‘Better Burger’ Segment Trending in Baton Rouge

May 22, 2015

Timothy Boone  picture

Copyright 2015, Capital City Press, All Rights Reserved. Distributed by NewsBank Inc.

http://theadvocate.com/news/business/12363703-123/better-burger-segment-trending-in

Smashburger, which was named as the top fast-casual restaurant chain in the country, opened its first Baton Rouge location Wednesday, the latest so-called “better burger” eatery to enter the market.

Better burger restaurants offer a premium product, with patties made from fresh, never-frozen beef and a wide range of toppings. Generally, the burgers sell for a few dollars more than the offerings at McDonald’s, Burger King or Wendy’s.

“The better burger market has grown up in the past five or six years,” said John A. Gordon, principal of Pacific Management Consulting Group, a San Diego-based group that works with restaurants. “Honestly, some of the traditional quick-service burger players got really bad.”

In recent months, Baton Rouge has seen growth in the better burger segment. There’s the Smashburger on Corporate Boulevard. Red Robin, one of the originators of the trend, re-entered the market after a decadelong absence with a restaurant that opened at the Mall of Louisiana just before Christmas. Lafayette-based Burgersmith will open its second local restaurant on Siegen Lane in early summer and a Juban Crossing location will be open by the end of the year.

Chuck Kerr, who has the local franchise rights for Mooyah Burgers Fries & Shakes with his wife, Denise, said he’s looking at opening a second Baton Rouge-area restaurant and is eyeing a Millerville Road location. Officials with Dallas-based Mooyah said the Kerr’s Siegen Lane location has been one of the chain’s top-performing restaurants in terms of sales.

Kerr credits his restaurant’s success to offering a high-quality product and consistently good customer service. “We have a simple menu, yet it’s complex,” he said. While he just sells beef, turkey or veggie patties, there are a wide range of toppings and sauces — so many that the chain boasts there are 1.2 million different ways to make a Mooyah burger.

“The neatest part about the whole thing is that the customer is benefiting from capitalism,” he said. “They’re getting more choices and better choices.” Kerr said he expects the major fast-food chains, such as McDonald’s, will take their resources and revamp their menus so they can compete with the better burger restaurants.

The better burger segment accounted for $3.5 billion in sales in 2014, said Darren Tristano, executive vice president of Technomic, a food industry research and consulting firm based in Chicago.

Tristano said he’s forecasting about 10 percent growth for the better burger chains over the next five years, thanks to the performance of such popular chains as Five Guys Burgers and Fries and Smashburger.

Robert Barbour, part of the franchise group that owns the Baton Rouge Smashburger, said customers are willing to pay an extra dollar or two for a quality hamburger. “People are demanding a better burger and better choices in their fast-casual dining,” Barbour said.

Smashburger was named the top chain by Fast Casual magazine in 2014. In seven years, the Denver-based company has grown to 325 locations. Smashburger gets its name from the preparation technique, which uses a custom-made, five-sided tool to smash balls of raw meat into the grill. This sears the bottom of the patty and allows the burgers to cook in their own juices.

Barbour said his franchise group plans to open 10 to 15 restaurants in their territory, which stretches from Lafayette through Mississippi to Memphis, Tennessee.

“Hamburgers are incredibly popular and a canvas for innovation and creativity,” Tristano said. “They’re a great familiar product that’s affordable and consumers continue to eat them.”


How Growth Through Unique Concepts is Orlando’s Recipe for Success

May 21, 2015

Megan Ribbens new-dsc8239-750xx4928-2786-0-338
© 2015 American City Business Journals, Inc. All rights reserved.
http://www.bizjournals.com/orlando/print-edition/2015/05/15/how-growth-through-unique-concepts-is-orlando-s.html

Orlando foodies may be ready for a second helping of their favorite restaurants, but local chefs say the key to growing Orlando’s restaurant industry isn’t about expanding existing concepts. Rather, it’s about bringing something unique to the table.

Not only does this philosophy help steer clear of the chain restaurant stigma Orlando has come to be known for, but it also appeals to a larger pool of visitors who have a growing appetite for new concepts.

“From an Orlando point of view, having independent restaurants that aren’t an early start of a chain creates a better image of Orlando as a restaurant destination,” said restaurant analyst Darren Tristano, vice president of Technomic Inc. “Ideally, if the independent restaurants are good and have potential to win awards, that’s going to help, too. Today, independent restaurants are outperforming chains because they can adapt to changes and be more innovative with their menus more rapidly than chains that have to do that in multiple locations around the country. It contributes to a better destination and food city.”

Stay on top of Central Florida business news with our free newsletters. Click here to sign up.

Independent restaurants also can contribute to economic development efforts, said downtown developer Craig Ustler, who also is the principal of the Citrus, Soco and Cityfish restaurants in Orlando. “I would make the argument that chefs like The Rusty Spoon’s Kathleen Blake are just as valuable as a tech startup, and for some reason, I don’t think the community thinks that way about food. Other cities have built an image around food, and we haven’t yet gotten that message.”

He also believes the restaurant industry aligns well with the Orlando Economic Development Commission’s “You Don’t Know the Half of It” branding campaign — designed to highlight the fact that Orlando is more than just tourism — not only as a way to better highlight the city’s food scene, but also a way to better align Orlando with people who travel for food.

“People are planning vacations around where to eat or thinking about what restaurants to go to. When visitors are in Orlando, they’re thinking of attractions. We’re the tourism capital, and we need to understand how to tie in restaurants, how to capture a better market share of the 60 million-plus people who come here. If, on average, 3 million-5 million tourists are in town, and if you got 1 percent to come downtown, that’s like 30,000 people.”

As Chef Kevin Fonzo of K Restaurant said, Orlando is like the tale of two cities. Tourists visit Walt Disney World and International Drive, and many never venture farther to where the locals live and dine to experience the true Orlando.

While the city has emerged as a competitive marketplace for large chains, that reputation has thwarted its efforts to be known as a food destination.

Tristano believes it’s an opportunity for the city to support the growth of new independent concepts. “Orlando has to encourage a higher level of more fine-dining restaurants and even more upscale casual restaurants focused on redefining Orlando as more of a restaurant city. The city has to decide it wants independents and have supporting benefits and development of space for it.”

While there are some risks in restaurant owners having two different concepts, Tristano said there are plenty of advantages over opening a second location of your existing brand, including:

* You may cannibalize sales by creating a second location instead of a new concept.

* The perception of having two locations may mislead the customer to think it’s a chain, so you lose the independent feel.

* Having another concept gives you a different appeal to the marketplace and, ultimately, if one is better than the other or one struggles, you have an opportunity later to transform the other into the more successful concept.

* Foodies and affluent consumers look for more differentiation.

* The Food & Drug Administration requires restaurants with 20 or more units under the same name to put calorie and nutritional counts on their menu. So independents and smaller chains don’t have to label their menus.

Meanwhile, Bob Amick, president and owner of Atlanta-based Concentrics restaurants, has watched Orlando’s culinary scene evolve during the past 10 years.

Amick, who does independent restaurant concepts across the U.S., helped open local concepts like Luma on Park and Prato in Winter Park, and now is working with Unicorp National Developments Inc. on the new Slate restaurant in Dr. Phillips and with Tavistock on a new eatery in Lake Nona.

Thanks to its theme parks, the visitors Orlando attracts aren’t the typical customer who drives the up-and-coming restaurant industry, he said. So, instead, Orlando needs to attract and develop more restaurateurs and chefs who are willing to take risks.

“Restaurant cities really are driven by local chefs who are mentoring young up-and-coming chefs, like a feeder system,” Amick said. “The town grows from that from a culinary standpoint. It’s harder for Orlando with the outsourcing of theme parks and international chains around I-Drive.”

And just as Amick has watched Orlando develop a mix of local chefs and restaurateurs, he said the next step is to continue growing downtown Orlando. “If people get out and enjoy all aspects of Orlando, continue to bring more life to downtown, that will do more for Orlando than anything, in my opinion. The great restaurant towns in America have great downtowns.”

Total number of restaurants in Orlando

Fiscal 2010: 457

Fiscal 2011: 511

Fiscal 2012: 568

Fiscal 2013: 661

Fiscal 2014: 754

Number of restaurant openings in Orlando

Fiscal 2010: 48

Fiscal 2011: 4 1

Fiscal 2012: 76

Fiscal 2013: 67

Fiscal 2014: 107

Number of restaurant closures in Orlando

Fiscal 2010: 3

Fiscal 2011: 2

Fiscal 2012: 9

Fiscal 2013: 6

Fiscal 2014: 36

By the numbers

$36.4B: Projected 2015 sales at Florida’s restaurants

943,600: Restaurant jobs in Florida in 2015


New Face, Future for Ruby’s Diner

April 24, 2015

nmxdke-b88381735z.120150416173141000gd396457.10The Irvine chain’s new CEO will condense the chain’s menu and craft new concepts

By Hannah Madans, The Orange County Register
http://www.ocregister.com/articles/ruby-658341-restaurant-new.html
(c)2015 The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, Calif.)

Scott Barnett, the interim chief executive at Ruby’s Diner, has only been on the job for a few weeks, but he’s already tried every item on the chain’s expansive menu.

Barnett replaced the chain’s founder Doug Cavanaugh in March, making him the company’s first new CEO in its 33-year history. Cavanaugh will remain as Ruby’s chairman.

A personal friend of Cavanaugh, Barnett has a long history in restaurants. He’s the former president and CEO of Rusty Pelican, founding president and former CEO of Bubba Gump Shrimp Co., and has served as a consultant for investment banking projects in Hong Kong.

Barnett said his goals include improving Ruby’s by condensing the menu while upholding the restaurant’s standards.

The renewed economy and cheaper gas has been a boon for family restaurants like Ruby’s.

Restaurants like Ruby’s saw 3 percent growth in 2014, a “huge improvement” over sluggish gains in the years immediately after the recession, said Darren Tristano, executive vice president at market research company Technomic.

“The low prices of gas are really starting to help the family-style segment,” he said. “It’s giving more low- to middle-income consumers more money to spend, and as long as gas prices remain low, the restaurant business is going to continue to improve.”

He added that low menu prices are something that helps a restaurant like Ruby’s do well.

“They do have good quality offerings in a theme restaurant, which is something that consumers are looking for, and their price points are relatively good for the California market,” Tristano said.

Meanwhile the fast-casual restaurant sector — an area Barnett sees as having tremendous growth opportunity for Ruby’s — grew 13 percent in 2014.

Barnett spoke to the Register about his experience in the restaurant industry and what he hopes to bring to Ruby’s, a chain named after Cavanaugh’s mother. His answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Q. Why did you want to be involved in the company?

A. The brand is extremely strong. It has great brand equity in the markets in which it operates. Many years ago, I almost went to work with Ruby’s as their vice president of operations. I ended up running Rusty Pelican as CEO instead. Doug (Cavanaugh) is a friend, and he really wanted someone who had a significant amount of experience as a professional manager who could help him transition the company from an entrepreneurial style into a more seasoned manner — and given that we’ve had a long relationship and are friends, it made sense.

Q. You have held many notable jobs in the restaurant industry. What did you learn from each of these positions and what will you bring to Ruby’s?

A. At Bubba Gump Shrimp, I was fortunate to be dealing with a well-known brand with tremendous reach worldwide. The challenge was to deliver on that brand in the manner that people were used to it from the movie. It was all about learning about brands that have a lot of power and seeking ways to deliver on the promise of the brand.

At Rusty Pelican, it was also a well-known brand that had encountered a number of issues. I learned a lot about how to act in a capital restrained environment, team building, starting from the ground up and a company turnaround.

In Hong Kong, I learned from the other side what it was like to be involved in restaurant investments and to help restaurant companies maximize their returns based on our investment criteria.

Q. Did you always know you would end up in the restaurant business?

A. No. I started working in restaurants many years ago, while I was going to school, because I had to pay my own way. I was a cook, a bartender, a busboy, a dishwasher, a valet parking attendant.

When I left college, my intent was to go to grad school but I picked a summer job working in a restaurant and the rest is history. Never went to grad school.

Q. What will you change at Ruby’s?

A. We’re going to dramatically reduce the menu. We are looking at some of the internal operations and the internal policies and procedures and see which work and which can be improved upon. I’m trying to bring some methods I’ve used and learned about in the past that I think can improve upon what’s going on here at Ruby’s.

The menu changes are being tested right now in Yorba Linda and Irvine. The test started March 30, right after I started here. I put that in as quickly as possible because I had identified it as a serious shortcoming at Ruby’s. The results so far have been very positive. If the test proves out in about four more weeks, then we’ll do an implementation within the entire system by the end of May.

Q. What other plans do you have for Ruby’s future?

A. We like the look of the classic ’40s diner that Ruby’s is known for and I think that as we move forward we’re not going to lose the roots on which it was built.

We also want to spruce up the looks of many of the restaurants, both the interior and exterior. But we’re operating in a constrained environment, and we have to be economical and creative in how we do that. I don’t want to change a lot about the ’40s diners look. It’s very iconic, almost timeless. I’m talking about repairs, maintenance, things like that.

Q. What aspects will remain the same?

A. So many restaurants and companies over the years cut corners, take shortcuts and in the end sacrifice the most important part of the experience, which is the food and the service. That is one thing Ruby’s has not done and that is not going to change.

Q. It seems like there are a lot of new people coming to Ruby’s, especially from Yogurtland (Ruby’s vice president of franchise development Larry Sidoti is a former Yogurtland executive). Why is this?

A. The fact that many come from Yogurtland is somewhat random. We at Ruby’s have always made an attempt to hire the very best people. And it just so happens that there were a number of people who were available from Yogurtland.

The best way of recruiting is to find people who are friends or have relationships or have recommendations from good people that already work with us. Birds of a feather tend to flock together. Good people want to work with other good people.

Q. Fast casual option Ruby’s Dinette was recently scrapped. Are there any new Ruby’s concepts underway?

A. We haven’t given up on fast casual. I really think it’s a matter of execution and conceptual positioning. We’re reviewing that. It will almost surely be a growth vehicle for the company going forward.

We are still doing fast casual restaurants in airports around the country and a few other places.

Q. When you venture into fast casual again, will you do it at existing Ruby’s locations or open new ones?

A. We would do it in new locations. When people have a Ruby’s, in their minds, it’s their Ruby’s. Most customers like it as it is. It doesn’t make sense to change their Ruby’s into something else. So you look for an opportunity to create a new Ruby’s in a new environment.

Q. What are some of the biggest challenges in making a restaurant chain successful?

A. The restaurant business isn’t that complicated. It’s really about hot food, service with a smile and pleasant, clean, interesting surroundings. If you deliver on those things on a consistent basis with pricing that makes sense, then you’re going to create an experience for your guest. There are also lot of nuances involving location and making sure you hire the right people.

Q. How have minimum wage increases and healthcare mandates affected the business?

A. Increases in minimum wage and health insurance costs and many other employee-related costs are impacting our industry. They’re impacting the industry at a time when most operators have little to no pricing power and the ability to pass on these costs to the customer.

You have to look for creative ways to minimize the costs without impacting the guest experience. And it gets more challenging every year.

Q. Is there something in particular you want to accomplish as interim CEO?

A. I would love to be able to make a difference in terms of the corporate culture. I would like to be able to influence the growth of the company in what is essentially a very capital-constrained environment. I would love to be able to make the Ruby’s experience a memorable one to the guest and that’s not as easy as it sounds.

Q. What is Cavanaugh’s involvement in the company now?

A. Doug is in many ways an idea guy, a concept guy. And he’s highly focused on the marketing side of the business. He’ll continue to be a major contributor in those areas. I’m going to make very few decisions without sounding them off him beforehand. He is the creator of the concept and the guy who is responsible for the success Ruby’s has had over the years.


No End to the Bacon Trend

April 7, 2015

Bacon stripsEven with health and wellness trends top-of-mind with consumers, indulgent bacon continues to provide opportunities for innovation and appeal to menus. Innovation can be built on preparation, spice profiles and mixing the salty, smoky and savory flavor of bacon with sweet and hot. There seems to be no end to the bacon trend, and we continue to see innovation across the restaurant landscape.

In the quick-service sector, Little Caesars Bacon-Wrapped Crust Pizza places bacon on the pizza and now around the pizza.

In fast casual, Panda Express improves the already craveable Orange Chicken by adding bacon (with a premium price point) for customers who can’t get enough.

Full-service chain LongHorn Steakhouse adds the Triple Bacon Sirloin to the mix, with its Fire-Grilled Sirloin wrapped with bacon, topped with bacon and finished with bacon tomato Hollandaise.

In the recreation segment, White Sox fans at Cellular Field will be able to order bacon flights that include brown sugar, jalapeno, black pepper and barbecue flavors, or just bacon on a stick, improved this year with a maple glaze.

One thing is clear: The trend in bacon continues to drive innovation and growth, and there’s no end in sight. Fans of the smoky salty protein just can’t get enough.


McDonald’s Moves Toward Antibiotic-Free Chicken: Too Little, Too Late?

March 10, 2015

Nancy Gagliardi
2015 Forbes.com LLC™ All Rights Reserved

http://www.forbes.com/sites/nancygagliardi/2015/03/04/mcdonalds-latest-move-toward-antibiotic-free-too-little-too-late/

Taking a cue from rival Chick-fil-A, McDonald’s announced Wednesday morning that it intends to stop buying chickens that have been treated with antibiotics that are also taken by humans, seeking to address consumers’ concerns about resistant “super-bugs” resulting from overuse of the drugs. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, every year super-bugs cause some 2 million illnesses and 23,000 deaths in the U.S., resulting in an estimated $20 billion in direct health care costs. McDonald’s also announced that its U.S. locations would sell milk products only from cows that are free of artificial growth hormones (specifically rbST), but added that it would continue to allow suppliers to “responsibly use” certain antibiotics (called ionophores) which are not used in humans.

The world’s largest fast food chain will spend the next two years working to phase in its news standards with its suppliers, including Tyson Foods which, according to reports, said it would comply with the company’s requests, adding that its chicken production had reduced it use of antibiotics by 84% since 2011. A company spokesperson also commented that it would phase out using antibiotics as early as in the hatchery phase of production (when chicks are injected while still in their shells).

While he may only (officially) be four days into his new role, CEO Steve Easterbrook (who recently said he viewed himself as the company’s “internal activist,” perhaps hoping to ward off the latest wave of activist investors targeting companies that haven’t performed as well as expected) gets to mark this antibiotic-free move under his watch.

But is this really a signal that it won’t be business as usual for the beleaguered fast food giant or is it too little too late?

“I don’t think it is. It’s what needs to happen to McDonald’s right now,” says Darren Tristano, a restaurant industry analyst at Technomic. “In our industry you can catch up very quickly, but if you don’t, doing nothing isn’t an answer or a solution. This clearly is a sign that McDonald’s is willing to improve.”

While the antibiotic ban is making big news here, McDonald’s is already sourcing drug-free chicken overseas. “There are a number of countries where it doesn’t have antibiotics or hormones in its chicken,” says Tristano, including the U.K., where Easterbrook comes from. “But this is a step for them to come back to the leadership position they used to have in this industry.”

While this most likely is the first of many steps by McDonald’s to reverse its recent slide (in interviews, Easterbrook has said it needs to become nimble to accommodate market needs), a comeback will take time. Says Tristano:

First, you have to qualify coming back. I think for McDonald’s that’s getting back to a level of growth that’s nominally keeping up with inflation. I’d expect to see it back to 2.5% to 3%, which puts it into a position where it isn’t losing share, and anything above that would put it in a position where it’s taking share. Look, it was the leader during the recession, driving a lot of the industry growth. While I wouldn’t expect that to reoccur, I think getting back to zero and building, and no longer losing share is important, and we may be looking at 2016 for that to happen. But if it can get back to even, that certainly helps the company grow again.


Uno Chain Putting Pizza First Again

March 2, 2015

tlumacki_pizzeriauno_business375-001Pizza First ; Uno, once deemed the healthiest chain restaurant in America, ditches its nutritionist and goes back to its high-calorie roots to stand out from its rivals

By Taryn Luna Globe Correspondent
http://www.bostonglobe.com/business/2015/02/27/uno-chain-putting-pizza-first-again/Idbh31HEj5KahzIpPxZk7I/story.html
© 2015 The Boston Globe. Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning. All Rights Reserved.

Uno Pizzeria and Grill, the deep-dish pizza restaurant chain that switched years ago to a menu emphasizing pages of healthy food, is returning to its cheesy roots. Calorie counters beware.

In 2008, the West Roxbury company had happily embraced a new title, bestowed by Health magazine: healthiest restaurant chain in America.

Now Uno’s traditional fare — including its 2,300-calorie Chicago Classic individual pizza — is back near the front of the menu.

Said Dee Hadley, chief marketing officer at Uno:

“If you came into our restaurant and tried to find pizza on our menu, you would have had a hard time because we hid it in the back. It’s about going back to what made the brand great to begin with.”

Hadley and a new team of executives have spent more than $10 million to remodel dozens of restaurants and start a rebranding campaign. The goal is to emphasize Uno’s pizza heritage, a way to stand out in a waning casual dining business teeming with big competitors like Applebee’s, Chili’s, Ruby Tuesday, TGI Friday’s, and Red Robin.

Uno was founded in Chicago in 1943, serving thick-crust pizza that curved up the sides of its deep metal pan. The pizza was so unusual that the original owners, Ike Sewell and Ric Riccardo, gave away samples to entice people to try it, Chicago historian Tim Samuelson said.

It paid off, and the restaurant became wildly popular.

In 1979, a Boston restaurateur, Aaron Spencer, became the first franchisee and opened an Uno on Boylston Street. Spencer continued to expand the chain in Boston and beyond. Over time, Uno grew to more than 200 restaurants.

But the company began to distance itself from its pizza roots in the early 2000s. Like many other casual restaurant chains, it expanded the menu to appeal to as many customers as possible, said Darren Tristano, an executive vice president at the food industry research firm Technomic in Chicago.

In an increasingly health-conscious time, people weren’t flocking to Uno for pizza that often topped 1,700 calories for an individual serving. Every restaurant, from McDonald’s to Applebee’s, looked for ways to cut calories.

Around 2005, Uno began a campaign to cultivate a healthier image. The brand, which had already changed its name to Uno Chicago Grill from Pizzeria Uno, eliminated trans fats from the menu and listed ingredients and calories on touch-screen kiosks. The new menu featured pages of salads.

Uno hired a full-time nutritionist and started a nutrition advisory board, which included a cardiologist from Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

“Creating a menu with delicious health-conscious options is one of our priorities,” Frank W. Guidara, then Uno’s chief executive, said a few years into the process. In an April 2006 Boston Globe article, Guidara said sales were up almost 2 percent because of the changes.

But the menu changes turned Uno into another Applebee’s, with a broad range of dishes and no emphasis on anything, Tristano said. At one point, the menu stretched to 22 pages. The restaurant’s deep dish pizzas appeared on page 18.

“They really changed the menu and mimicked what other casual restaurants were doing,” Tristano said. “Today we’ve learned that menus are too big, and casual dining brands are too ubiquitous.”

Uno discovered that the hard way. The company faced heavy debt and declining sales during the recession, when people ate out less frequently. Uno suffered net losses of $22 million in 2009 and filed for bankruptcy protection the following year.

Now, a new team of executives is trying to move forward with more than a nod to the past. The main objective: Give customers what they want.

Hadley said that when she joined in May 2013, the company went back through consumer studies for the prior five years to understand what people liked about Uno. Not surprisingly, the answer was deep dish pizza.

“We’ve really made a commitment to send a message to our consumer base that we’re bringing back the soul of the brand that we’ve lost,” Hadley said.

The first step was to rename the restaurant Uno Pizzeria and Grill, followed by a redesign of the restaurants. About 40 of the chain’s 82 corporate-owned restaurants have been remodeled, starting last year, at a cost of $100,000 to $200,000 per eatery, Hadley said.

At an updated restaurant in Braintree, the yellow and white checkered tablecloths and Tiffany pendants that dangled from the ceiling have been replaced with wood tables and modern light fixtures. Construction crews removed a wall in the bar and took down glass partitions in the dining room for a more open-concept feel. The restaurant added a new bar top and high tables, doubling the size of the bar.

Daily specials are written on chalkboards, and simple art adorns the walls with phrases like “We owe it all to a man and his pan.”

Uno says the remodeling is starting to pay off. Updated restaurants have experienced a 10 percent sales growth, she said.

The timing isn’t ideal for a return to high-calorie pizza fare, however. The federal government will require chains to list calorie counts on their menus by the end of this year.

Some diners won’t care. But others may choose smaller portions or different dishes when they realize the high calorie count of a favorite item.

“The calories on the menu will be really an eye-opener to the consumer,” said Joan Salge Black, a professor in the nutrition program at Boston University.

While gluten-free and low-fat items haven’t disappeared from the Uno menu, the nutrition advisory board isn’t active, and Uno no longer employs a nutritionist.

“We want to make sure healthy choices are available, but if you’re looking for those things you’re not thinking about us,” Hadley said. “Strong brands have to stand for something that is different from the rest of the pack. Our heritage is deep dish pizza.”


Shake Shack, Born in a Park, Goes Public With Big Dreams

February 6, 2015

SHAKE-tmagArticleBy Michael J. de la Merced and Kim Severson

The New York Times

Copyright 2015 The New York Times Company. All Rights Reserved.

http://dealbook.nytimes.com/2015/01/29/shake-shack-born-in-a-park-goes-public-with-big-dreams/?_r=0

Nearly 14 years ago, on something of a lark, the restaurateur Danny Meyer opened a Chicago-style hot dog cart in Manhattan’s Madison Square Park, hoping to draw crowds to the park and give summer jobs to the staff at one of his nearby high-end restaurants.

That stand has morphed into Shake Shack, a burger-and-crinkle-fries empire with outposts in London, Dubai, Istanbul and Las Vegas. On Friday, it will begin trading on the New York Stock Exchange with a valuation of about $745 million, and will increase Mr. Meyer’s net worth by about $155 million.

Conceived as a homage to the friendly Midwestern fast-food joints of Mr. Meyer’s childhood, Shake Shack has become one of the most prominent purveyors of fast-casual food. That sector, dominated by the likes of Chipotle, has fundamentally reshaped the fast-food industry with its emphasis on using fresh ingredients. In short, Americans seem willing to pay more for fast food made better, so long as they are still served quickly.

The success of Mr. Meyer’s chain stands in stark contrast to McDonald’s, the global behemoth suffering from its worst slump in more than a decade. The golden-arched restaurant chain announced a change in leadership this week facing sagging sales and a flat stock price, as it struggles to adjust its well-worn menu for modern tastes.

Mr. Meyer, 56, and his team have had no such trouble. Shake Shack has resonated with consumers who grew up on fast food but are both wary and weary of it. Burgers have been enjoying a makeover that began in the late 1990s, as younger eaters have flocked to a new generation of burger chains like Shake Shack, Five Guys and Smashburger.

Mr. Meyer’s chain is part of a new crop of fast-casual restaurants that promote the authenticity of ingredients. Many have since gone public, stirring up investors’ appetites: Shares in Zoës Kitchen have doubled from the chain’s public debut, while those in El Pollo Loco are up 76 percent. The shares of another chain, Habit Restaurants, have risen more than 80 percent since their November debut.

Yet the fast-casual dining sector has become crowded, with a host of new entrants in an already competitive restaurant business. Shake Shack has tripled its store count in just two years, with 63 branches, and now Mr. Meyer and his team must prove they can manage their chain’s explosive growth and weather the public’s fickle tastes.

Shake Shack is rooted in Mr. Meyer’s own culinary experiences. Its origins lie in St. Louis, where he grew up on straightforward food served with Midwestern friendliness at restaurants like the German restaurant Schneithorst’s and Steak ‘n Shake, itself now a 500-restaurant chain.

He also came to love the frozen custard at Ted Drewes, which began selling Christmas trees and frozen custard in the 1930s. That restaurant introduced the concrete, a shake as thick as ice cream with a raft of mix-ins, in 1959; it is now a signature item at Shake Shack.

So integral is the frozen treat to the company’s identity that Mr. Meyer nearly named the hot dog cart ”Custard’s First Stand.” He acknowledges in the stock sale’s prospectus that the name was ”pretty bad.”

But Shake Shack also draws on the lessons Mr. Meyer has learned in his three decades as one of New York’s most successful restaurateurs. His career began in 1985 when, at age 27, he opened the Union Square Cafe as a kind of antithesis to New York restaurants of the time that cultivated exclusivity and excess. The restaurant’s mix of warm service, dishes made with produce bought at the nearby Greenmarket and top-notch food served more casually was groundbreaking.

Since then, hospitality has been the calling card for his empire, which has expanded to what are now fixtures of the New York dining scene: Gramercy Tavern, Blue Smoke and Maialino among them. (Those restaurants are part of a separate company, the Union Square Hospitality Group, that will remain privately held.) The restaurateur has even written a best-selling book, ”Setting the Table,” a primer on customer service.

Even in its prospectus, Shake Shack refers to its customers as ”guests.”

”The thing I learned growing up in St. Louis,” he told St. Louis magazine in 2007, ”was the power of hospitality. The enormously warm feelings of loyalty that come from feeling welcome and being recognized and having the sense that the restaurant is happy to see you.”

That combination of quality ingredients and warm service has proved profitable, though the company is still a relative minnow. Shake Shack reported $5.4 million in net income in 2013 on $82.5 million in sales. Chipotle, by contrast, reported about $327 million in net income on $3.2 billion in sales in the same year.

Still, its success has helped bolster the fortunes of Shake Shack’s owners and close partners. Beyond Mr. Meyer, the top shareholder is Leonard Green & Partners, a Los Angeles private equity firm that invested in the company in 2012. The firm’s partner now on Shake Shack’s board, Jonathan D. Sokoloff, was introduced to Mr. Meyer through top executives at Whole Foods, in which Leonard Green once held a stake. They initially met over dinner at Gramercy Tavern.

Responsible for helping propel the growth of Shake Shack, Leonard Green’s holding in the company is now valued at roughly $193 million.

Shake Shack has even helped transform Pat LaFrieda, which manufactures the company’s secret burger blend, from a local artisanal butcher into a nationally lauded purveyor of quality beef.

But Shake Shack’s ambitious expansion plans — the chain plans to open at least 10 company-owned restaurants in the United States each fiscal year — may threaten the high level of hospitality the company is known for.

Mr. Meyer’s original network of restaurants was opened within a tight radius within New York City, so that the restaurateur could walk between them and ensure that each was up to par. That hasn’t been possible with Shake Shack for some time, and its increasingly far-flung locations risk eroding that quality of service.

Already, its Manhattan-based locations are more profitable than its other branches, reporting 31 percent operating profit margins compared with 21 percent for non-Manhattan restaurants.

Another potential problem is that the so-called ”better burger” slice of the fast-casual market is getting crowded, according to Darren Tristano, an analyst at the research firm Technomic. While the market may grow from $3 billion to $5 billion, he argued, it won’t grow much more — and consumers may slowly lose their hunger for burgers.

”I wouldn’t necessarily call them unique or the best, but they are a very well-positioned burger concept with good service,” Mr. Tristano said. ”They’re not that much different from regional players.”

But Shake Shack is wagering that hungry customers will beg to differ.

”When Shake Shack opened up a block from my house,” the chef Anthony Bourdain said in 2011, ”I dropped to my knees and wept with gratitude.”

This is a more complete version of the story than the one that appeared in print.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 157 other followers