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8 stunners from the Global Restaurant Leadership Conference

Amid talk of delivery, ghost kitchens and a worldwide shortage of restaurant talent, speakers and attendees aired a few surprises. Here’s a sampling.
Photograph courtesy of Marina Bay Sands

Heads jerked upward when a neatly dressed member of the audience stood and gave his name before posing a question at the Global Restaurant Leadership Conference to keynoter Robbie Brozin, founder of the Nando’s global chicken chain. 

“My name is Dan Cathy, and I’m the CEO of Chick-fil-A,” the man drawled into the mic he was handed. He didn’t need to mention that he’s the son of Chick-fil-A’s iconic founder, Truett Cathy, which made his question to Brozin all the more jaw-dropping: “Could you share some of the ways you keep the founder’s vision alive at Nando’s?” 

It was a grabber of a moment, but far from the only one witnessed at the 1,100-person conference, presented Nov. 3-6 in Singapore by Restaurant Business’ parent company, Winsight. Attendees from five continents trekked to the epicenter of Asian commerce to learn how the restaurant industry is evolving as the world seemingly shrinks. There was ample talk of delivery, the global labor crisis, and the lightning rise of ghost kitchens, an unexpectedly hot topic at the event. 

Other stunners touched on everything from the state of edgy marketing to Americans losing the ability to sew on a button. We’ve selected eight here that had heads spinning with particularly noticeable velocity, whether they were served from the stage or aired within small groups during networking breaks. 

And how did Brozin respond to Cathy? You won’t find his reply here, because it veered toward the textbook: Constantly reaffirm the founder’s principles, work hard on maintaining the formative culture, be true to your brand’s DNA. Insights didn’t have to be stunners to merit the audience’s attention.

But here’s a bunch that decidedly were.

Fly Taco Bell Air?

Travelers who weren’t able to score a room at the short-lived Taco Bell Hotel & Resort last summer may still get a chance to live mas while on the road. (Accommodations at the pop-up inn sold out in less than two minutes, even though guests had to contend with the lizard-frying summer heat of Palm Springs, Calif.) After the outpouring of publicity, “I had people calling me up and asking if they could license Taco Bell hotels all over the world,” Greg Creed, CEO of Taco Bell parent Yum Brands, told conference attendees in a keynote address. “We now have airlines and cruise ships talking to us about how they can create a Taco Bell airlines experience and a Taco Bell cruise ship experience.”

5-lane drive-thrus

Creed also revealed that Yum’s KFC brand is experimenting with a five-lane drive-thru that looks more like the line of tollbooths at a highway on-ramp than anything currently outside a restaurant. Three of the five lanes are reserved for customers who place and pay for their orders remotely. The lanes are lined up abreast, and they’re not supported by a conventional adjacent restaurant. “It’s essentially a cooking platform,” said Creed. 

5-minute delivery

A restaurant operation in Japan has engineered a way of getting delivery orders into customers’ hands within five minutes, according to Jack Cowin, better known as the Jack of Hungry Jack’s, the brand name used by Burger King for its restaurants in Australia. That seemingly impossible time wasn’t a fluke, Cowin stressed. It was the average lapse between the placement of an order and its delivery to customers for a whole week of business, not some particularly smooth afternoon or evening. He provided few details as to how the establishment pulls off that feat and did not divulge the name of the place. But he noted that the secret was getting the orders en route while the other steps in taking and dispatching the orders were still underway.

Who needs coolers?

A new food technology could enable restaurants to reduce the space devoted within their kitchens to refrigeration, suggested Andrew Kwan, group managing director of Commonwealth Capital and a member of the wrap-up panel at GRLC. He explained that the breakthrough would enable currently perishable ingredients to be kept at ambient temperatures without spoiling or losing quality for up to a year. Kwan indicated his firm is investing in the tech.

Taco Bell’s next chip shot

One of the limited-time offers that could show up on Taco Bell’s U.S. menu is a taco made with a shell that crunches and tastes like a potato chip, revealed Liz Williams, president of Taco Bell International. That possible descendant of the Doritos Locos taco and more recent Toasted Cheddar Chalupa has already been tried in international markets that Williams did not divulge. She described the product as delicious.

Hitting a brick wall

At the headquarters of Five Guys Burgers and Fries in Lorton, Va., a sign clearly identifies which door to open to find the retro chain’s test kitchen. Unsuspecting visitors open the portal to find a solid brick wall, a tongue-in-cheek way of reminding employees and guests that Five Guys is sticking with a simple, stable menu—or the complete opposite of Taco Bell’s LTO-heavy marketing approach. The last product to be introduced by the family-run chain was a milkshake, and that wasn’t exactly yesterday, explained John Eckbert, CEO of Five Guys International. 

Airing sales to all

Since firing up its ovens eight years ago, Russia’s Dodo Pizza has promised total transparency to guests and employees alike. Part of that effort is routinely posting the chain’s sales online, said founder and CEO Fyodor Ovchinnikov. The forthrightness may be facilitated by what the numbers say about Dodo’s popularity. In its native land, the brand’s revenues outstrip the sales of Domino’s and Papa John’s combined. Dodo won this year’s GRLC Distinction Award for innovation, a reflection of its heavy incorporation of technology.

How dominant is Tim Hortons in Canada?

Eight of every 10 cups of coffee sold in Canada are brewed by a Tim Hortons, according to a former official who was on hand at GRLC. The brand’s parent, Restaurant Brands International, won the GRLC Distinction Award in the growth category. The company is also the owner of Burger King and Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen.

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