The chips are down for Chipotle, but not for long

February 11, 2016

by Todd Wasserman
Campaign
http://www.campaignlive.com/article/chips-down-chipotle-not-long/1383083

In 2013, Chipotle released a haunting animated video featuring a scarecrow that observes the horrors of automated farming. Set to Fiona Apple’s rendition of “Pure Imagination,” the ad went on to win CAA Marketing a Grand Prix at Cannes the following year.

Before the Cannes judges weighed in, though, Funny or Die did with a damning parody changing the tune to “Pure Manipulation” and offering a cynical analysis of Chipotle’s marketing. “We can say what we want. In our world of pure imagination,” went the lyrics. “Just pretend we’re your friends. It’s what we want you to believe.”

Funny or Die’s blistering critique did little to hurt Chipotle’s appeal. Instead, several incidents of food-borne illnesses over the past few months have exposed the chasm between the chain’s brand promise and the realities of running a large-scale restaurant operation. It’s safe to say, at least, that Chipotle won’t be trumpeting its “food with integrity” mantra for a while or criticizing rivals for their factory farming practices.

Because of its healthy financials and sheer size — the company’s market cap is around $14 billion — few expect Chipotle to go the way of Chi-Chi’s, another Mexican chain that closed its doors in 2004 after it unknowingly perpetuated a hepatitis A outbreak that killed four people.

That prognosis for Chipotle, however, assumes that the worst of the crisis is over. Going forward, Chipotle will source more of its food from major suppliers, mooting a prime differentiator from other fast-food chains. The company is also planning to launch a new branding and PR campaign to woo back its Millennial base. Already, a burrito giveaway designed to appease customers after the chain closed its doors briefly Monday for companywide safety meeting has overshadowed concerns about food-borne illnesses, at least on social media. (Reps from Chipotle and agency GSD&M could not be reached for comment.)  Experts predict that Chipotle will likely end up in the clear.

The damage so far
Almost 500 people have gotten sick from Chipotle food since last June, 20 of whom were ill enough to be hospitalized. One such customer, Chris Collins of Portland, Ore., experienced bloody stools and excruciating pain after ingesting E. coli 026 from one of Chipotle’s chicken bowls. At one point, his doctors feared kidney failure. Though that never came to pass, Collins was still weak and “emotionally shaky” in December, according to a cover story in Bloomberg Businessweek.

Such stories have hurt Chipotle’s bottom line and brand image. In early February, the chain said sales at established restaurants fell by a third in January. That news followed a 15% drop in the fourth quarter of 2015. At this writing, the company’s stock price was down about 42% from its 52-week high.

On the brand side, Chipotle’s image has gone from positive to negative. YouGov’s BrandIndex, which surveys 5,000 consumers online every day, rates brands on a buzz score that ranges from -100 to +100, with zero being a neutral position. For most of 2015, Chipotle’s buzz score was around +10, but in January, that sunk to -29 and was at -27 at this writing.

“Chipotle has been playing catch up on this crisis from the start,” says Ted Marzilli, CEO of BrandIndex. “The brand was slow to respond to the initial incident. [It has] just not been able to get out ahead of this crisis, and fairly or unfairly, is paying the price in both public perception and decreased sales.”

The six-month rule
Despite the challenges though, few people see this as a fatal blow to the chain. In a research note to clients, Wells Fargo analyst Jeff Farmer cited previous incidents of food-borne illnesses at other national chains to demonstrate same-store sale declines can be cut in half six months after the incidents occur (assuming that there are no more incidents). Farmer added that same-store sales of such affected companies can also rise 12-15 months after the incident.

In an interview with Campaign, Darren Tristano, president of Technomic, food industry consultancy, cited the same rule. “Our research indicates that in six months, most consumers forget about these food-poisoning issues that come up,” he said.

The Blue Bell Effect
In Chipotle’s case, that’s a pretty safe bet. Jonathan Bernstein, a crisis PR expert, says that Chipotle has built up so much good will with its branding efforts that it can withstand this major PR setback. He compared Chipotle to Blue Bell, the ice cream brand that is so beloved by its fans that many were able to overlook a recent outbreak of listeria linked to the brand.

“Customers’ loyalty to a brand can make a huge difference in overcoming even food illness-related crises and people really stuck with Blue Bell a long time after many would have done the same — given a choice of other ice creams,” he said. “With Chipotle, they created such good will before these problems that although that’s been eroded, it’s not terminal at this point.”

Rebeca Arbona, executive director at Interbrand, unconsciously echoing Funny or Die’s critique, noted that brand loyalty is based on a relationship that mimics real friendship. “You have many impressions and interactions,” she said. “That works in your brain like knowing a person. If you know a person really well and you like them, you’re going to forgive them a lot.” Arbona said that she was surprised, for instance, that Toyota not only weathered its 2009-2010 slew of recalls — issues that were linked to the deaths of some consumers — but has nearly doubled its brand value since then.

That said, Tristano said that it’s likely that some customers will never return to Chipotle. Most will though. “Younger customers will return,” he said. “They tend to be more trusting and more brand loyal. If we look at this, it is clearly a setback for a brand that has had nothing but success in the industry.” The fact that this happened to a brand whose credo is “food with integrity” is ironic, Tristano said, but won’t prompt the masses to label it hypocritical.

Fixing the brand
As Marzilli noted, Chipotle didn’t deal with the crisis effectively at first. Though the company closed 43 restaurants in the Northwest after the E. coli outbreak that affected Chris Collins became public, some 234 customers and employees contracted norovirus at a Simi Valley, Calif., location in August. That same month, some 64 people in Minnesota fell ill from salmonella-tainted tomatoes.

It wasn’t until Dec. 10 that Chipotle CEO and founder Steve Ells appeared on the “Today” show to apologize to customers who had gotten sick from eating at the chain. On the operations side, Chipotle hiredMansour Samadpour, head of IEH Laboratories & Consulting Group in Seattle, to overhaul the company’s food safety efforts. Among the changes: More food will be prepared at commissaries, rather than on site, undercutting Chipotle’s “food with integrity” mantra since often the food won’t be local and fresh. Food will also be given high-resolution DNA-based tests, a measure that will weed out smaller suppliers who can’t afford that expense. On the PR side, Arbona said closing all the stores for a few hours was a good move. “It was a symbolic act,” she said. “They were hitting reset.”

Allen Adamson, a branding consultant, said that Chipotle will have to ditch its previous brand communication, which struck a lighthearted tone and presented a somewhat holier-than-thou image related to food quality. “You want to see the CEO on screen talking about what they’re doing, not an actor saying ‘Trust us,’ ” Adamson said.

Bernstein said Chipotle should focus on transparency, training its personnel in the new food safety protocol and setting realistic expectations “that they’ll do their best to prevent illness, but particularly with norovirus, it’s not always possible.”

What might be fatal, aside from more outbreaks, is any communication that smacks of arrogance. As we’ve seen in recent years, consumers will overlook safety issues, even ones that result in deaths, as long as the company doesn’t talk down to them. As a counter example, Arthur Andersen, the financial consultant, was drummed out of existence after it got caught up in the Enron scandal in 2002. While that was a huge blow, execs at the company exacerbated the damage by behaving arrogantly during a Justice Department grilling. “They got tried in the court of public opinion,” Bernstein said.

Chipotle is unlikely to make the same mistake. “Ultimately it comes down to humility,” Bernstein said. “If they can express sufficient humility, people will forgive them.”

Read more at http://www.campaignlive.com/article/chips-down-chipotle-not-long/1383083#AVGB4yq6reisiIhh.99


Go Greek

February 10, 2016

Restaurant executive Nick Vojnovic joined Tampa-based Little Greek Fresh Grill in 2011. Photo by Mark Wemple

Restaurant executive Nick Vojnovic found a novel way to beat back a mid-life crisis after he moved on from a decade-long gig running sports pub chain Beef ‘O’ Brady’s.

Forget the convertible or the Harley. Vojnovic went back to school. He enrolled at University of South Florida, where he earned an M.B.A. in about 18 months, mostly in weekend classes. At 51, and already with a degree from Cornell University’s famed hospitality school, Vojnovic says he learned a lot from the experience — both in life and academically. “It was humbling,” says Vojnovic. “My 13-year-old daughter had to show me how to make up a power point presentation.”

Five years later, Vojnovic, 56, is back in his comfort zone, helping upstart restaurant franchise operators go from the toddler stage to something more mature. Vojnovic is doing that with Tampa-based Little Greek Fresh Grill. The concept, founded by entrepreneur Sigrid Bratic in 2005, is authentic Greek food in a fast-casual setting.

Little Greek is on a big run under Vojnovic. It has gone from four locations in 2011, when Vojnovic partnered with Bratic, to 25 by the end of last year. And system-wide sales have nearly doubled since 2013, from $7.4 million to $14 million in 2015.

The chain also recently picked up some national industry notoriety. Restaurant News named it a breakout brand, and more recently, national foodservice research firm Technomic named Little Greek one of its six franchises to watch in 2016. “Little Greek Fresh Grill is a fast-growing concept in an under penetrated fast-casual Mediterranean growth segment,” Technomic President Darren Tristano says in a statement. “The experience and knowledge of its leadership team, speed to market and accelerated success put Little Greek in a strong position to be a category leader.”

Vojnovic, with his M.B.A. and his on-the-job leadership experience at Beef’s and Famous Dave’s barbecue chain, is more cautious than the complements. That’s because growing too fast is one of his biggest takeaway lessons from Beef’s. The chain grew from 30 locations and $16 million in annual sales to 270 chains doing $250 million a year in sales during his 12 years at the helm, from 1998-2010. The downside to that fast growth is it led to a litany of issues, from poor store openings to underprepared staff to back-office slowdowns.

The goal is to open up to seven Little Greek stores in 2016. Locations include Lakewood Ranch in east Manatee County, Riverview in Hillsborough County and Kennesaw, Ga. Vojnovic says he intends to make sure every location focuses on all of the company’s five core values, which include passion, integrity and constant improvement.

On continuous improvement, Vojnovic has many items on his to-do list. It includes better training systems so employees can be more efficient; streamlining food purchasing and other costs to lower expenses; and instituting a process of audit and store visits to bring uniformed quality control to the chain.

Vojnovic also addressed an external challenge: Greek food has a certain turn-off level to people who don’t know the culture and flavors. One step there was to put the American version of the food first on the menu followed by the Greek words, such as spinach pie (spanakopita.) “People can be intimidated by gyros and souvlaki,” says Vojnovic. “We Americanized the menu.”

Going back to his Beef’s lessons, Vojnovic does more to share financial metrics with franchisees and managers. For example, each franchisee has access to daily sales data so he can spot trends quickly. And all franchisees share profit and loss figures on a regular basis, to come up with ideas and get in front of problems.

“I’m a big believer in constantly trying to improve yourself,” says Vojnovic. “(But) I’m working harder at this than I thought I would. We still have a long way to go.”

By the numbers
Little Greek Fresh Grill
Year Revenues Percent Growth
2013 $7.47 million
2014 $10.47 million 40%
2015 $14 million 33.7%


McDonald’s reaps the benefit of all day breakfasts and table service

February 9, 2016

McDonald's signature rangeEven though we’re only into its second month, 2016 been rather a good year for Steve Easterbrook, McDonald’s chief executive. His football team, Watford, is enjoying its best season in years and much the same can be said for the US fast-food giant.

The company surprised analysts with its latest quarterly results last week, with sales up 5.7pc in the US – nearly twice as much as had been predicted. Global sales are up by 5pc.

It has taken a Briton – albeit one steeped in McDonald’s corporate culture – to revive the most American of institutions, which was in danger of being left behind by rather nimbler competitors in the fast food industry.

From introducing all-day breakfasts throughout the US to testing waiter service at some of its outlets, including in the UK, Easterbrook has overhauled how the company operates at a bewildering pace.

The chain was in something of a mess when Easterbrook took over as chief executive in March 2015. Last August, for the first time in more than 45 years, McDonald’s announced that it was closing more outlets than it was opening.

European sales had dropped by 1.4pc, between 2008-14. In the US, the decline was 3.3pc and in Asia, the Middle East and Africa, once considered a growth region, a rather frightening 9.9pc.

It was not just the dire figures which suggested that McDonald’s was in need of a cultural shift. The company was facing competition from not only its traditional rivals, such as Burger King and Wendy’s, but also from hipper new competitors entering the market, such as Honest, Byron, Five Guys and Shake Shack.

It was pretty clear that the golden arches had lost their sparkle. Within weeks of taking over the reins, Easterbrook appeared on CBS’s This Morning television progamme in the US to signal that the 60-year-old company was in for a radical overhaul.

“We really want to assert McDonald’s as a modern burger company. To do that you have to make meaningful changes in the business,” he said. “The pace of change outside McDonald’s has been a little quicker than the pace of change within. You act your way to success, you can’t talk your way to success.”

For once, this was not empty corporate-speak. All-day breakfasts were tested in San Diego in April, and within months were available at all the company’s 16,000 US restaurants. This has brought back customers who might have gone elsewhere and even tempted in newcomers.

Other changes have seen the introduction of a “McPick menu” where US customers can have two items for only $2, despite the wafer-thin profit margin the deal provides.

The range of burgers has also been increased to include Pico Guacamole and Buffalo Bacon, and diners are now being allowed to customise their burgers. McDonald’s has also launched its first loyalty programme for people who register their details, offering, for example, a free cup of coffee for every five bought at one of its restaurants.

Easterbrook has also done something to improve McDonald’s corporate image, announcing a 10pc pay rise for the 90,000 people who work in outlets directly owned by the company in the US. This has taken their hourly minimum wage to $9.90 an hour – increasing to more than $10 this year – considerably higher than the legal minimum of $7.95.

The one caveat, however, was that the pay rise was limited to those staff who work for the 10pc of restaurants which are owned by the company rather than franchisees. Even the white packaging is being ditched after more than a decade. Instead, food now comes in brown paper bags which, in theory, are seen as more environmentally friendly.

According to a company spokesman, the change is “consistent with our vision to be a modern and progressive burger company” –a phrase now something of a corporate mantra.

“One of the things Easterbrook has done is create a sense of urgency in the the McDonald’s business culture,” said Mark Kalinowski, a restaurant analyst at Nomura in New York. “When the company started trialling the all-day breakfast in San Diego county in April, it only took until October before it went nationwide.

“He doesn’t want to waste time, he operates on speed to market and saw it was clearly something customers wanted.

“For McDonald’s, that is rather quick. Although it can be innovative, the company is traditionally slow- moving. I think it’s a reflection on its sheer size.” Even though Easterbrook has spent much of his career with McDonald’s, having joined in 1993, he also spent time with the rather more upmarket Wagamama and Pizza Express chains. He returned to McDonald’s in 2013 as chief brand officer, having held previous roles including its head of Europe.

“Most of the presidents and chief executives at McDonald’s we have seen have been promoted from within. Having somebody with an outside perspective is exactly what the company needed” said Darren Tristano, president of Technomic, a Chicago-based company specialising in the food industry.

Tristano believes that Easterbrook’s strategy has been shrewd. “He has aggressively marketed the all-day breakfast, which has put McDonald’s back at the top of the mind of consumers.

“The price point appeals to lower and middle-income consumers who are looking for something which is less expensive than the dinner menu. This has helped McDonald’s get back some of the market share which it had been losing to rivals.”

McDonald’s has also been helped by the rehabilitation of the egg in the mind of the consumer, Tristano added.

“If you go back a few years, eggs were seen as high-cholesterol. Now they are seen as high-protein and eggs are a key part of breakfast.

“The sales growth on a year over year basis is over a few years of weak sales performance, so the numbers are good but we should expect to see sustainable growth and especially year over year, fourth quarter 2016 would signal McDonald’s is officially back.

“McDonald’s appears to be listening to their customers and staying more true to their brand under Easterbrook.”

The consensus appears to that Easterbrook has enabled McDonald’s to regain its mojo. “He has brought a sense of strategic clarity, said John Quelch, professor of marketing at Harvard Business School.

“There is a tendency when a company gets into trouble to sling products at the wall and see what sticks. All that does is adds complexity. If you reach a point when you can’t explain to an employee or a franchisee what the point of a product is, then how can you expect them to explain that to a customer?

“The bench strength of McDonald’s is enormously good. It is no surprise that they were able to find somebody like him to step up,” added Quelch.


Can McDonald’s Keep Its Mojo After the All-Day-Breakfast Hype Fades?

February 8, 2016
by Christine Birkner
Adweek
January 28, 2016, 11:49 AM EST
http://www.adweek.com/news/advertising-branding/can-mcdonalds-keep-its-mojo-after-all-day-breakfast-hype-fades-169241
Consumers are lovin’ McDonald’s all-day breakfast, to the tune of surging sales for the brand, but how long can the party last?

The effort, which included a social media-themed ad campaign by Leo Burnett, launched to much fanfare in October and so far has helped reverse the fast-food chain’s sagging fortunes. This week, McDonald’s announced that its fourth quarter comparable U.S. sales increased 5.7 percent due, in large part, to the launch of all-day breakfast.

According to research firm NPD Group, the percentage of McDonald’s customers who ordered breakfast at the chain grew from 39 percent prior to the launch to 47 percent afterward. And over the past two years, breakfast has been the strongest growth segment for QSR brands overall, with sales rising in the 3 percent to 4 percent range.

“Taco Bell and Subway entered the breakfast market, and there have been a lot of specialty innovations that have driven morning meal growth. Everyone wants to take advantage of that opportunity because it’s such a huge part of market share,” said Bonnie Riggs, restaurant industry analyst at NPD.

McDonald’s president and CEO Steve Easterbrook, who took the helm in March 2015, has executed a turnaround plan for the company that includes a simpler menu and faster service. In May, the chain pared down menu items to speed up order times. The brand’s focus on value, in the form of offerings such as its McPick 2 menu, which allows customers to choose two menu items (McChicken sandwich, double cheeseburger, small fries or mozzarella sticks) for $2, also was credited for increased sales in this week’s earnings call.

The fast-food chain’s vision in the U.S. is “to become a modern and progressive burger and breakfast restaurant focused on our food, the customer experience and value,” a McDonald’s spokeswoman said. “Simplifying our menu and operations procedure has made things easier for our customers and our crew and helped contribute to the rise in earnings.”

Will the momentum continue?

But after consecutive sales declines, McDonald’s latest results actually aren’t much to celebrate, says Darren Tristano, president of restaurant industry research firm Technomic. (The company’s U.S. sales rose for the first time in two years in October.)

“Strong results after a few years of sales declines can still be considered a rebound. They haven’t gotten back to where they were three years ago,” he said. “They’ve done a nice job with all-day breakfast, and aggressively advertised it, but all-day breakfast isn’t new. Jack in the Box, White Castle, other brands are rolling it out. [McDonald’s] out-performed the market in the recent session, but they’ve recently struggled to keep up, so it’ll be good to watch.”

On Jan. 7, McDonald’s U.S. restaurants also launched new packaging, with a sleeker, simpler design than previous iterations. Paul Pendola, foodservice analyst at Mintel, gave the change mixed reviews. “Saying they’re going to be a contemporary, modern burger place is too vague, and it doesn’t communicate to consumers what it is that makes them different, unique or better,” he said. “They could communicate that on the packaging. It’s super simple and lovely, but there’s no messaging on it about what makes them better or unique.”

Tristano was optimistic about McDonald’s fortunes, overall. “They’re focusing on the millennials with breakfast, the lower-income groups with value, and they’re innovating with some of the regional burgers they’re offering,” he said. “As long as they continue to focus on fundamentals and not over-complicate things on the menu level, they’ll have some momentum.”


How McDonald’s Easterbrook can maintain momentum

February 4, 2016
Joe Cahill
Crains
January 27, 2016
http://www.chicagobusiness.com/article/20160127/BLOGS10/160129896/how-mcdonalds-easterbrook-can-maintain-momentum

McDonalds-all-day-breakfast-win-for-CEO-Easterbook.jpgAll-day sales of Egg McMuffins did more than reverse a three-year slump at McDonald’s: It has inspired confidence in CEO Steve Easterbrook and buys time for the new chief to lock in the elements of a long-term growth strategy.

Last fall, Easterbrook answered the prayers of many customers who had yearned for years to buy breakfast after McDonald’s long-standing 10:30 a.m. cutoff. This week, McDonald’s credited all-day breakfast for the lion’s share of a 5.7 percent rise in fourth-quarter sales at U.S. locations open more than a year. The quarterly increase, outstripping even the expectations of McDonald’s executives, was the second in a row and a sign that McDonald’s is finally moving in the right direction under Easterbrook, who replaced Don Thompson in March.

A pair of quarterly sales gains doesn’t mean Easterbrook has put McDonald’s on track for long-term sustainable growth. But together with some other recent moves, it shows he understands the challenges facing McDonald’s and will move aggressively to meet them.

If Easterbrook still has a long way to go, all-day breakfast gives him a bit more time to get there. He’ll enjoy a grace period of three more quarters, as extended breakfast hours continue to generate sales increases over periods that predate the change. That cushion will disappear in the fourth quarter, when McDonald’s will lap a quarter with all-day breakfast for the first time. “That will be the telling moment,” says Darren Tristano, president of restaurant consulting firm Technomic in Chicago.

During the next three quarters, Easterbrook must build on the success of all-day breakfast, which is bringing in new customers and others who hadn’t visited McDonald’s in years. Now he needs to turn them into regulars. Strong store traffic is essential to the long-term health of any fast-food chain. Guest counts at McDonald’s declined again for the full year of 2015, but turned upward in the fourth quarter.

Customer traffic will keep rising if Easterbrook gives people more reasons to keep coming back after the novelty of afternoon Egg McMuffins wears off. That requires steady progress in three key areas:

Service. Service slowed as McDonald’s menu grew more complex in recent years. Drive-in speeds lagged those of key rivals. Easterbrook has begun to address the problem by expanding on a menu-decluttering effort launched by Thompson. “Simplifying the process is what people want nowadays, and they’re finally addressing that,” says analyst R.J. Hottovy of Morningstar in Chicago.

On McDonald’s earnings call with Wall Street analysts on Jan. 25, Easterbrook said customer feedback shows improvement in “food quality, order accuracy, speed and friendliness.” But all-day breakfast adds a new layer of complexity, potentially undermining service speed and accuracy.

Ruthless purging of slow-selling items will be essential to keep restaurants running smoothly. Restaurant efficiency also could benefit from new technologies that allow customers to order via kiosks and mobile devices. McDonald’s is testing these systems in the U.S. but hasn’t set a date for national rollout.

Value. McDonald’s is still searching for a successor to the Dollar Menu, the low-price offering that drove its last turnaround, in the mid-to-late 2000s. The company badly needs a compelling deal for budget-conscious customers who faded away during the last recession and its aftermath. Always a bulwark of McDonald’s business, lower-income families matter even more today as affluent consumers migrate to fast-casual chains like Panera. “Value-conscious” consumers now represent about 25 percent of McDonald’s customer base, Easterbrook told analysts on the earnings call.

Early this month, McDonald’s began a six-week test of “McPick2,”which offers two menu items for $2. Easterbrook said initial response has been favorable and acknowledged the need to settle on a permanent value proposition this year.

“Value still has to be at the core of their menu,” Tristano says, noting most of McDonald’s rivals offer a low-price combo. “It’s what a lot of their customers want, and if they can’t get it they’ll go elsewhere.”

Listening. McDonald’s boffo launch of all-day breakfast shows what happens when a company listens to customers. For years, McDonald’s rejected customer pleas to extend breakfast service beyond late morning, citing insurmountable operational hurdles. Easterbrook pulled it off in a matter of months, a clear sign his efforts to winnow bureaucracy and accelerate decision-making based on market feedback are bearing fruit. “That shows the company is much more nimble now than it was before,” Hottovy says.

A streamlined management structure established last summer has “sharpened our focus,” and “removed distractions to speed up decisions and increase our ability to move winning strategies quickly across markets,” Easterbrook told analysts.

Of course, faster product rollouts won’t help if customers don’t like them. McDonald’s has struggled for years to cook up menu innovations that click with consumers. Remember, the Egg McMuffin isn’t a breakthrough innovation but a proven winner that McDonald’s made more available.

Acknowledging that all-day breakfast demand will “settle down” from its initial euphoria, Easterbrook said McDonald’s has more initiatives in the pipeline for 2016. We’ll see if he can come up with a hit new product—the true test of whether McDonald’s has developed an ear for customers’ ever-changing preferences.

“As long as they’re listening to the customer and giving them what they want, instead of trying to force something on the customers, they can be successful,” Tristano says.


This is what happens when McDonald’s listens to its customers

February 2, 2016
By Roberto A. Ferdman
Washington Post
January 25, 2016
https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2016/01/25/the-incredible-power-of-the-egg-mcmuffin/
It’s no secret that McDonald’s has been struggling. At a time when specialization is increasingly important in the food business, the brand has opted for breadth, offering everything under the moon: hamburgers, salads, yogurt parfaits and fancy chicken wraps. And it hasn’t worked. In fact, that’s putting it mildly.Each time McDonald’s has announced how much money it’s making, the company has been forced to share an embarrassing truth: Americans are eating less and less of its hamburgers, chicken nuggets and French fries. The routine became so consistently depressing that McDonald’s decided to quit sharing monthly performance data altogether in March.

But all of that seems to be changing: For the first time in a long time, McDonald’s is thrilled to tell everyone how it’s doing.

On Monday, McDonald’s said that same-store sales (those open for at least 13 months) increased by 5.7 percent in the last three months of 2015, more than twice what analysts had expected. The hefty jump is the largest the company has reported in almost four years.

The news comes on the heels of a major concession by the fast-food chain, which is no coincidence. For years, adoring fans pleaded with McDonald’s to extend its breakfast menu beyond the current 10:30 a.m. cutoff. For nearly as long, the fast-food behemoth shrugged off the ask, saying it doesn’t have the capacity to make breakfast and everything else at the same time. But this October, McDonald’s finally gave in, agreeing to offer Egg McMuffins and other breakfast fare from open to close. And the reaction has been overwhelmingly positive.

“All-day breakfast was clearly the primary driver of the quarter,” McDonald’s Chief Executive Officer Steve Easterbrook told investors in a conference call following the company’s earnings announcement. “We knew it would be.”

In some ways, the immediate success of all-day breakfast is a reminder of one of McDonald’s biggest follies: its inability to see itself what for what it is. Rather than embrace what its fans adore it for most — a place that serves hamburgers, French fries, chicken nuggets, and yes, an exceedingly popular breakfast menu — McDonald’s tried to become something other than itself, expanding its menu, largely with salads, wraps and other healthier but also more expensive fare, to mimic new competitors.

The Chipotles and Shake Shacks of the fast-food world have managed to sell pricier food, at least in part, because of their association with meaningful trends in the food world that prioritize good food over cheap food. But it’s a much harder pitch at cheap burger chains, which people visit for a respite from their (hopefully) healthier dietary regimen, rather than a reminder that they could be eating something better. It’s no coincidence that fast-food chain Sonic has flourished by accepting what it is, while McDonald’s has struggled by doing just the opposite.

The chain’s re-energized business can also be seen as a testament to the enduring popularity of the Egg McMuffin, arguably the most iconic breakfast sandwich in the world. The affordable egg sandwich, which was first served in the early 1970s, caught on so quickly that it helped popularize the entire breakfast sandwich category. But it hasn’t been replaced. Today, demand for it is such that the chain buys more than 2 billion eggs per year in the United States alone, or almost 5 percent of all eggs produced in the country.

“It’s one of the oldest items they’ve had on their menu, and it’s still one of the most popular,” said Darren Tristano, who is the president of Technomic, a food industry market research firm. “Selling it all daylong was a no-brainer.”

Since Easterbook became McDonald’s CEO last March, he has shown that he’s willing to not only listen to but also heed requests from the fast-food chain’s customers. The introduction of all-day breakfast is perhaps the best example, but during his short stint, he has already also shortened the McDonald’s menu and announced plans to switch to cage-free eggs and antibiotic-free chicken in the United States, among other things.

Tristano reminds that it’s too early to tell whether the most encouraging earnings in years is a sign of things to come. The real test will be what happens in the rest of 2016, and beyond. The excitement around all-day breakfast, and Egg McMuffins specifically, might not last, which even Easterbrook admitted to investors this morning. But the move has set an important precedent.

“I think listening to the customer is going to the most important rule McDonald’s has to follow,” said Tristano. “As long as they’re doing that, they should be fine, because the customer usually has the answer.”

When markets opened Monday, McDonald’s shares were up 3 percent on the news, but finished the day up less than 1 percent. Despite the company’s recent struggles, its stock is at a near all-time high.


Consumers pick top restaurant chains

January 28, 2016
635886546846667948-papam.jpg6 a.m. CST January 19, 2016
http://www.argusleader.com/story/news/business-journal/2016/01/19/consumers-pick-top-restaurant-chains/78945800/

Some restaurants with a presence in Sioux Falls were among the winners of the Consumers’ Choice Awards from industry research firm Technomic.

It surveyed consumers about 138 restaurant chains and 60 attributes.

“It’s important to point out that it’s the consumers who rated the chains and selected the winners,” said Darren Tristano, president of Technomic. “In essence, the award is from the customers themselves.”

The winners are:

• Food quality, quick-service category: Papa Murphy’s Take ‘N’ Bake Pizza

• Food quality, fast-casual category: Firehouse Subs

• Food quality, full-service restaurants: Bonefish Grill

• Intent to return, quick-service: In-N-Out Burger

• Intent to return, fast-casual: Rubio’s

• Intent to return, full-service: Cheddar’s Scratch Kitchen

• Provides value through service, quick-service: Chick-fil-A

• Provides value through service, fast-casual: Jimmy John’s Gourmet Sandwiches

• Provides value through service, full-service: Cracker Barrel Old Country Store

• Socially responsible, quick-service: Ben & Jerry’s

• Socially responsible, fast-casual, Chipotle Mexican Grill

• Socially responsible, full-service: Seasons 52


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