Thursday, November 6, 2008

Light bulbs above some heads

A few weeks ago, the restaurant industry was reeling from a shortage of customers, and hence sales, and therefore profits. Worst of all was an acutely low supply of something just as critical: Creative ways of contending. Now, at least, it looks as if that drought is easing.

A glimmer here and a rumbling there suggest economic conditions are separating the industry thinkers from the Dan Quayles—the folks who think brilliant leadership is picking the right idea to copy. They’re lemmings looking for the parade sign reading, “Cliff this way.” It’s the mindset that has landed much of casual dining in its current predicament.

Contrast that spud-headedness with a few initiatives that have come to light in recent days. Daily Grill’s parent company is cutting its cash outlays by paying executives 10 percent of their compensation in stock instead of dollars. It gives new meaning to the cliché, “win-win.” The company saves on salaries, the executives get paper that could be worth far more if they can drive up the stock price, and other shareholders get a management team that’s highly motivated to work for their benefit. Raise the value of the stock and everyone gains.

There’s also the public relations value of letting the world think the home office has cut its top-paid execs’ take-home, when in fact it’s given them something with the same face value and the potential of being far more precious. Indeed, from the recipients’ standpoint, it’s better than getting stock options—provided they don’t let the stock price decline any further (see earlier reference to management’s and shareholders’ perspectives being aligned.)

But that’s not the only ah-ha notion that’s been aired recently. Consider Sonic’s plan to lower its labor expenses while boosting customer service and possibly increasing the take-home pay of carhops. The drive-in chain is in effect reclassifying the runners who bring orders to patrons’ cars as tipped servers. It hasn’t said how it’ll trumpet that recasting to customers, but executives said in disclosing the plan that most guests already leave a gratuity. By formalizing the tendency and encouraging carhops to strive for tips, the chain can claim a tip credit, thereby cutting what it’s required to pay the staffers as a minimum wage. Yet the carhops are likely to end up with more money than they did when they were collecting the full wage.

What’s more, with an hourly-staff turnover of about 100 percent, the chain can phase in the program by merely extending it to new hires. The transition would only take a year, presumably with no shock to carhops who are accustomed to getting the full minimum wage.

Not all of the innovations are far afield. The Pollo Tropical fast-food chain, for instance, merely replaced its sandwiches with wraps. It correctly anticipated that wraps would be easier to eat on the go, and presumed that benefit would appeal to the chain’s mobile clientele. Units are selling 50 to 60 wraps a day, compared with the 15 to 20 sandwiches they formerly peddled, executives told investors Wednesday.

In still other instances, the course was apparent. It just took leadership and courage to pursue it. Every franchisor would readily attest that its success rests on the financial wellbeing of franchisees. Yet few have backed up that assertion with the sort of action that Papa John’s and Domino’s have recently taken.

The former made news Tuesday when executives revealed that the franchisor’s commissary operation would roll back the prices of the cheese it sells to franchisees. The wholesale cost paid by corporate likely hasn’t receded; Papa John’s must be absorbing the cut in its margins. It’s taking the hit to enhance the profitability of franchisees, even though royalties are based on sales, not the bottom line. But by keeping licensees healthy and thriving, the home office is betting it will benefit in the end.

To keep franchisees growing, Papa John’s is also looking at ways of becoming their bank. Because they’re struggling to find the capital needed for expansion, the franchisor is willing to serve as their pipeline until the tap is reopened by more traditional sources. One of the core rationales for franchising is the use of licensees’ capital to build a chain. Papa John’s, much to its credit, is rethinking that tenet of the situation.

It may be inspired in part by arch-rival Domino’s, which disclosed last month that it was providing franchisees with financing. “It will never be my preference to provide financing to our franchisees,” CEO David Brandon commented to investors. “We would rather keep our relationship with them focused on being the franchisor rather than their bank. However, we are wading through uncharted waters.”

Better to be slogging through them than being carried along by the current, hoping you’ll eventually land upright.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

None of these ideas seems particularly innovative...these all sound like re-treads of what's working elsewhere.

November 6, 2008 at 11:25 AM  
Anonymous steakman said...

Why would anybody be worried now? Got a labor issue, Obama will take care of it. Got a sales or food cost issue? Don't worry, Obama has you covered. Concept needs to go chapter 11? Don't worry, Democratic congress will bail you out. Heck, I didn't take the trash out last night to the curb. Obama is going to handle it. I can't wait for when he negotiates a new interest rate for me and pays my mortgage.



November 6, 2008 at 12:14 PM  

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