Wahoo’s Grows Up

August 26, 2014

Ray-wahoosgrowsup-OCBJ-599x1024Paul Hughes

Orange County Business Journal

© 2014 Orange County Business Journal. Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning. All Rights Reserved.

Chain Gets Past Downturn, Puts Corporate Vet in Kitchen

Wahoo’s Fish Taco wants to keep it casual for customers even as it tightens up the way the 61-restaurant chain goes about its business.

That’s a shift for a company with laid-back Orange County roots-its dining rooms are monuments to surf and skate culture, with stickers for various brands dominating the decor.

It also is a response to some bruises sustained during the recent recession.

“Like everyone else, we’ve had a rough couple years,” said Wing Lam, a cofounder who is the chain’s public face.

The recession left behind a new catch phrase for established restaurant chains, he said: “Flat is the new up.”

It’s been up and down for Wahoo’s, according to Lam, with a dip last year. The Santa Ana-based chain’s 61 restaurants-34 company-owned and 27 run by franchisees-accounted for sales of $52 million, a 4% drop.

The chain is back on a growth track this year, according to Lam.

“We’ve had growth every month through July compared to the last two years,” he said.

Most of the restaurants are seeing revenue growth between 2% to 8%, he said.

The aim now is to establish a new approach that provides more structure to a lot of the processes that go into getting food to customers.

Lam and his brothers Ed Lee and Mingo Lee cofounded Wahoo’s with Steve Karfaridis, the company’s chief operating officer, in 1988. It grew into a small roster of restaurants and began franchising in 1993, often to the founders’ friends.

By 2010, it had 54 locations, including 21 franchises in California, Hawaii, Colorado and Texas, and was aiming for 70 in early 2013.

The push for expansion through franchising led to the 2010 hire of Tom Orbe as a vice president, an early step toward a more formal approach for the chain. Orbe was a franchisee himself and still operates a Wahoo’s in Temecula and another in Huntington Beach.

Trying to grow through the economic downturn produced mixed results.

Wahoo’s didn’t make it to 70 restaurants it has closed three since 2012, including one in New York, its first on the East Coast.

Deals in Arizona and Rhode Island also haven’t panned out.

The chain is adjusting, with plans to open a restaurant in Philadelphia in November. It’s rethinking its bid in New York, where the initial location was in Manhattan. It’s now eyeing suburban Westchester and Long Island for another try.

Wahoo’s added a location in Japan last year, and the chain wants more overseas.

It also has a big project in the works in its backyard: a restaurant at the Honda Center.

“Good Hard Look”

The strong start this year hasn’t deterred Wahoo’s from longer-term strategies.

“We’re taking a good hard look at systems and putting most of our resources there,” said Karfaridis.

He said Wahoo’s will bring point-of-sale, labor management and accounting to cloud based hosting.

Wahoo’s also plans to add ordering to its smartphone app, he said.

Another big effort is focused on supplier relationships, a key to containing costs and saving time.

A roasted salsa, for example, is shipped almost ready to Wahoo’s restaurants by a supplier working from one of the chain’s proprietary recipes.

“They create the base, and we finish it,” Karfaridis said.

Another supplier starts the teriyaki sauce, but each location completes it. A meat vendor pre-slices came asada-something that used to be done by Wahoo’s staff in the restaurants.

“As you grow, you come to a decision point,” Karfaridis said. “How do you preserve the spirit of the food while growing? How do you scale Wahoo’s without compromising quality?”

Balancing Act

It’s a balancing act for a chain that’s facing new levels of competition, said Darren Tristano, executive vice president of Chicagobased restaurant industry researcher Technomic Inc.

“They have to build on the menu and flavors without straying too far from the core tastes,” Tristano said. “The fish taco made them popular, but fish tacos are everywhere now.”

Karfaridis said customers often guided menus at individual restaurants.

“They’d say, T want my Maui bowl in a burrito,’ so we created the Banzai Burrito,” he said.

That produced good relations but inconsistent results across the chain.

Karfaridis said Wahoo’s wants to keep the close-up feel of the chain but streamline the process.

Wahoo’s brought on Raymond Martin in January to work on the menu.

He had stints at Huntington Beach-based BJ’s Restaurants Inc. and Calabasas Hillsbased Cheesecake Factory Inc.

Less Complexity

His mandate is to reduce complexity and costs in food preparation and presentation while maintaining or improving taste and service.

“You don’t want to waste steps or product, and customers are looking for new flavors,” Martin said.

He said he got a better price and more consistent product on tortillas through a new deal with Irving, Texas-based Mission Foods, a major supplier.

He focused on fewer ingredients with strong flavors-ginger, garlic and onions for its teriyaki sauce.

Martin cut the cooking time on came asada to retain more meat and juice. The beef continues to cook as it comes hot off the grill, ensuring its still cooked properly when it reaches the customer.

“You keep more meat, use less sauce and get the same amount of product,” Martin said.

He added a table salsa by tweaking Wahoo’s legendary pico de gallo-which is also still available-and is testing a spicy ketchup, a southwestern ranch sauce, smashed beans and seasoned onion rings.

Don’t expect sweeping changes-Lam said fish is still king.

Nearly half of Wahoo’s customers are going to eat something with fish in it, he said.

“You can get a chicken burrito from anyone,” Lam said. “But there’s only so much fish out there, and we have a great relationship with our suppliers.”

Honda Center

Martin estimated 80% of the menu has been improved in some big or small way.

Tristano said Technomic’s research on Wahoo’s consistently reveals high levels of consumer loyalty.

That meets the benchmark set out by the chain’s owners.

“Nothing will be compromised,” Karfaridis said. “We’re adding scalability and leaving the core qualities intact.”

Back in 2010, when Wahoo’s brought Orbe to boost franchising, he said the chain could grow to 400 or 500 locations but didn’t want to do it in “cookie-cutter” style.

Lam used the same term last year to describe what he intends to guard against in the latest push for growth.

“While Chef Ray is working, I’m out there gallivanting in the Wahoo’s (food) truck testing the theories,” Lam said. “Then he and I compare notes.”

Lam said not all of his ideas translate into good-or cost-effective-products on the wider scale that Martin’s been hired to oversee.

“He’s about process and presentation, and I’m about convenience and flavor, and we meet in the middle,” Lam said.

The results of the collaboration will get a showcase when Wahoo’s opens in the Honda Center this fall.

Success there could lead to another growth push and more hires for Wahoo’s management team, Karfaridis said.

“We can bring in people to do that,” he said. “This has been four guys doing all of it on the run for a long time.”

Wahoo’s Fish Taco wants to keep it casual for customers even as it tightens up the way the 61-restaurant chain goes about its business. A roasted salsa, for example, is shipped almost ready to Wahoo’s restaurants by a supplier working from one of the chain’s proprietary recipes. How do you scale Wahoo’s without compromising quality?” Balancing Act It’s a balancing act for a chain that’s facing new levels of competition, said Darren Tristano, executive vice president of Chicagobased restaurant industry researcher Technomic Inc. “They have to build on the menu and flavors without straying too far from the core tastes,” Tristano said.


Call it What You Like, but Not a Chain

August 13, 2014

By ANDREW ADAM NEWMAN

The New York Times

Copyright 2014 The New York Times Company.

Adco-master675WHITE CASTLE claims with pride that it is the first fast-food hamburger chain, and for good reason. It opened in 1921, just 15 years after Upton Sinclair’s ”The Jungle” exposed horrific conditions in meat-processing plants. With its pure-sounding name, white interiors and fully viewable food preparation areas, White Castle helped restore America’s appetite for beef, promising consistency regardless of which location a customer visited.

But today chain ownership is sometimes viewed as a negative by food aficionados seeking one-of-a-kind food trucks and microbreweries, and locavores celebrating restaurants that use ingredients close to home.

 

Now Legal Sea Foods, which has about 35 locations, most in the Boston area, is railing against the term. Its chief executive, Roger Berkowitz, argues in a series of new commercials that its seafood restaurants should never be called a chain.

 

”While Legal Sea Foods has a number of locations, we’re not a chain,” says Mr. Berkowitz, seated at a restaurant table, in one of the new spots. ”Each of our restaurants is unique, not cookie-cutter, so you can call me stupid, an egomaniac, or even an” — the word is bleeped and his mouth pixelized in a scene. ”Just don’t call me a chain.”

 

In another spot, Mr. Berkowitz is hooked up to a lie detector, and his interrogator asks if he is the owner of Legal Sea Foods, to which he responds ”Yes.” He is asked if it is a chain, to which he responds ”No” as the needles etch straight lines on the scrolling paper. ”Is the person who called Legal Sea Foods a chain a complete moron?” asks the interrogator. Stone-faced, Mr. Berkowitz pauses a moment, then responds ”No,” sending the needles scribbling wildly up and down.

 

The spots close with a new tag line for the campaign, ”Where chain is a four-letter word.” The campaign, which also includes print advertising, is by DeVito/Verdi in New York. The company declined to provide estimated advertising expenditures for the campaign, which will be introduced Friday in the six states, and the District of Columbia, where restaurants are.

 

Mr. Berkowitz, who since 1992 has run the company that his father started — first as a Cambridge fish market in 1950, then a no-frills fish restaurant in 1968 — has long insisted on using the term ”family” or ”group” to refer to his restaurants.

 

”When anyone thinks of a chain, they think of cookie cutter, institutionalized, dummied down, and those aren’t the best adjectives,” Mr. Berkowitz said in an interview.

 

”There’s sort of a built-in prejudice about it that really doesn’t define who we are and what we do.”

 

Unlike many chains, Mr. Berkowitz said, Legal is privately held, and its restaurants are all company-owned rather than franchised. Menus vary among locations, and the company has several iterations, like restaurants called Legal C Bar, which are more bar-focused, Legal Test Kitchen, which are faster and more focused on to-go offerings, and Legal Oysteria, which has a Northern Italian menu.

 

”People never associate chains with the kind of passion or quality that we put into our food,” Mr. Berkowitz said. ”So if we’re referred to in a review or something like that and ‘chain’ is used, whether inadvertent or not, there’s almost just a dismissive aspect to it that I find objectionable.”

 

The term can even give compliments a backhanded flavor, like a New Jersey food blogger who put this headline on a glowing review: ”Legal Sea Foods is a chain, it’s in a mall: and it does not suck.”

 

In the industry, however, others disagree on how to define ”chain.”

 

Technomic, a restaurant consulting and market research firm, considers a company with 10 or more restaurants to be a chain, said Darren Tristano, its executive vice president. He had no recollection of any of the top 500 restaurant brands that Technomic tracks proclaiming in advertising that they were not chains. (Legal, based on estimated revenue of $186.2 million in 2013, is ranked at 167 on that list).

 

Mr. Tristano lauded Legal as ”a brand that’s been around a while and knows its customer.” He added that he could understand why Mr. Berkowitz might feel ”pigeonholed” by some of the negative connotations. But he found something particularly ironic about the mere existence of the new advertising campaign.

 

”The single mom-and-pop type of restaurant does not have an advertising budget,” Mr. Tristano said. ”And it doesn’t have the economies of scale for purchasing that a 30-plus unit chain has,” he continued, ”so if you’re in the industry and you run a restaurant group that’s large, you’re a chain whether you like it or not.”

 

DeVito/Verdi has taken a provocative approach in much of its Legal work over the last seven years. For its first campaign, it promoted freshness in print ads with copy like: ”If our fisherman comes back with fish we don’t like, we throw the fisherman back,” and, ”Fish so fresh one time the main course took a bite out of the appetizer.”

 

In 2013, promoting the notion that omega-3 fatty acids found in fish promote brain function, the brand introduced a series of commercials and print ads that featured people doing stupid things. The ads included a man sawing off a branch as he sat on it, another man stopping a ceiling fan with his head, and a women shutting herself in a Laundromat dryer. The tag line: ”Fish is brain food. We have a fish.”

 

Ellis Verdi, president of DeVito/Verdi, said that the campaign about chains was unlikely to cause a drastic change — for now.

 

”My expectation is not to change the vocabulary necessarily, because that takes a while,” Mr. Verdi said. ”But we want to at least put it in their minds that this isn’t something that we like to be called or it makes sense to call us.”

 

In new commercials, Roger Berkowitz, chief executive of Legal Sea Foods, stresses the singularity of each of its outlets.


Craft Soda Maker Cool Mountain is Hot

August 12, 2014

MONICA GINSBURG

Crain’s Chicago Business

(c) 2014 Crain Communications, Inc.

Untitled-1As a kid in the 1970s, Bill Daker recalls frequent outings to Lasser’s Beverages, a now-defunct soft-drink company on the North Side, where he and his brothers would swig a 32-ounce bottle of black cherry, blue raspberry or cream soda for 50 cents. Today, Mr. Daker is president of Cool Mountain Beverage Inc., a throwback line of neon-colored sodas he launched in 1997 with his brother John.

“The old pop-shop flavors, the glass bottles—it’s all memories of what we had when we were kids,” he says.

The kings of carbonated beverages may be suffering as consumers cut back on everything from Diet Coke and Diet Pepsi to Fanta and Mountain Dew. But for Des Plaines-based Cool Mountain and other little guys such as Jones Soda Co. of Seattle and New York’s Brooklyn Soda Works, these are the good old days.

 

Cool Mountain’s revenue is up 30 percent this year from 2013 and the company booked its first profit last year, though Mr. Daker declines to provide financial figures. Its soft drinks are available in 21 states, including Illinois since Aug. 1, and Canada, Britain and Singapore.

 

“The continuation of the artisan and crafted trend is moving into soda,” says Darren Tristano, executive vice president of Technomic Inc., a Chicago-based research company. “It’s like craft beer, where consumers, especially younger consumers, are willing to pay more for what they perceive as better quality and a bolder taste.”

 

The test, says Mr. Tristano, will be what happens when consumers get a thirst for something else. “Like most trends, there’s a short-term growth phase that gradually declines as consumers shift to something new,” he says. “Fifteen years ago, consumers traded up from Baskin-Robbins ice cream to Cold Stone Creamery, only to shift to frozen yogurt a few years later.”

 

Mr. Daker, 47, has survived one bust already. In 2003, as fuel prices spiked, 10 of Cool Mountain’s distributors went out of business, leaving him holding $150,000 in unpaid receivables. “It was our worst year,” he says. “It almost took me out. But by then I had so much money invested, I had to keep it going.”

 

PREMIUM PRICING

 

Cool Mountain’s sodas come in seven flavors—the top sellers are black cherry and strawberry. Like other craft bottlers, it uses 100 percent cane sugar and no high-fructose corn syrup. A 12-ounce bottle sells for $1.50. By comparison, Walgreens in mid-July was selling a six-pack of 16-ounce bottles of Coca-Cola for $2.50.

 

The brothers cooked up the business in 1995 after Mr. Daker was laid off as an electrician at Chicago-based Montgomery Ward & Co. They spent two years working with three private-label beverage companies to capture the flavors of their youth, financed with $150,000 from personal savings, family loans and credit cards. John, 48, left the business in 1999 and does maintenance work in Arizona. Another brother, Jim, 63, remains a minority owner.

 

In the early days, Mr. Daker admits, he had little knowledge of the beverage business and was blindsided when Jones Soda expanded just as the brothers were rolling out Cool Mountain. “From the start, we were competing for distributors and we were the runner-up to Jones,” he says. “The soda business is about volume, and the ones who have volume win the race.”

 

Better times came in 1999, when Mr. Daker stopped manufacturing Cool Mountain’s sodas with two Chicago co-packers and instead began to license its recipes to other manufacturers, which would either handle distribution or sell to other distributors.

 

Today Cool Mountain works primarily with Dr. Pepper Snapple Bottling Group Inc. in West Jefferson, North Carolina, and Real Soda Ltd. in Gardena, California. Mr. Daker’s largest customer, Ingels Markets Inc., a chain of 200 supermarkets in the Southeast, accounts for 10 to 15 percent of business.

 

That sales are growing at all in 2014 says something about Cool Mountain’s cachet. Total volume of carbonated soft drinks fell 3 percent in 2013, the ninth straight year of decline and the lowest since 1995, according to Beverage Digest LLC, an industry tracker in Bedford Hills, New York.

 

And while Cool Mountain just has begun selling in Illinois—it had been blocked by exclusivity clauses with some distributors—Mr. Daker launched another brand, Chicago Root Beer, here in 2011. It’s made in Chicago and sold in kegs. Chicago Root Beer makes up 20 percent of the company’s revenue, with a quarter-barrel selling for $45. Horseshoe Casino in Hammond, Indiana, is the largest customer.


Quiznos Moves Toward Bankruptcy Filing

February 28, 2014

Sandwich chain Quiznos is preparing to file for bankruptcy-court protection within weeks as it contends with unhappy franchisees and a $570 million debt load, according to people with direct knowledge of the matter.

Quiznos has been negotiating with creditors for weeks on a restructuring plan that would streamline its trip through bankruptcy court, these people said, but a deal hasn’t yet been reached.

The chain’s move toward bankruptcy comes two years into a major turnaround effort that included an out-of-court debt restructuring and a management shake-up. While a Chapter 11 filing would give the company much-needed flexibility on leases and unattractive contracts, the company must repair its damaged relationship with franchise owners who say they’re being squeezed out of business by the high cost of operating a Quiznos outlet.

“If a brand wants to succeed, its franchisees have to succeed,” said Darren Tristano, executive vice president at restaurant consulting firm Technomic Inc.

Thousands of Quiznos locations have shut down in recent years as the company’s competitors have opened new locations at a rapid pace. Quiznos’s world-wide store count now stands at about 2,100, while its chief rival, Subway, has 41,000.

Founded in 1981, Quiznos was considered innovative at the time with its toasted subs. But its sales have suffered as Subway offered a $5 foot-long sandwich starting in 2008 and new competitors such as Potbelly Corp. PBPB -0.84% and Jimmy John’s Franchise LLC moved into the crowded sandwich market.

In its heyday in the mid-2000s, Quiznos stores, on average, rang up $425,000 in annual sales; since then, that figure has dropped to around $300,000 for the top-performing stores and to far less at the weakest stores, according to people familiar with the matter.

Quiznos franchisees say they’re struggling to stay in business. In addition to the fees the company charges them to use its name, store operators must also buy most of their supplies and ingredients from Quiznos’s distribution business.

Franchisees long have complained that the subsidiary charges more than what they would pay to purchase those goods elsewhere.

Mr. Tristano said the fees Quiznos collects from franchisees—7% in royalty fees and another 4% for advertising—is higher than the industry average of 6% in royalty fees and 2% for marketing.

Fabian Andino opened a Quiznos franchise in 2006 in Port St. Lucie, Fla. It wasn’t long before he realized that he was paying higher prices for items like tomatoes through Quiznos’s distribution business. To save money, he bought produce from local farms but said the company charged him weekly penalty fees for not placing minimum food orders.

A person close to the company said it didn’t assess such penalty fees, but that franchisees who wanted to receive rebates for food costs were required to place minimum orders.

When Quiznos decided to offer delivery service in 2008, he recalled, franchisees were told to pay $10,000 to the company in return for signs and decals for their delivery cars and in-store inserts.

“They marketed it as though it would be the magic wand that would save the operation, but I knew it was another ploy Quiznos was using to raise more funds for them,” Mr. Andino said. “I refused.”

Mr. Andino said the company withdrew the payment request and supplied him with the materials free of charge. He said he couldn’t make his Quiznos business work and closed his store in late 2009.

“Quiznos did not have the proper name recognition or great marketing,” said John Medici, a 71-year-old retired warehouse manager in Longwood, Fla., and onetime Quiznos customer. “You have to give people the impression that your food is better than the food down the street.”

Steven Raposo said he spent a total of $350,000 to open a Quiznos franchise in Norton, Mass., in 2005. He said he and his family soon realized they wouldn’t be able to bring in enough money to cover expenses and put the franchise up for sale. They sold the business less than a year later for about half the price.

Mr. Raposo said his annual sales would have been about $600,000, but he was still facing monthly losses of between $3,000 and $5,000.

“It sounds like we were doing a lot [of business] but there was actually no profit because of food costs and labor,” said Mr. Raposo, a practicing chiropractor.

To address franchisees’ concerns, Quiznos management cut food and supply prices last summer, a person close to the company said in December. The company has also tried to improve store operations in the U.S. by making sure restaurants were clean, adding new menu items and removing slow-selling ones.

But so far, Quiznos’s turnaround efforts haven’t met expectations and the company has missed key performance targets, according to people familiar with the matter. The company also has a high debt load for its size, in part the legacy of a 2006 leveraged buyout.

Quiznos missed a loan payment at the end of 2013 and has been operating under a forbearance agreement with its lenders, which delays a potential default, as it negotiates with creditors including Fortress Investment Group FIG +1.87% LLC, Oaktree Capital Management and Avenue Capital Group, which is also its majority owner.


QSR Value Promotions go Beyond Price in 2014

January 27, 2014

picRestaurant chains such as Burger King, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell add to their value strategies in the new year.

 Burger King’s January offer

Value is often top of mind in early January among restaurant customers who have resolved to save or better manage their money in the new year, but restaurant brands looking to capitalize on this show that enticing value strategies are about more than just low prices.

While some chains have moved up their well-known value promotions opportunistically into January — notably Subway, which is running its $5 foot-long campaign as “Janu-ANY” — others have introduced new value plays that de-emphasize prices in favor of new-product news or brand highlights like anniversaries.

“Today’s consumer mind-set around value really has shifted, or drifted, further away from price point,” said Darren Tristano, executive vice president of Technomic Inc., a Chicago-based market research firm. “Prices have been set [in consumers’ minds] by Subway’s $5 foot-long or some very meaningful milestones like $5 and $8 at Little Caesars for the Hot-N-Ready.”

As such, operators ought to consider looking beyond price points to signify value, Tristano said, whether it is the service experience, customization, culinary credibility, ingredient variety, or special preparations like slow-cooked barbecue or rotisserie chicken.

“There are so many ways you can maximize value, but it always comes down to differentiation,” he said. “What can you do differently from competitors or from consumers trying to cook this stuff at home?”

In the quick-service segment, where much of the marketing emphasis consistently has been on value for the past several years, the largest chains are approaching their messaging through the lens of new-product news.

Miami-based Burger King rebranded its value menu as King Deals, a tiered value menu starting with items for $1, including current limited-time offers the Rodeo Burger and the Rodeo Crispy Chicken Sandwich. The menu has 20 items at those lower price points at Burger King’s domestic locations, which comprise about 7,400 restaurants in the United States and Canada.

Wendy’s has added two sandwiches to their Right Price Right Size value menu

Also, from Jan. 6-29, Burger King will offer a free small coffee to any customer who purchases a breakfast sandwich.

Wendy’s, the Dublin, Ohio-based chain of about 6,500 units, also added spicy sandwiches to its Right Price Right Size value menu, which it debuted last year just after New Year’s Day. The Spicy Chipotle Crispy Chicken and Spicy Chipotle Jr. Cheeseburger sandwiches are priced at a suggested 99 cents.

Irvine, Calif.-based Taco Bell, also a Yum! Brands Inc. subsidiary, rolled out two value promotions before the new year, including the Grilled Stuft Nacho and the BCS Taco 12-Pack, both of which debuted Dec. 19.

The nearly 6,000-unit brand called out the $1.29 price point for the Grilled Stuft Nacho in the commercial that began running in December, but convenience and portability have been the main emphasis in the ad and its complementary social-media campaign. Taco Bell is managing a social campaign under the “#DoingStuff” hash tag, where people take photos or videos of themselves doing anything while eating a Grilled Stuft Nacho.

The BCS Taco 12-Pack carries a $12.99 price point and lets consumers choose 12 tacos from among the brand’s crunchy-taco flavors.

The price war continues for major pizza chains, but both Pizza Hut and Papa John’s Pizza have added a different angle to their start-of-year marketing campaigns. Both are tying a limited-time, low-price offer to a brand anniversary, allowing them to easily end the promotion without setting an expectation for a repeat performance every year.

“Cheaper isn’t always better,” Tristano said, “and for restaurant operators, it’s not a viable long-term and sustainable strategy.”

Plano, Texas-based Pizza Hut, a division of Louisville, Ky.-based Yum! Brands Inc., is offering 50 percent off medium and large pizzas ordered online at menu price for its Hut Lovers loyalty club members. New members of Hut Lovers may sign up and immediately redeem the offer, which will run through Jan. 10.

The impetus for the promotion is the anniversary of the first Pizza Hut order taken over the Internet, in Santa Cruz, Calif., in 1994. The chain of 14,000 restaurants worldwide has resurrected its original online-ordering hub from that year, PizzaNet, which the brand said produced the first thing ever purchased from the Internet.

“We want to celebrate the fact that before consumers could buy books, clothes, music or vacation packages via the Internet, they could place an online order for a Pizza Hut pizza,” Carrie Walsh, chief marketing officer for Pizza Hut’s U.S. division, said in a statement.

Pizza Hut’s commercial promotes the deal by harkening back to 1994 with one of the most popular songs of that year, “The Sign” by Ace of Base.

Louisville-based Papa John’s is taking customers back a decade further with its deal to celebrate its 30th anniversary. Through Jan. 26, consumers can add a large one-topping pizza for 30 cents, with the purchase of a large pizza at regular menu price. Papa John’s has 4,300 restaurants worldwide.

Fast-casual chains and value

Technomic’s Tristano noted that fast-casual concepts by and large do not run aggressive promotions in January or throughout the rest of the year, but those chains nonetheless could bolster their value perceptions through product news like other limited-service brands have done.

“You could conclude that brands like Jimmy John’s or Firehouse Subs don’t compete with Subway — their quality is a step above and their prices are $3 above — but the reality is consumers use both,” he said. “Consumers go higher in price one day, then look for low prices the next day to balance it out.”

Reconsidering ways to provide more value could be the way fast-casual brands make better inroads at the dinner daypart or with certain demographic groups, like women or Hispanics, Tristano added.

Women tend to look for smaller portions, which fast-casual brands could offer, even at a slightly higher price point, he said, while Hispanic customers tend to focus on family occasions when dining out. Both look for bolder, spicier flavors, he said.

“You have opportunities for more social occasions by offering a family-oriented package … or options for sampling and sharing,” Tristano said. “You don’t see as many parties of three or more in fast casual, and that might be the way for [those restaurants] to continue their momentum.”


Hearty Appetite for Fast Casual

November 7, 2013

The Potbelly restaurant on State Street still hummed with customers, long after a recent lunch hour had ended.

Tyler Andersen, a 20-year-old accounting student at nearby Harold Washington College, paid $10 for chips, a drink and a Wreckingball, a fusion of the restaurant’s popular Wreck sandwich — made with roast beef, turkey, ham and salami — and a meatball sandwich. He said he prefers dining at Potbelly over other sandwich shops like Subway and McDonald’s.

“I’d rather spend one-fifty or two dollars more because I like the product better,” Andersen said. As for fast food, “I can’t justify paying six or seven bucks. I’d rather spend 10 bucks here than four bucks at McDonald’s.”

Whether investors will retain their appetite for Chicago-based Potbelly remains to be seen.

Shares more than doubled in value in their debut Oct. 4, rising from $14 apiece to close at $30.77. Not bad for a company that started out in 1977 as an antique shop on Lincoln Avenue and began offering sandwiches to increase sales. It now counts 280 company-owned shops in the United States.

But shares have slipped since then; they closed Monday at $26.21, down nearly 6 percent, or $1.60 a share. Analysts point to a report over the weekend by Barron’s that questioned the shares’ lofty valuation.

Potbelly competes in the fast-growing restaurant segment known as fast casual, where made-to-order offerings like a Subway sandwich, Panera salad or Chipotle burrito are drawing busy, money-strapped consumers from more expensive casual dining restaurants like Chili’s and Olive Garden as well as less expensive restaurants like McDonald’s and Burger King.

“The millennial generation really likes fast-casual restaurants and are willing to spend a few more dollars,” said Darren Tristano, executive vice president at food industry research and consulting firm Technomic. “They are not as frugal as Gen X or boomers.”

Tristano said the fast-casual sector represents $35 billion in annual sales and has quickly grown, even through the recession. Tristano expects a 10 percent annual growth rate for the sector to continue for at least the next five years. The typical Potbelly check averages between $8.50 and $12, compared with $3 to $8.50 at a fast-food restaurant, according to company documents.

Company officials declined to comment.

Analysts had been comparing demand for Potbelly’s initial public offering to that of Colorado-based Noodles & Co., also in the fast-casual sector. Shares of Noodles & Co., the first U.S. restaurant IPO this year, also more than doubled in value in their trading debut in June. The stock was priced at $18 and closed Monday at $48.30. Noodles serves globally inspired noodle dishes ordered at the cash register.

Francis Gaskins, director of research at Santa Monica, Calif.-based Equities.com and founder of IPOdesktop.com, said he expects Potbelly to use the net proceeds from its offering to grow into a national brand. Potbelly operates in 18 states and the District of Columbia.

“I personally think it’s got to grow into its valuation,” Gaskins said. “If they can’t open profitable stores on a consistent basis, that’ll be a problem for the stock.”

Gaskins said the challenge for Potbelly will be to distinguish itself from the myriad sandwich chains with which it will compete as it expands.

R.J. Hottovy, senior restaurant analyst for Morningstar, notes that Potbelly is in a market saturated with sandwich competition “and that is something investors have to be mindful of.” Aside from well-known brands Subway and Quizno’s, there’s Jimmy John’s, Jersey Mike’s, Schlotzky’s, Jason’s Deli, Firehouse Subs and smaller chains.

This year Potbelly plans to open 32 to 35 shops, the company said in a regulatory filing. That compares with 31 stores in 2012 and 21 in 2011.

Revenue in 2012 rose 15 percent to $274.9 million, up from $238 million in 2011. Aided by a tax benefit of $16.9 million in 2012, net income was $24 million. That compares with earnings of $7.2 million in 2011.

Potbelly prides itself on its ambience. A potbelly stove usually is prominently displayed, and live music is provided at most stores during lunch. Its rustic decor is reminiscent of its roots as an antique shop.

Customers in the Potbelly on State Street listed ambience as a factor that draws them back.

“It’s open, and they play music, and it’s really relaxed and has cool stuff on the wall,” said Karen Chavez, a vegetarian who usually stops at Potbelly’s once a week. She says she picks up a Potbelly meatless sub and a canned drink for $5. Cookies and shakes also are a draw, she said.

“I feel like the ingredients are better and the options are better,” she added.


Ciro’s Chris Dorman: A Story Behind Every Cocktail

October 15, 2013

rpdormancirosimg4938 304Tasty food is always a draw, but some of today’s restaurant-goers are looking for a taste of eras gone by.

Storytelling is increasingly important to the restaurant experience, said Darren Tristano, a restaurant analyst with Technomic Inc.

Chris Dorman, beverage director for SoHo Hospitality Management, described how history influences cocktails at Ciro’s Speakeasy and Supper Club, the Prohibition-themed lounge in South Tampa.

Dorman joined SoHo about two months ago after relocating from New York City, where he was involved in several restaurant and nightlife concepts with historic themes.

Tampa Bay Business Journal: What attracted you to Tampa Bay?

Dorman: Tampa had an interesting cocktail culture that was growing already. Tampa is one of those places where they’re into the culture. People understand what they’re doing and are trying to push it forward. Down here, a few [places] I see doing that consistently are Sidebern’s, Fly Bar & Restaurant and Anise Global Gastrobar.

TBBJ: What are some of the new ideas you’re rolling out?

Dorman: We’re going to get more seasonal than we’ve been in the past, where every six or seven months you’ll find new cocktails on the menu based on what’s in season. One new cocktail is called the “Flapper’s Delight.” It’s a gin-based cocktail [that] comes in a classic cocktail champagne flute … We have another cocktail called the “Special Delivery.” During the Prohibition, people’s liquor bottles were painted white to look like milk. At 9 a.m., you were having milk delivered. It goes back to having a story behind the cocktail.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 140 other followers