Wednesday, August 30, 2006

The plot thickens

In yesterday’s posting, I mentioned that the foodservice industry has a mystery on its hands. Someone is anonymously publishing an electronic newsletter that satirizes restaurant-industry news and how it’s presented in the trade’s media, including Nation’s Restaurant News. The Food Chain Monthly Daily, available at, features stories like “Upcoming Multi-Unit Operators Conference to Focus Mostly on Golf and Drinking,” or “Taco Bell Jr. Marketing Executive Accused of Thinking Inside the Bun,” both from today’s edition.

As I noted yesterday, I sent an e-mail to the anonymous parties who had sent us the e-letter, asking who they were. Here was the response I got today:

“To answer your question as to who we are, that mystery will be solved very soon. There is a method to our fun poking which we plan to reveal after the next issue.”

So stay tuned.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Who is that masked jokester?

Jon Stewart draws millions of viewers with his nightly lampooning of major-media news broadcasts. Now someone is borrowing that “Daily Show” approach to take a satirical look at developments in the restaurant industry, with some fun poked at Nation’s Restaurant News in the process.

The question is, who’s doing it? As you’ll see by visiting, the presenter has invested a fair amount of time in creating what purports to be a new industry e-letter, Food Chain Monthly (“Fake Insight For Restaurant Executives,” reads the positioning line under the title). He, she or they also clearly know the business and how it’s been covered on the pages of NRN.

We learned of it from an anonymous e-mail. I’ve asked the author(s?) to tip their mask, but I’ve yet to field a response.

In the meantime, I’m enjoying the first installment. You can read about how KFC is shielding itself from the possible fallout of avian flu by removing the “C” from its name and rechristening itself KF.

Readers also learn that Jack, the cue-ball-headed star of Jack in the Box commercials, suspects his wife is fooling around with The King mascot from Burger King’s spots. We also learn that the wife of Popeye’s director of menu development is sick of hearing about exciting new dipping sauces.

Also included in the premier edition is a story about IHOP franchisees’ inability to agree on the impact of a new ad strategy. Gathered for their annual meeting, they shifted their energies instead to an argument about napkin vendors.

The slice of sarcasm is a direct take-off on an NRN item written by marketing editor Gregg Cebrzynski, who also authors our Ad Watcher blog. He wrote an article some time ago about IHOP franchisees reaching a consensus on an ad effort.

The lampooning in that and other blurbs is more humorous than abrasive, and the e-letter does sport some wonderfully surreal touches. The closing article is headlined, “Exhaustive Three Month QSR Research Project Confirms ‘Bacon is Delicious’.”

A disclaimer carefully spells out who is not behind the venture: The e-letter and the website that houses “is in no way associated with Chain Leader magazine or its various associated publications,” says the teensy-weensy type at the end.

Doest it protest too much?

Bi-coastal opportunities

After four days of eating in California, my grease deficiency is gone. The state may be renowned for its fresh, lighter fare, but after hitting the dining landmarks of Los Angeles, from Pink’s hotdog stand to the Milton Berle-esque Cantor’s Deli, it’s clear the current partiality for salads and such masks a weakness for dripping meats mounded with bacon, cheese, sour cream, more bacon, and, if you think blood circulation is over-rated, pastrami. And I offer that assessment without trying Tommy’s, the hallowed downtown burger stand that is to gut-bombers what the Sistine Chapel is to ceiling art. I held off because a man has to dream.

But while my NRN colleagues and I stifled sobs because none of us had thought to order fries or onion rings at Pink’s, we spied the next wave of fresh-and-healthy places to dot the Los Angeles market. Some of them seem to be at least inspired by Japan, if not imported from there. Another sort is clearly an adaptation of the new hotspots where droves of office workers line up at midday back home in Manhattan. Indeed, it seems as if a bi-coastal concept swap is in the offing, with profound implications for lunch as we know it.

Right now, the trade appears to be unequal. Southern California is already enjoying a taste of New York’s ongoing made-to-order salad boom, whereby small Big Apple chains like Chop’t and not a few neighborhood delis allow professional women and other salad-loving lunchers to spec the ingredients of an entrée salad. Typically you pay $4.99 and up to choose a lettuce and four toppings to be mixed with it. Request a protein, from chicken to shrimp, and you can expect to spend at least $2 more. A staffer behind a counter adds whatever dressing you specify, tosses the whole thing, and perhaps even chops it on a cutting board. It’s scooped into a carryout container and off you go. And, typically, you leave with relief because you’ve waited in a long, long line to get your meal.

The adaptation I spotted in downtown L.A. was called Loose Leaf Custom Built Salads. No doubt similar salad specialists are in the works elsewhere in the city and state, prodded along by the strong appeal to entrepreneurs as well as consumers. When you’re offering cold dishes, you don’t have to install costly cooking equipment. Nor do you have the development complications of running gas lines, or providing the requisite venting. The cost of a venture drops.

But while Los Angeles embraces that concept, it’s keeping a jealous grip on a lunch option that seems to be popping up there like traffic jams. Drive by two or three strip malls or downtown office centers and you’re likely to see at least one sparkling new quick-service place sporting a Japanese-sounding name (I had intended to write them all down during our tour of the city’s quick-service icons, but ended up with nothing but grease stains on a paper and a pen too slick to hold). The ones I saw featured portable choices like rice bowls, teriyaki selections, some noodle dishes, and soups. The places were extremely clean and fresh looking, and the food looked and tasted the same. It was also an astounding bargain. I had a small bowl of rice topped with fresh vegetables and a teriyaki sauce at one for $4.

The places embody the big-three traits that fuel more mainstream fast-casual concepts: Freshness, flavor and value. With that kind of potent appeal, it’s just a matter of time until they hope across the coast to storm New York.

But if Los Angeles wants to send us a branch of Tommy’s instead, hey, we’ll make do.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

A name of shame?

A journalist crosses a certain threshold when he uses the term “female genitalia” in an article. So it was for me yesterday when I wrote about the latest restaurant venture from Hard Rock Cafes co-founder Peter Morton.

Morton, whose publicist acknowledged that the entrepreneur and his relatives have garnered $1.2 billion from the sale of restaurants, casinos and hotels, wants to tout the new venture by putting its name atop the Arizona Cardinals’ pro-football stadium. He’s already offered $3 million for the naming rights, and underscored his seriousness—or so his press release said—by flashing a check for $5 million before the eyes of Cardinals officials.

That situation is extraordinary enough. But as Morton might say, in a decidedly hipper way, "Wait! There's more!"

The topper in this case is the name that would show in lights above the facility: Pink Taco Stadium.

If you’re one of those people who crook their pinkies when they sip coffee, you may not be aware that “pink taco” is slang for a part of the female anatomy that probably shouldn’t be mentioned in a family-friendly blog like this one (hence the afore-mentioned reference to genitalia.) And that’s the phrase that’ll greet families as they file into the stadium to root for their Cardinals.

Morton professes that he doesn’t see why the use of that name should be controversial, which is why he’s proudly using it for his new chain of Mexican restaurants (two open, seven under development). Which, by the way, is being run by his 25-year-old son, Henry, better known to the younger staffers here at Nation's Restaurant News as the boyfriend of Lindsay Lohan.

The Mortons characterized the fuss as “foolish,” noting that the Pink Taco has been used without any rub at the prototype in Las Vegas for six years.

Who’s opinion are they soliciting, the guys from Hooters?

They acknowledge that the brand name is a strong draw for men aged 21 to 34, which explains why the second Pink Taco, in Scottsdale, Ariz., was a phenomenal hit.

Yet father and son are astute enough to acknowledge that they’d settle for Morton Stadium if the community finds the other designation to be too explicit.

You’ll find the story in the Breaking News section of our website,

Saturday, August 19, 2006

A match made to be?

Wendy’s is searching for a new CEO who can bedazzle Wall Street, pull droves of consumers off Main Street, and convince franchisees they’re heading for Easy Street. Could it have the ideal candidate in Claire Babrowski?

Babrowski, if you’ve forgotten, was the up-and-comer at McDonald’s who was seemingly put through a special Hamburger U. prep course for a top job at the burger chain, if not the CEO’s post. But the board passed her over to choose Jim Skinner for that lofty perch instead.

Babrowski subsequently quit, parting with McDonald’s for the first time since her teens, when she worked at a unit franchised to a girlfriend’s father. The dad would often join the girls as they sat chatting in a booth, raising their embarrassment to a life-threatening level. For the sake of their reputations, the pair opted for a job in the parent-free zone behind the counter.

For the next 31 years, Babrowski would rise through McDonald’s ranks, eventually overseeing a region’s operations, then operations for the whole U.S. The company dispatched her to run its 7,500-unit Asian/Pacific, Middle East and Africa territory, presumably as a way of further seasoning her. She was serving as worldwide chief restaurants operations officer when Skinner, a longtime veteran of the chain's overseas operations, got the nod instead of her.

She took six months off, then surfaced last summer as chief operating officer of RadioShack, the chain of electronic-gizmo shops (curiously, working under another restaurant expatriate, executive chairman Len Roberts, formerly of Arby’s and Shoney’s). When “misstatements” were discovered early this year on the resume of CEO David Edmondson, he left the company, and Babrowski was tapped to serve as acting CEO. She inherited a mess. But her handling of the situation made her the hands-on favorite to get the job on a permanent basis.

But, as was the case at McDonald’s at the time of Babrowski’s departure, and now Wendy’s, the company had lost credibility on Wall Street. The board opted to bring in a turnaround specialist from Kmart and Sears, whose background might buoy RadioShack’s stock price more quickly. Julian Day was a prime figure in the miraculous turnaround of both Kmart and Sears (in part through their merger), and RadioShack desperately needed a similar touch of retailing magic.

That was five weeks ago. On Friday, RadioShack announced that Babrowski had resigned.

The official statement said she would pursue outside interests. But an unnamed RadioShack official was cited in some news reports as saying he didn’t know where Babrowski was going. That suggested she has a destination in her sights.

Which, perhaps, brings us back to Wendy’s. The company is being led on what it insists is an interim basis by Kerrii Anderson, its former CFO. She has the financial chops that please Wall Street, which all but lynched her predecessor as CEO, Jack Schussler. What she lacks is operational experience. Indeed, she’s the first chief in the company’s history to have worked her way to the top post through anything but operations.

And that’s Babrowski’s specialty, though she also has experience in overseeing marketing, menu-product development and the franchise operations of major geographic territories. As president of McDonald’s Asian, Middle Eastern and African turf, she was responsible for more units than Wendy’s has worldwide.

Her most notable achievement at McDonald’s—and what some might also call the blackest mark against her—was the development and rollout of Made For You, a high-tech prep system that took the chain out of a batch-cooking mode and squarely into the mass customization—a longtime signature of Wendy’s. By conservative estimates, the set-up cost the McDonald’s system a quarter of a billion dollars. And as was reported in this space a week ago, McDonald’s is currently leapfrogging away from that “platform” in a two-phase overhaul.

Now Wendy’s is in the midst of a prep-system re-do. It’s trading out its grills for high-speed two-sided versions, as executives never fail to stress in their confabs with financial analysts. They typically also note that the chain is adapting other high-tech systems for maximizing unit efficiency.

It may not be a rehab on the scale of Made For You, but Wendy’s is still Number Three in the burger-chain size rankings. How many CEO candidates out there have experience in a retrofit of that scope, using technology that advanced, specifically for a grill-based quick-service restaurant chain?

The bigger question about Babrowski is why she was passed over by both McDonald’s and RadioShack for the top job. If you’ve ever seen her address gatherings like the Women’s Foodservice Forum, or observed her in action at headquarters, you’ve likely witnessed her considerable leadership skills. She’s spent enough time in the trade to have ketchup in her veins, an intangible steeped-in-the-business sense that would no doubt have pleased the likes of Dave Thomas, Jim Near and Gordon Teeter.

McDonald’s and Radio Shack didn’t reveal any reasons for choosing someone over her. But in both instances, the winning candidate was more experienced, with a deeper background in finance, and just more time logged on earth. Babrowski is 49 years old. Skinner is 61. Day, the man who edged her out at RadioShack and said he’ll assume her duties there, is 54.

But Wendy’s would have the option of a more rounded, fire-hardened Babrowski, who’s actually worked as a CEO for a company out of favor with Wall Street. She was only at RadioShack’s control switches for six months, but during that time she was the one who signed off on the company’s dismal financial statements, and no doubt had to deal with irate shareholders. All of that street schooling would likely serve her well at Wendy’s.

And what of Anderson, who appears to be serving the Number Three chain well? Wendy’s has said she’s serving on a interim basis, but chairman Jim Picket has stated publicly that Anderson is in the running for the permanent posting. Would the company risk her loss to bring in Babrowski? Or might Anderson be willing to step back into her CFO role, shoring up what seems to be the least developed aspect of Babrowski’s management abilities?

Babrowski won’t leave RadioShack until the end of the month. And after that, time will tell.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Site for sore eyes

So much ho-hum is passed off as gee-whiz that we editors tend to filter claims of innovation through a Shaquille O’Neal-sized layer of cynicism. Then someone manages to yank your attention to something truly progressive, and there’s the same uplift you get from watching “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

That’s how it went when the folks from Johnson & Wales University came to our office recently to showcase a new website they’ve developed with the Multicultural Foodservice & Hospitality Alliance under a grant from the U.S. Department of Labor. The site,, was conceived and painstakingly designed to illuminate a path into foodservice for high school students intrigued by the possibility of a career in that field.

The site intends to give the youngsters a taste of life in the business by telling the story of someone who’s actually doing the job that interests them. J&W is building a library of profiles, each keyed not only to a particular hospitality position but also to a company that could eventually offer employment of that sort to the interested teen. For instance, if a visitor thinks he might like to work as an executive chef, he’d be led to a bank of profiles, where various real-life executive chefs describe not only their lives, in and out of work, but also what it’s like to work in their capacity for their particular employer, be it Marriott International, Compass Group or Capital Grille.

If the visitor wanted more information on that company, he can click on a link that takes him to a landing page hosted by the concern. There he’ll find indications about benefits offered specifically for students, such as scholarships, or internships.

For that soft-sell opportunity, the employers pay the non-profit site a sponsorship fee, which has yet to be revealed by J&W.

The profiles include detailed information on the amount of education needed to land a position, as well as an indication of the pay.

Of course, few of the site’s target audience have realized at their tender age that they’d like to work in marketing, or that being a unit manager could be far more satisfying and lucrative than being a chef. The site leads them to the appropriate job or industry discipline by asking broad-based questions about the lifestyle they’d prefer—being financially secure, for instance, versus having more free time.

The site isn’t a pitch for Johnson & Wales; indeed, the school is prohibited by the terms of its Labor Department grant from wooing applicants. Rather, the objective is promoting foodservice as a career choice, so that all parties see their pool deepening.

It’s a worthy cause, and a notable, noteworthy attempt to deliver.

If you’d like more information about the site, just drop me a note at, and I’d be glad to pass it along to J&W.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Love ya, Nelson

Whatever possessed me to suggest that Nelson Peltz may be a tad money-focused? The man is a veritable Mother Theresa in Armani, helping corporations find their way, giving hard-pressed lawyers a chance to step up a tax bracket, proudly watching while his Arby’s chain upgrades its bread. Instead of taunting him to grant an interview, or covering developments like Standard & Poor’s downgrade of a holding’s credit rating, I should be scouring film art houses to find a replay of “Ocean’s Twelve,” so I can jump up and cheer when he appears for a millisecond in a crowd scene. (His other film appearance was in Brian DePalma’s 1970 epic, “Hi, Mom!” If you ask me, he stole the flick from DeNiro.)

Why the change of heart, the regular readers among you might ask? It has absolutely, positively, beyond a shadow of a doubt nothing to do with Peltz’s shift in investment focus from your world to mine. So what if he recently bought 2.8 million shares in The Tribune Co., parent of the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, Newsday and other places where I may someday work? Or that he may be hungry for other media acquisitions? And that I hope to stay in the media?

Even if he did end up buying a company where I was plinking away at the keyboard, why would I worry? He has to know I’ve only been kidding with all this commentary about his management abilities, and how his Triarc operation, the parent of Arby’s, is a Mini Cooper compared with Wendy’s, CBRL and the other companies whose directions he’s insisted on plotting. It’s all been just a lot of joshing. Diverting his attention away from restaurant or food chains may be great for you. But it’s not necessarily awful for me. Right?

Work with me here, people.

Well, just wanted to get that out there. Now I’m off to have an Arby’s sandwich, with some Heinz ketchup on it.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Chain mothers

Long before the industry appreciated the need to foster opportunity for women, Esther Johnson was finding plenty of it. In 1947, when many of her gendermates were resigning their wartime factory jobs to make room for homecoming soldiers, she managed the day shift of a restaurant in Seattle, where she’d landed after serving as a surgical nurse for the WAVES, the Navy’s female auxiliary. Among the 27-year-old’s vendors was a baked-goods salesman named Harry Snyder. In short order he switched from pushing breads and buns to pitching her on becoming his wife. He was a good salesman.

Within a year, they were married and living in southern California, planning to make a living by feeding the suburban-minded Americans who hoped to drive away memories of the war with the comforts of raising a family. They opened a restaurant in 1948 where Harry worked the counter and manned the grill while Esther chopped and prepped, hand-forming burger patties from fresh ground beef. They called it In-N-Out Burger, and its six-item, low-priced menu was a hit.

Before long, the Snyders were opening more restaurants. Esther managed the books and the paperwork while Harry functioned as the outside man, looking for sites, hiring the managers, cutting the deals. Along the way, they found time to raise two children, Guy and Richard, who were pressed into the business at an early age.

The family empire prospered and grew, expanding company unit by company unit until it stretched to several dozen drive-thrus, then more than 100. Around the time the Women’s Foodservice Forum set a goal of having at least three women in every restaurant-company executive suite by 2010, In-N-Out hit the 200-store mark. By that time, Harry, Guy and Richard had all passed away at early ages, but Esther was still tending to their brainchild, now as president and chairman.

It’s unclear if business or her extensive charitable activities led Esther Snyder to an acquaintance with the former Margaret Heinz, for whom the line between family and a restaurant company had also been erased, in her case by an impromptu act of capitalization. In 1941, her husband, Carl Karcher, had taken a $311 loan against his Plymouth to raise funds for a hotdog stand, but was still a few dollars short. Margaret took $15 from her purse, and the deal was consummated.

The cart would later be put in display in the lobby of what is now CKE Restaurants, the $1.2-billion-a-year parent of the Carl’s Jr., Hardee’s, La Salsa and Green Burrito fast-food operations. Margaret Heinz Karcher saw it grow from that first hotdog venture, through a power struggle that pushed Carl out of operations, to his triumphant return, to its takeover by an associate. Along the way, the Karchers would have 12 children.

Esther Snyder died on August 4 at age 86. The company she’d been crucial in building has been left to her sole granddaughter, Lyndsi Martinez, age 23.

Margaret Heinz Karcher had passed away almost exactly a month earlier, at age 91. She left behind 51 grandchildren, some of whom have worked in the business.

Today, smart companies spend far more than $15 to steamroller whatever barriers tend to keep women from rising into leadership positions. But 40-odd years before that commitment became a veritable business commandment, women like Esther Snyder, Margaret Heinz Karcher and Allie Marriott were already proving that gender matters less in the restaurant trade than hard work, dedication and partnership. Their efforts may not have been widely known, but they were true trailblazers, before there were awards to recognize such a contribution, or publications to laud their achievement in a pants-centric business.

It’d be woeful to overlook the loss of such true pioneers, and the differences they quietly made in the lives of so many in foodservice.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Kitchen synching?

Less than a decade after retrofitting its kitchens in the costliest capital-improvement program ever undertaken in foodservice, McDonald’s is overhauling its back-of-the-counter set-up again. Twice, in fact.

Management told a handful of analysts last week that it plans to supplant its ballyhooed Made for You prep system with a more adaptable ordering and cooking “platform,” tech-ese for “design.” Until that new set of equipment and procedures is fully developed, the chain is outfitting units in troubled overseas markets with a temporary configuration known internally as the Bridge. It combines elements of Made for You with aspects of the chain’s traditional grill set-up, which dates from Ray Kroc’s days.

Executives say the two-phase update is necessary because the business varies so widely today on a global basis, with different sorts of restaurants serving far-different products to diverse groups following their own peculiar schedules. “We’ve learned that one size does not fit all,” said CEO Jim Skinner. “So we’re working on a next-generation operating system,” with “flexible components that can be plugged in, depending on the restaurant’s needs.”

Ironically, customization and flexibility were the two main rationales for the switch to Made for You, a highly computerized set-up that holds burgers in special heat-and-moisture-controlled cabinets. Introduced with considerable fanfare, the system was expected to end the chain’s reliance on batch-cooking, whereby a few dozen hamburger patties were grilled at one time. Because the sandwiches were wrapped and held until someone ordered them, they often cooled considerably before being consumed, leaving customers dissatisfied with the taste.

With Made for You, each sandwich would be prepared to the customer’s specifications at the time an order was placed. It was expected to improve perceptions of McDonald’s food without an increase in serving times.

Made for You was also seen as more versatile, in that it could be used for a broader array of menu choices than McDonald’s offered at the time.

But the system failed to meet the hopes of investors and franchisees, who, according to McDonald’s per-unit cost estimates, collectively paid several hundred million dollars to install Made for You.

McDonald’s didn’t offer a cost estimate for either the Bridge or the Phase Two platform, tentatively dubbed the Flexible Operating System. But Skinner did tout the payback, including a capability to handle new types of menu items. He also said the Flexible configuration would “enhance the work environment of the crew,” but did not provide an explanation.

The Bridge is already being tested in “countries that need help with their operations now,” said Skinner, citing the examples of the United Kingdom, France and Germany. He added that 1,500 more outlets, franchised and company-run, will be retrofitted with a Bridge system during the next year.

No timeframe was given for the development of the Flexible Operating System, nor how many units might be ultimately retrofitted. “This is not something that we’ll be doing in every market,” Skinner said.

Monday, August 7, 2006

What's gotten into Wendy's?

Floyd Landis pedals at the speed of a Toyota Camry and the world rightfully suspects performance-enhancers. Wendy’s vows to hire an executive who can deliver innovation on an everyday basis, and nary a blood sample is taken. Come to your senses, people. We’re just a grassy knoll short of a conspiracy here.

How else do you explain the lack of Rohrshachs in the wake of Wendy’s disclosure that it’s forming an executive group—a veritable small department—to foster innovation as a strategic point of difference? Remember, this is chain foodservice, the realm of the me-too. Wendy’s is bucking the sort of thinking that made casual-dining menus all but interchangeable. Your fried-onion appetizer may be Awesome instead of Bloomin’, or touted as Petals. But is it fundamentally any different? Any more so than the spinach dip, chicken fingers, wings, quesadillas, fajitas or pot stickers offered by virtually every player in that arena? The big casual chains could cut their costs by jointly printing a single menu, with a space left blank for each concept’s name.

It’s not much better in the quick-service sector, despite the prod for originality that fast-casual upstarts delivered a few years ago. By now, the best ideas from that cheeky lot have been co-opted. Look at ethnic breads. The die-cut sponges that once passed as sandwich buns have been panini’d out of acceptability. Today, you can get foreign-sounding designer breads at 7-Eleven.

It’s a situation that must be particularly difficult for Wendy’s, originator of the sector’s last true head-turner. When competitors were aiming no higher than serving their food hot, the Number Three chain boldly introduced premium salads, at proportionate prices. It rollicked in the green while almost every direct competitor merely pushed its interchangeable bargain items that much harder, typically in vain.

But it’s not been a cakewalk for Wendy’s since then. A fruit salad bombed. Its own upscale breads, finished in the units from dough spec’d by Los Angeles’ famed La Brea Bakery, has been a plus. But by the time of the rollout, plenty of other chains had already taught customers to pronounce foccaccia.

And what’s next on its roll-out schedule? Bigger, multi-patty burgers, a la Burger King, followed by breakfast sandwiches that are square instead of round, like the chain’s burger patties. Whoa.

That’s why the chain can’t move fast enough in hiring a “senior strategist,” a move it pledged to make two weeks ago. Reporting to this individual, the head of a new Innovation and Strategy braintrust, will be three execs promoted into new titles that underscore the forward spin of their expanded responsibilities. There’s a menu R&D person, who has the added task of developing tomorrow’s packaging and recipe tweaks. A second team member, the vice president of strategic insights and innovation, has the duty of strategic planning, with an eye toward business development. And, finally, in a nod to Wendy’s unique situation, there’s a person ostensibly devoted to evolving operations. They’ll report to the senior strategist, who in turn answers to Wendy’s longtime chief marketing officer, Ian Rowden.

It’s a bold undertaking, though not without some marketing spin. Yet even more ambitious is the goal of finding this innovation maven. Chances are strong that he or she will be taken from outside the industry, or certainly from outside a corporate foodservice office. Just between us, innovation has not been a strong point of the industry in recent years. Look at the new products that merited a second look from consumers this summer. Wendy’s added a vanilla version of its Frosty, a frozen dessert offered solely in a chocolate flavor until now. A few chains stole Starbucks gee-whiz technique of serving milkshakes and other chilled-and-garnished drinks in cups with a clear dome. And many of the major fast-food brands upgraded their coffee. Wow.

Clearly the industry has not been a hotbed of creative thinking in the near-past. Recruitment will be difficult if Wendy’s is determined to find a corporate-office vet with proven foresight and creativity. It’d best look outside chains’ headquarters, for some free-thinking franchisee or indie operator.

But, hey, I have the perfect candidate for them: Whoever runs the shoe-shine concession at MacArthur Airport, the flight center that serves the bedroom community of Long Island. Nestled in the heart of suburbia, the airport is used more by leisure travelers heading off to DisneyWorld than by the suited business travelers who predominate at places like LaGuardia or O’Hare. Passengers were more likely to be in Nikes or New Balances than in Florshiems or Prada. The guy with the Kiwi wax gets less play than the insurance vending machine.

Then, during a recent visit, I found the stand abuzz with activity. The reason was right there, on a sign that looked hand-fashioned: “We now clean sneakers!”

If Wendy’s hires him, I expect a free Frosty out of this. Chocolate and vanilla.