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This week’s 5 head-spinning restaurant moments: Quiet progress

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peter romeo

Oh, sure, Superman can outrun bullets and lift buses, but how would he fare in a restaurant C-suite circa 2018?  The rigors of the current day make stopping a train seem like something to dash off between the 2 o’clock call with investors and the 2:15 sit-down with marketing.

Fortunately, the industry is making subtle progress in addressing a host of challenges. Here are some advances from the last week or so.

Starbucks’ war on restaurant paperwork

We’re stretching the weekly boundaries this week to include Starbucks’ audacious but little-noticed pledge on July 27 to bolster service while cutting employee workloads, or at least the parts that have no value to customers. Roz Brewer, president of the coffee behemoth’s Americas division, should have turned more heads with the promise “to cut up to 50% of current in-store administrative tasks by the end of fiscal year 2019.”  She didn’t reveal how Starbucks intends to do it, but specified that the results should be two to three more hours “unlocked” every day on tasks that actually benefit the customer and improve employees’ time on the job.

Why Del Frisco’s is remixing its brands

Del Frisco’s Restaurant Group has said before that it bought the Bartaco and Barcelona Wine Bar concepts to provide two more growth options, but the additional motives shared July 31 with Wall Street were head-turning material. As executives explained to financial analysts, the acquisitions counterbalance the high-end operator’s potential vulnerabilities, first by lessening the risk of a surge in beef prices—both additions need far less of the protein than the steakhouses making up the rest of Del Frisco’s portfolio. They also tend to do more business in the summer than the winter, a reversal of the pattern for Del Frisco’s other concepts.

CEO Norm Abdallah also told financial analysts that the lower checks of the new additions give the high-end steakhouse company a hedge against economic downturns, while the typical footprints of Bartaco and Barcelona should enable the company to lock up good locations that are too small for a Del Frisco’s Grill or Double Eagle.

He also revealed the company is in negotiations with several bidders for Sullivan’s, the 14-unit high-end concept Del Frisco’s has tagged with a “for sale” sign.

Panera’s bread bowl buzz

Hardcore Panera Bread fans dug deep for superlatives in their social media posts this week [KP3] about the latest innovation from the fast-casual disruptor’s test kitchen. And that’s without even trying the dish, which won’t go into test until Aug. 5 , and apparently only in Philadelphia.

Still, we’re talking about a revamp of the concept’s bread bowls, people. And it is indeed quite a change. The new version, according to press reports, will consist of a whole loaf of bread, with holes cut on either end for two soups or a soup paired with mac and cheese.

The twofer is meant to be shared by two people. The price wasn’t revealed, but it could also have the benefit of providing considerable value.

Who can use your email system?

One of the more perplexing rulings to come in recent years from the National Labor Relations Board, the federal referee in disputes between employers and unions, was the finding that employees have a right to use their employer’s email system to help organize a union chapter. The reasoning was that if employees can use the system at all, they can’t be censored on pro-union communications. The board also left open the possibility of organizers using employers’ other computer-based resources as well. Did that mean a union could use a restaurants’ customer management system to send notices of a boycott to frequent customers?

The question may never have to be answered. The NLRB, as reconstituted under President Trump, announced Aug. 1 that it’s seeking input on the question of whether email access should be extended to employees who want to use the system to lobby for union representation. The request did not come as part of a rule-making process, where all stakeholders are invited as a matter of course to provide input on a proposed change, but as part of a current court case involving casino operator Caesars Entertainment Corp., a relatively unusual way of soliciting comments on policy.

Applebee’s gets its royalties again

Head-turning topline data (the highest quarterly same-store sales gain in a decade) may have obscured a bigger reason for Applebee’s headquarters to break out the bubbly with this week’s report of second-quarter financial results: Franchisees are able to pay their royalties again.

We're getting paid by everybody, so that's a big change from where we were a year ago,” said Steve Joyce, CEO of parent company Dine Brands Global.

Applebee’s President John Cywinski noted that “a handful” of the operators “remain challenged.” But franchisees were sound enough to accept an increase in their advertising contributions as of July 1, from 3.5% to 4.25%.

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