recognized by consumers, with flavors adjusted accordingly.
The Cherngs have branched out of the Asian market by investing in emerging brands such as Pieology, a fast-casual pizza concept, and Urbane Cafe, a sandwich and salad venture. They’ve also diversified their Asian holdings through the support of upstarts such as Uncle Tetsu, a two-unit specialist in Japanese cheesecake, and Ippudo, a ramen chain with a smattering of branches in New York City.
Manager: Rich Melman, founder and chairman, Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises
Finding someone with the credentials and experience to manage a team abounding in success stories (and healthy egos) is no small challenge. Who better than the person who’s wracked up more lifetime restaurant hits than any operator who’s still active—or any operator, period?
In addition to developing the near-ideal model for a multiconcept operation, Melman has hatched a slew of home run ideas since 1971, from Maggiano’s to Wow Bao, Big Bowl, Nacional 27 and RJ Grunts.
More recently, he’s demonstrated an acumen at parenting: His three children have proven all-star concept developers and operators in their own right.
Melman’s chances weren’t hurt by his embrace of softball as a golden-years passion.