This week’s 5 head-spinning moments: The industry grows up

There was a time when blind luck could figure as much into a restaurant’s success as hardnosed considerations like location or pricing. But serendipity isn’t the business strategy it once was, as developments of the past week attest. Operators were handed the sort of windfall that usually requires rubbing a genie’s lamp. Yet they also were reminded of how much smarter, more creative and adaptive they need to be today.

Here are some of those head-turning indicators that the business is growing more sophisticated anad dependent on macroeconomics.

1. Thank you, OPEC

Burger King cut the price of its chicken nuggets to 15 cents again. McDonald’s kick-started a new marketing campaign. Dozens of areas began or previewed a local Restaurant Week. Yet those efforts didn’t have nearly as much impact on industry sales as the market jiggering that kept gasoline prices low.

The Sonic drive-in chain left the industry and Wall Street atwitter this week by posting an 8.5 percent jump in same-store sales for its most recent quarter. Not an insignificant factor, said CFO Steve Vaughan, was the money customers saved at the pump.

“In markets where we're located, people tend to drive a lot more, and so the average consumer has quite a bit of extra money in their pocket, and we think we're getting our fair share of that,” Vaughan said.

One of the more head-turning stats served up this week was the assessment by Technomic EVP Darren Tristano of how much the industry is being helped at the pump. “For every one-cent dip in prices, it brings about a $1 billion increase in disposable income,” he noted. “Gasoline prices are certainly going to have a positive effect and get people back out there, eating in restaurants.”

2. Cyber security as a special

Clear indications emerged this week that drawing those consumers to a particular restaurant is getting trickier because of internet bad guys. Eight in10 Americans prefer to frequent businesses they trust to keep their credit-card and frequent-customer information secure, according to a study released by the Deloitte consulting firm. Yet fewer than 40 percent of U.S. merchants have earned the public’s trust, the study found.

The study also underscored how much damage a single data breach can do to a business. Nearly 60 percent of the consumer-respondents said they’d be unlikely to visit a place whose computer systems had been hacked.

3. Jobs get more specialized

The growing sophistication of the business was reflected in the business cards that Denver-based Sage Restaurant Group printed for its newest director-level executive, Jessica Werner. Her title reads, “director of feasibility, new business and transitions,” with responsibility for assessing possible sites for new restaurants. The creation of the post is an indication of how important astute site selection has become at a time of high real estate costs and decreasing A-caliber locations. Instead of adjudging traditional criteria like traffic and visibility, Werner is expected to project how a new site will affect the brand.

Sage operates 10 restaurants under such names as Urban Farmer, The Corner Office and Second Home.

4. Will a movie improve McDonald’s fortunes?

A rumor in the Hollywood press broke the news that Michael Keaton is being considered for the title role of a new biopic of Ray Kroc, the man who built McDonald’s into the industry’s dominant force. Once upon a time, a brand drew attention through a combination of advertising, publicity stunts and straight public relations. Now, you just need a box-office smash, as White Castle attested after “Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle” became a cult favorite.

5. Offering a memorable bathroom experience

It’s conventional wisdom that restaurant customers are shopping as much today for a memorable experience as they are for good food or bargain prices. Kitty’s Purple Cow, a quirky, all-purple eatery in Surfside Beach, Texas, showed how creative places are becoming to create indelible memories for a jaded public.

The Cow’s ladies room features a poster of a young man wearing only underwear, with, um, a main point of interest doubly hidden behind a small, strategically placed door. It’s not hard to imagine what’s under the door. But if a customer decides to see for herself and opens the hatch, an alarm audible to the whole restaurant is sounded. Her embarrassment becomes instead fodder for Twitter posts for the guest and her friends.

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