Saturday, February 23, 2008

Where have you gone, Joe Lee?

Casual dining has never needed Joe Lee as much as it has in the last few weeks.

It’s not as if the former Darden Restaurants CEO has some superhero ability to yank the sector, a market he helped to create, out of its current blues jam. But his 40 years or so in the business gave him a perspective, a wise-man-on-the-mountain sagacity, that most of today’s standout executives have yet to cultivate. They stand in front of shareholders, analysts or employees and spout assurances the company’s recovery plan will work. After all, they somberly assert, we have the best concept, the best people, the best food, the best investors, the best corporate mission statement.

Yet they seem more than a little shaken themselves. You expect some to reach inside their suit-jacket pocket, take a quick nip from a flask, and resume with the platitudes.

Joe, as proper a man as ever worked in the industry, would stand up there and draw his share of arrows from financial analysts who wanted better returns for their institutional customers. Yet even during the most blistering times, he would calmly explain that the sector was in a downturn, that it’s been in downturns before, and that it’ll be in downturns again. He’d seen it two or three times in his career, and each time casual dining snapped back to be stronger than ever.

No one in the room could doubt it because most of them hadn’t lived as long as Joe had run the New York Yankees of casual dining. This was the guy who managed the first Red Lobster, back before there was a T.G.I. Friday’s, a Chili’s, an Applebee’s, an Outback or a Ruby Tuesday. And who could challenge a man who’d left the market only once since then, to work at the top of Red Lobster’s then-parent, a little multinational called General Mills.

The footnotes to his message were clear: There’s no need to cash out to a private equity firm, jump to a new market position, clean out your “C”-level officers, fire the ad agency, or even rewrite the mission statement. Instead, execute well, seize the opportunities that may be afforded by the players who fail to executive well, and ride it out.

No doubt the current freefall in casual dining is going to eliminate some weaker brands. But the sector as a whole?

Tell ‘em, Joe.

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Anonymous Orrick Nepomuceno said...

You may be right, Peter. But I certainly hope that this downturn in the casual dining sector will also make the casual dining sector realize that the quality of the food is abysmal. Too many of us have moved to the quick casual because the food is better, service quicker and the price is cheaper.

The last time I was in an Applebee's I thought I needed a barf bag.

February 23, 2008 at 4:45 PM  
Anonymous davelory said...

Great blog. You can almost see many of the big wigs in today's causal/upscale casual segment wringing their hands as they decide to offer kids eat free, Saturday brunch, or all day happy hours trying to get folks in.

If you remain true to your concept, listen to your guests AND STAFF, its amazing what you can accomplish

February 26, 2008 at 1:59 PM  
Anonymous Jeffrey Summers said...

Not just that Peter. We need his years of experience transferred to the next generation! This is an even greater need.

March 1, 2008 at 10:48 PM  

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