The week's 5 head-spinning moments

Tech attitude reboot: Not long ago, sweeping technology upgrades were a moon shot for restaurant companies. They were undertaken with considerable trepidation, and only after long and extensive in-store testing.  But, as with many tech conventions, that recent history is feeling more and more distant. Consider the alternative approaches that were aired by chains this week.

Red Robin didn’t reveal how many millions it’s spending on a new supply-chain management system, but the figure might’ve been less of a jaw-dropper than the adoption process executives sketched out for the sake of investors. Instead of testing the cost cutter until it runs without a hitch, headquarters intends to spare GMs some wear and tear by yanking the set-up from the 35 units where it’s in trial. “Rather than subject our managers to continued testing, we decided to pull the software back into the lab for rework and software updates,” said CFO Stuart Brown. “We won’t test in restaurants again until this work is completed.”

It’s an original approach that Lenny Comma, CEO of Jack in the Box, might want to remember. In talking with his shareholders, the operations vet remarked that his company’s tech arrangement isn’t exactly a model for the efficiency-minded.

In addition to managing Jack in the Box, Comma oversees the Qdoba burrito chain. Each brand has its own in-store technology network, presumably with a dedicated support team. “What that means is that we are supporting, say, two POS systems, two back office systems, two [various] other items,” he explained. “So that obviously creates some additional IT and infrastructure required to support and maintain all those systems.”

In what would have been the equivalent of yelling “Let’s go to Jupiter!” a few years ago, Comma calmly disclosed, nearly in an aside, that the company is looking at rationalizing the two systems into one.

Jack in the Box has owned Qdoba for 11 years.

Promotion, eh, Denny Post? Let McDonald’s and Yum! Brands contend with the vagaries of China. A swelling pack of chains is aiming closer to home in their international expansion efforts, spotting ample opportunity just north of the border.

Count Red Robin among them. This week, the chain revealed that it’s tapped a longtime industry veteran and widely respected marketing specialist to multiply Red’s sales and opportunities in Canada. While keeping her post as global chief marketing officer, Denny Post will also serve as president of Red Robin-Canada. Her mission has been designated Project Red, and “she’ll be supported by our experienced and proven operations team who will work closely with the corporate office in Vancouver,” said CEO Steve Carley.

Post has served in high-level marketing and innovation posts at Starbucks, Burger King, T-Mobile and KFC.

“Simplification? Not in this turnaround!”  There’s no doubt restaurant chains as a whole are striving to simplify kitchen operations, which often means pruning the menu and cutting the number of supplies they stock. The notion is to streamline kitchen operations and tighten the staff’s focus. With fewer items to prepare, describe and serve, they should get more practice and expertise on handling what options are left.

But Cosi isn’t buying it. “We have increased the number of items that we sell per location,” CEO and trend contrarian R.J. Dourney told investors. “We’ve increased the number of SKUs that we sell at the unit level. And we are seeing a sizable uptick in comp store sales where that initiative has been fully embraced.”

Dourney also acknowledged that the chain’s first-quarter loss of $3.1 million was attributable to a 12.4-percent plummet in same-store sales.

Chipotle attackers show strength in numbers
Like the shoot-outs Chipotle is either encouraging or averting with its new gun policy, discussions of the issue have been a back-and-forth volley. Everyone from moms’ groups to Texas Gov. (and likely 2016 presidential candidate) Rick Perry have been taking a side and firing at the other’s views.  It’s more of a head-ducker than a neck turner, but the real gulp was a revelation that largely slipped past during the crossfire.

CNBC, a stalwart of what Bubba & Co. assail as the leftist media, ran a story about Perry’s assertions that Chipotle might pay a price for banning guns in its restaurants, a stand the chain took after gun nuts showed up at a store with military-caliber rifles. The New Age operation characterized the ban was a stroke for sanity, a way of sparing customers the experience of nervously munching a tofu burrito while fellow patrons brandish assault weapons.

Perry, in his bumbling fashion, suggested that Chipotle might be the victim of a backlash from gun-rights advocates. No surprise there.

But the development that should scare any high profile chain was the poll that accompanied the story. Fifty-one percent of the 12,617 respondents (as of press time) said they would not eat at Chipotle because of the gun ban.

A poll, of course, isn’t always an accurate gauge of behavior. And Starbucks’ embrace of a stance similar to Chipotle’s hasn’t hurt that chain.

Still, it’s a matter of which way sentiment is swinging.

The day fast food lost its mind
One day, Burger King is merrily sounding its long-held slogan, a classic that underscores a true point of difference for the brand. “Have it your way.” Ahh.  Long before there was as much talk of customization as restaurateurs hear today, the home of the Whopper was touting it as a competitive advantage.

A day later, the King was making a case for self-committal.  Stories about the chain’s switch to a new slogan, “Be your way,” were unavoidable to all but the cryogenically frozen. But most of the reports weren’t completely accurate. Burger King indicated that the new term was more than a slogan—it was a “brand outlook,” a reminder to consumers that “they can and should live how they want, anytime.”

In a business rife with hyperbole, the chain set a new benchmark. Does it really believe someone will glance at the slogan stamped on a Whopper box and declare,  “You know, I’m going to do it! I’m going to quit my job and become a potter!!”

At a time when consumers indisputably have their heads spun by attributes like transparency, integrity and realness, they’re being told flame-broiled burgers are the way to demonstrate and celebrate individuality. Yeah, right.

At least the King will have an acquaintance in the asylum’s group therapy sessions. Almost simultaneous with BK’s shift in brand outlook, McDonald’s was drawing fire for hatching a new marketing character called Happy, as in Happy Meal. The new mascot was aimed at kids. But Happy has a set of chompers that would make a pit bull envious, with a demented sort of look and an uncuddly, boxy body. Within hours, it was being re-christened as McScary, and tens of thousands of social media users were asking, What were they thinking?

Anyone who knows should e-mail me,

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