Every quarter we tie a tether to our waists and plunge into public chains’ required reports to shareholders and investors, hunting for asides that signal potentially big initiatives for the months ahead. This past week yielded a particularly surprising batch of innovations and undertakings. Here are five.
1. Wendy’s going veggie
Among the products the burger chain has in test in the pursuit of its cut-above menu strategy is a black bean burger, revealed outgoing CEO Emil Brolick. He wasn’t forthcoming on the particulars, but did note the product “remains under evaluation,” meaning it’s not being written off yet as a wild-hair idea.
Burger King has tried a veggie burger in the past, and McDonald’s currently sells one in overseas markets. U.S. consumers haven’t warmed to the notion of a meatless patty, but signs abound that attitudes may be changing. But “plant forward” is a new buzz phrase catching hold on leading-edge restaurants. It’s also been heard from the menu-development team at Panera Bread.
2. …And possibly leapfrogging current QSR apps
Wendy’s CFO Todd Penegor, who will replace Brolick as CEO in May under a preset succession plan, pulled the curtain back on what Wendy’s is doing tech-wise. Like many other quick-service chains, he revealed, Wendy’s is wading into pre-ordering and payment via smart phones. As a relative late-adapter, it’s experimenting with the complementary use of beacons, a device getting considerable attention but so far little actual use in the quick-service sector. The beacons would enable customers to pay for their orders at the counter and drive-thru without having to take their phones out of pockets or purses, Penegor said. That capability could shave precious seconds off transaction times.
3. The other dicey move by Joe’s Crab Shack
Our scoop on the test of a no-tipping policy by 18 units of Joe’s Crab Shack got widespread pickup by the mainstream media. All that noise might have obscured another risky move by the seafood chain, the addition of a chainwide all-you-can-eat crab deal. The offer will be the traffic driver for Wednesday nights, sandwiched between $2 Tuesdays ($2 cocktails and small plates) and half-priced cocktails on Thursdays. “Early returns indicated its going to be of very high interest for guests,” Ray Blanchette, CEO of parent company Ignite Restaurant Group said a day after the deal was rolled chainwide.
It’s not a surprise that the deal is popular. In 2003, an all-you-can-eat Endless Crab special was such a hit for Red Lobster that it cost the chain money. People were eating more crabs than the chain factored into its pricing and estimates of the traffic benefits. The considerable gains in visits were offset by the financial hit. The offer was widely viewed as a blunder that contributed greatly to the chain’s downturn.
4. A longer day for The Habit
With the sun shining for a longer stretch during the summer, The Habit fast-casual burger chain decided to adjust its hours accordingly. A half an hour was added to the chain’s Sunday operating hours, and a full hour was tacked onto Monday through Thursday evenings, explained CEO Russ Bendel. He attributed a full point of the chain’s third-quarter comp sales gain to the expanded business day. Hours reverted to the older schedule with the march into fall, he indicated.
5. Noodles to you
Big chains’ charge into delivery has snagged the headlines, but a number of smaller operations are also signing up with third parties to reach more consumers in their homes. A case in point: Noodles and Company, which is testing delivery in 40 stores as one of its initiatives for reversing a decline in traffic. The slumping concept has also stepped up promotion of small-order (i.e., meals for 10 to 20 people) catering, urging patrons to place their orders online.