Bagger Dave’s slide: After multiple closings, missteps, burger chain goes into holding pattern

February 18, 2016
GARY ANGLEBRANDT
February 13, 2016 8:00 a.m.
Crain’s Detroit Business
http://www.crainsdetroit.com/article/20160213/NEWS/302149989/bagger-daves-aims-to-beef-up-outlook-after-closings-missteps

If the past year is any indication, the future of Bagger Dave’s Burger Tavern is anything but in the bag.

The Southfield-based restaurant chain suffered the indignity of two rounds of restaurant closings in 2015. The first came in August, when parent company Diversified Restaurant Holdings Inc. shuttered three locations, all in Indiana, gnawing $1.8 million in writedowns off the corporate books.

Then in December, eight more locations closed, at a loss of about $10.7 million for writedowns and other costs. One of them was its downtown Detroit location. The others were in Indiana.

The Detroit restaurant had been open for two years. One of the Indiana restaurants didn’t last 10 months; two more barely made it to the one-year mark. The oldest of the Indiana restaurants, the one in Indianapolis, was just 3 years old.

Anyone looking for more upbeat signs than these should avoid cracking open Diversified’s quarterly reports of the past year.

The reports start rosily enough. The first, released in March, predicted between 47 and 51 stores by the end of 2017. (There were 24 at the end of 2014.) These numbers steadily fell in subsequent reports. By the time November’s third-quarter report came around, the company had stopped making any predictions at all.

“We will not commit to any further development of Bagger Dave’s,” the company said in the report, released seven weeks before the December closings.

That doesn’t mean the company had given up on Bagger Dave’s. It opened five last year, including one in Centerville, Ohio, as recently as November, its first in that state. Another is set to open near Cincinnati in late March. But that and the 18 Bagger Dave’s (16 in Michigan, one in Ohio and one in Indiana) that survived the closings — and employ 670 people — will be the last for the foreseeable future.

This is a marked about-face for a company normally hell-bent on growth. It opened six Bagger Dave’s in 2014 and seven in 2013. And that pales to its Buffalo Wild Wings franchise operations, the largest in the country. Last year alone, Diversified added 20 more restaurants, 18 of which came from the $54 million purchase of Buffalo Wild Wings restaurants in the St. Louis area. That brought the number of Buffalo Wild Wings locations under its umbrella to 62.

From the end of 2011 to the end of last year, Diversified increased the total number of its restaurants across the two brands from 28 to 80. This year, though, it plans to add just three — the Bagger Dave’s near Cincinnati and two more Buffalo Wild Wings locations.

Familiar taste

Bagger Dave’s has struggled before. Sales took a hit after Diversified embarked on an aggressive growth plan in 2012, opening or buying 16 stores across its two brands. It listed on Nasdaq the following year.

The pace distracted management from everyday operations, and it was the Bagger Dave’s side of the business that took the hit in sales.

To mend things, Diversified beefed up Bagger Dave’s marketing, launched a corporate training program, brought in an employee-assessment firm and began hiring professionals from national chains such as Red Robin. It brought in consultants from the Disney Institute to go over employee retention and recruitment and rolled out new menus — the first one in early 2014 and another last year. The final rollout wrapped up last September.

It included adding more burgers and removing sandwiches that weren’t selling well, switching from a two-patty burger to an 8-ounce one and adding a grilled chicken breast sandwich. Fries are included in the price of a burger instead of added on. The menu’s marketing pitch changed to tell customers about certain points of company pride, such as how it uses prime rib and sirloin in its burgers and carefully sources its food.

“I’m much, much more connected to Bagger Dave’s now,” CEO Michael Ansley said last April in a Crain’s interview.

Things appeared to pay off. In a conference call for last year’s second-quarter results, Ansley said sales at Bagger Dave’s stores open at least two years had increased 2.5 percent compared with the same quarter a year earlier and 4 percent year to date.

Ansley talked about encouraging positive signs showing in things like Facebook “likes” and “net promoter scores,” which measure customer satisfaction. Investments in technology — tabletop ordering tablets, a mobile app, a gift card program, a “RockBot” jukebox app — promised to further brighten the picture.

Nevertheless, Ansley had to acknowledge struggles. “Despite the positives, we fully appreciate the missteps we have made in the past with respect to the brand,” he said.

One initiative has proved costly. Management was determined to maintain a base staffing level at Bagger Dave’s restaurants, even if sales were low. This policy was done to bolster service and coax repeat visits out of customers.

But this, along with minimum wage increases, pushed up the company’s year-on-year compensation costs by more than 25 percent in the second quarter of last year. This came on the heels of a $2 million spike in compensation costs that brought its tally for 2014 to $9.2 million.

Minimum staffing practices like this are rarely used in the restaurant industry, said Darren Tristano, president of Technomic Inc., a Chicago-based restaurant industry research company.

“There’s nothing financially efficient about it,” he said. “You end up with staff standing around.”

In a conference call on Nov. 5, Ansley and CFO David Burke expressed frustration with the slow pace of results. Burke described Bagger Dave’s as a “Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde concept” because of the changes it had undergone.

There were signs of improvement coming out of investments in the menu and training, but “you don’t see an immediate impact in sales from that,” he said.

The financial picture

Diversified’s breakneck growth comes with a heavy capital burden.

Estimated capital expenditures last year were about $30 million. It spent $36 million the year before.

The buildout of a Bagger Dave’s costs $1.1 million to $1.4 million, according to company financial statements. A new Buffalo Wild Wings costs $1.7 million to $2.1 million. Updates to older restaurants cost between $50,000 and $1.3 million.

A listing on Nasdaq in 2013 raised $31.9 million. But much of the company’s expansion has been financed by debt. Total debt rose from $61.8 million at the close of 2014 to $123.9 million at the end of September, pushed up because of the acquisition of the St. Louis stores.

The company’s share price opened at $2.57 the day the closure of the eight stores was announced. The stock was trading just above $1.50 last week.

A pair of lawsuits last year further strained finances. The two cases, brought by the same attorney, alleged employees who work for tips were made to do the work of non-tipped employees who earn a higher hourly rate. The settlement and related expenses cost the company $1.9 million.

For the first three quarters of last year, Diversified booked a net loss of $6.6 million, compared with an $85,000 profit for the same period in 2014. The company lost $1.3 million overall in 2014. The company does not believe it made a full-year profit in 2015. (Annual results are expected to be released in March.)

Preliminary financial estimates for 2015 show revenue growing 34 percent to $172.5 million from $128.4 million in 2014, in line with the company’s guidance.

Same-store sales increased 2.8 percent at Buffalo Wild Wings and 1.3 percent at Bagger Dave’s from 2014 to 2015, but they decreased 7.8 percent year-over-year in the fourth quarter at Bagger Dave’s and increased just 0.8 percent at Buffalo Wild Wings.

The Buffalo squeeze

Bagger Dave’s menu refresh included adding more burgers and removing sandwiches that weren’t selling well.

The 18 Bagger Dave’s stores that remain don’t appear to be on much better ground.

The eight stores shuttered in December generated $5.5 million in revenue, or $687,500 per restaurant, through the first three quarters of last year and had a pre-tax (EBITDA) loss of $600,000. But the other 18 locations brought in $14.1 million, or $783,333 per restaurant, and had a pretax profit of $700,000. That comes to less than $52,000 per restaurant on an annualized basis, a growth rate of 5 percent.

The revenue per restaurant on an annualized basis comes to $1 million, well below the target revenue per store of $1.7 million, the goal stated in a presentation to investors in January.

A profit margin of 5 percent is low, especially for company-owned stores, Tristano said. Franchisee-owned stores typically hit at least 10 percent because of the fees to the franchisor they must pay.

“They’ve got to be doing better than 5 percent to pay down their debt,” Tristano said.

The obvious question that arises is, were the closures enough?

All Bagger Dave’s restaurants are company-owned. (Plans to franchise the brand several years ago were scrapped.) With a massive Buffalo Wild Wings operation cranking away, the Bagger Dave’s “baby brand,” as Ansley has called it, has had a hard time getting the attention it needs.

Diversified has a contractual obligation with Buffalo Wild Wings Inc. to open 42 restaurants by 2021 and has 15 more to go. The company says it’s ahead of schedule.

Ansley also points out that failing to make that obligation bears only a weak cost: Diversified only has to pay Buffalo Wild Wings $50,000 for each store it does not open — far less than the millions it costs to open one. “With our relationship with Buffalo Wild Wings, I doubt they’d charge us the $50,000,” Ansley said.

In any case, the moves Bagger Dave’s has made demonstrate the pressure on Diversified to stay focused on the much stronger Buffalo Wild Wings side of the business.

“In the year ahead, we plan to focus our resources primarily on growing our BWW portfolio, which represents the overwhelming majority of both our revenue and adjusted EBITDA,” the company said in its third-quarter report.

The move toward Buffalo Wild Wings is smart because it’s a more proven brand than Bagger Dave’s, which is “a good brand but not that broadly differentiated,” Tristano said.

“The reality in our industry is that there’s no shortage of optimism. We hear about these ambitious goals, but very rarely do we see brands meet those goals.”

The response

Last year’s closings, which included one Buffalo Wild Wings restaurant in Florida besides the Bagger Dave’s spots, were the first for the company. But they were a long time coming.

“Bagger Dave’s has given us some fits,” Ansley said in an interview. “We knew we had issues with it two years ago. We made a lot of changes — I can’t even count the changes.”

These changes came too quickly and were confusing for guests and employees. “We were too aggressive. That was the problem, and we learned it the hard way,” Ansley said.

Casual dining chains face intense competition throughout the country, not just from each other but also from fast-casual restaurants like Chipotle Mexican Grill and Five Guys Burgers and Fries. The parent of the Max & Erma’s chain closed eight metro Detroit locations in January.

To counter this trend, Diversified needs to do a better job of marketing Bagger Dave’s by doing things such as telling people of premium ingredients that are mostly sourced in Michigan, Ansley said.

He also is heartened to see interest in properties of the shuttered locations. This includes the one in downtown Detroit, which has garnered “a lot of offers,” he said.

The company is holding the line on the minimum staffing levels that have driven up compensation costs. “There will be a little deleveraging from” the minimum staffing levels that drove up compensation costs but “nothing substantial,” Ansley said.

No more Bagger Dave’s locations will be closed, Ansley said. If the prototype stores do well for the rest of the year, “then we will start expanding again,” he said.

The 18 remaining Bagger Dave’s restaurants are profitable, said Ansley, who is especially encouraged by the performance of “prototype” stores. These stores have the new menus and have been redesigned to be smaller and “hipper.” They are in Grand Blanc, Birch Run, Grand Rapids, Chesterfield Township and Centerville, Ohio.

The three analysts who cover Diversified’s stock are encouraged. They express concern at the company’s debt but agree that the Bagger Dave’s changes are on the right track.

“We think much of the ‘noise’ of the past few quarters is behind the company and management can focus on restaurant operations,” wrote Mark Smith, analyst at Minneapolis-based Felt & Co.


World of Beer to open taverns in China this year, India and the Philippines are next

February 17, 2016
Justine Griffin, Times Staff Writer
Tampa Bay Times
Thursday, February 11, 2016
http://www.tampabay.com/news/business/retail/world-of-beer-to-open-taverns-in-china-this-year-india-and-the-philippines/2265064

Paul Avery, CEO of Tampa-based World of Beer, is pushing the craft beer tavern chain into new international markets this year. 
[Photo courtesy of World of Beer]World of Beer is about to become an international brand.

This year the Tampa-based tavern chain known for its extensive craft beer offerings will open its first overseas bar in Shanghai, CEO Paul Avery said. After that, World of Beer is headed to India and the Philippines. For Avery, a 20-year veteran of the Outback Steakhouse chain, the move to open franchisee-owned taverns overseas is the next logical step for the brand’s growth.

“I am very confident that World of Beer will do well in international markets,” Avery said. “Craft beer is already there. But no one out there offers what we do.”

Americans like to think that beer is solely a yellow, bubbly beverage born in the United States, thanks to brands like Budweiser and Coors, said Brian Connors with Connors Davis Hospitality, a global food and beverage consulting firm in Fort Lauderdale. But every country has a beer culture, he said.

“What you’re seeing is this globalization of American concepts that are flourishing overseas. World of Beer isn’t the first, but it’s part of this wave of fast casual restaurants and gastropubs that are popping up in new markets,” Connors said. “Beer is globally accepted. It’s a good move.”

Avery, 56, joined World of Beer as the company’s CEO in January 2013 when he bought a controlling interest for an undisclosed price. In just three years, World of Beer hardly looks like it did when it launched in 2007. The bar now offers an array of craft cocktails. The footprint is nearly double in size. And most of the taverns serve food.

The 6,000-square-foot World of Beer that opened in September on Fowler Avenue near the University of South Florida offers an open-air bar atmosphere and its own kitchen. It represents what many World of Beer locations will look like soon, Avery said. And when the World of Beer in West Shore’s Avion Park opens in May, it will have a two-story patio called “the flight deck.”

“The taverns that don’t have kitchens yet will get them soon. We’re working on converting all of them,” he said.

Just don’t call World of Beer a restaurant.

“The focus is still on craft beer,” Avery said. “But we knew we had to expand what we offered in order for this to be sustainable. We think the new food menu and craft cocktails only broaden our appeal.”

Restaurant analysts agree.

“The pub experience is one for social gathering that just so happens to have great food and great cocktails,” Connors said. “It’s a smart move by World of Beer, and I think a lot of what’s behind it is millennial-driven. Even at a chain, consumers look for that authentic beer and food experience these days.”

There’s a lot competition, too, in the craft beer market. In Tampa Bay alone, World of Beer competes directly with another craft beer bar chain, the Brass Tap; local brewpubs; and a slew of restaurants that sell craft and locally brewed beer. That’s not to mention the dozens of local breweries that have started up on both sides of the bay.

“As high-quality craft beer has grown and can be found in most bars and restaurants, competition is heating up and the pressure to deliver a better and more unique experience is more pressing,” said Darren Tristano, president of Technomic, a Chicago food research firm. “Their strategy appears to be putting them on track to satisfying a more broad-based consumer occasion set by expanding to food and cocktails.”

World of Beer has 77 locations in 19 states, including taverns in Manhattan and Kentucky, which opened last year. Of those, 14 are company owned and the rest are owned by franchisees. Avery said World of Beer will open 35 new restaurants this year, including at least one of the three planned for overseas in Shanghai.

The goal is to grow the number of company-owned stores to 30 percent, Avery said.

“It’s a great investment for our shareholders, and it makes us a better franchiser when we know what the day-to-day operations are like,” he said.


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.


Bootler brings comparison shopping to food delivery services

February 3, 2016
Cheryl V. Jackson
Blue Sky Innovation
Chicago Tribune
January 26, 2016
http://www.chicagotribune.com/bluesky/originals/ct-bootler-food-delivery-bsi-20160126-story.html

Food deliveryA Chicago startup plans to feed on the food-delivery boom with a search engine that makes comparing costs and delivery times easier.

Bootler (at gobootler.com) launches Tuesday in Chicago with a platform that allows users to compare menu items, prices, delivery times and fees, and order minimums across a variety of services. Users can add booze to their orders through the company’s partnership with on-demand alcohol delivery service Saucey.

Founder Michael DiBenedetto says customers who use Bootler don’t have to hop from one delivery site to the next to find what they want, then evaluate costs and other information.

The site currently includes Delivery.com, GrubHub, DoorDash, Postmates and EatStreet, with plans to add Uber, Amazon, Caviar and Eat24.

“It’s a very saturated market,” DiBenedetto said.”We think it will work because of how many companies are in the space. We’re driving more awareness and traffic for all the players in the space by arranging them all in one spot.”

Users can search by restaurant or food category then see the total from various delivery services, including menu price, taxes and delivery fees. They can then click through to their preferred service to complete the order.

Using Bootler is free to consumers. The company plans to get a cut of the delivery services’ take.

One-stop shopping for online food and alcohol ordering seems a natural with the growth of restaurant delivery services, said Darren Tristano, president at research and consultant firm Technomic.

“It was only a matter of time before somebody built a site that makes comparisons,” Tristano said. “It makes sense. We’ve seen it in other types of comparative places like with travel, with airfares and hotels and car rentals.”

It could be difficult to get consumers who already order from particular sites to steer first to an aggregator, though, Tristano said.

It “will be interesting to see if they can get consumers for a few dollars’ or a few minutes’ savings,” he said.

DiBenedetto said he started working on the website in June.

“I’ve wanted to order from one restaurant and it didn’t have what I wanted, so you end up having three or four tabs open until you find one that delivers what you want,” he said.

The site began operating beta in December, he said.


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.


Mcdonald’s Earnings Does the Company Think We’ve Reached Peak Burger

November 6, 2015

pictureBeth Kowitt
http://fortune.com/2015/10/23/mcdonalds-earnings-peak-burger/

The company’s executives seem to have other products on their mind, if yesterday’s analyst call was any indication.
Where’s the beef? McDonald’s is the biggest burger restaurant in the world, but you wouldn’t have known it from its third-quarter earnings call yesterday. Executives at the fast food giant uttered the b-word a mere six times. Two of the mentions came at the beginning and end of the call when CEO Steve Easterbrook repeated that the company was repositioning itself to be a “modern, progressive burger company.” By comparison, the execs referred to breakfast 17 times and chicken eight times.

The rare mention of the iconic product that has long defined McDonald’s MCD 0.19% is a sign that being a “modern, progressive burger company” might means focusing a lot of attention on…other things.

“I think you’re going to see them become more and more about other things and less about burgers and fries,” says Edward Jones analyst Jack Russo. “They want to be seen as giving people choice and being more healthy.”

If you look at the numbers, it’s clear why. The U.S. public may be burgered-out. There are 50,000 burger restaurants in the U.S.—that’s one for every 6,300 people, according to industry analyst Aaron Allen, who says that Americans eat 46 hamburgers a year on average. Of all the sandwiches sold in the U.S., he says three out of every five are burgers, and more than two-thirds of all the beef we consume comes in the form of a patty on a bun.

Of course, there’s been a surge in at least one category: the ballooning “better burger” segment. Allen found that some 50 national chains—from Shake Shack to Five Guys to Smashburger—have plans to expand, which will add thousands of locations in the coming years. And the proliferation is not just at burger joints. Darren Tristano of industry research firm Technomic says that the burger is also popping up in unexpected places, such as on Olive Garden’s menu or integrated into tacos.

But the pace of growth of the better burger segment is not in line with the growth of burger consumption, which Allen says lags behind population growth. We are already one of the top beef-eating countries in the world. How much more beef can we stomach?

“The only growth is coming from cannibalization,” Allen says. “We’ve capped out on the number of burgers we can eat. They’re really just swapping dollars.” He thinks McDonald’s has taken the biggest hit, noting that if you look at the growth of units added in fast-casual hamburger restaurants in the last three years, that’s approximately equivalent to the number of locations McDonald’s has closed.

The fast-growing chicken sandwich is giving the hamburger a run for its money. According to research firm NPD Group’s Harry Balzer, 2044 will be the year the number of chicken sandwiches consumed at lunch at all chains will surpass burgers for the first time. “Hamburgers are not on a growth cycle,” Balzer says, “but they’ve got a place in our lives.” He says that the chicken sandwich is not cannibalizing from hamburgers; instead it’s a change in how we eat chicken.

Allen, who has done an analysis of McDonald’s menu, says there are now more chicken-related items than anything else on the its menu, and McDonald’s now sells more chicken than beef.

It makes sense if McDonald’s wants to go whole hog on chicken. But McDonald’s can’t forget its roots. As Fortune noted last year in a story detailing McDonald’s woes, the company has a perception problem when it comes to quality:
A survey in Consumer Reports showed that McDonald’s customers ranked its burgers significantly below those of 20 competitors. It also had the lowest rank in food quality of all rated hamburger chains in the Nation’s Restaurant News 2014 Consumer Picks survey. Worse, McDonald’s ratings among diners put the chain at No. 104—on a list of 105 restaurants without table service. (Only Chuck E. Cheese’s scored lower.)

Whether it likes it or not and no matter how much chicken it sells, McDonald’s will always be known first and foremost for the hamburger. That doesn’t mean it has to compete with the better burger chains. It just needs to convince consumers that its burger has gotten better.


How 10 Food Trends for 2016 Will Transform Restaurants

November 2, 2015

2015 Forbes.com LLC™ All Rights Reserved
http://www.forbes.com/sites/darrentristano/2015/10/28/how-10-food-trends-for-2016-will-transform-restaurants/

At this point a couple years ago, if you asked a restaurant executive how she might user Uber to build sales, she might have guessed as a prefix for the name of her brand’s Oktoberfest-theme burger. But now, Uber and Postmates are just two of the sharing-economy apps rapidly transforming foodservice and shaking up consumers’ expectations everywhere.
Going into 2016, there are dozens of similar forces shifting the ground beneath restaurants, and most of them are far beyond what brands have the power to control. While they are hard to predict, even for a data-rich firm like Technomic, they are easy to identify and understand, because they all spring from evolving consumer demand. Major moves from the biggest restaurant companies—McDonald’s moving its food supply toward more cage-free eggs, for example—aren’t dictated solely by the bottom line. They’re dictated by what consumers need from foodservice brands.

Technomic just released its 10 major food trends for 2016 with this dynamic in mind. Because consumers are the impetus behind all the upheaval, take a look at each trend and see how many of them you’re driving with your own dining out preferences.

The Sriracha Effect: This hot sauce from Thailand will continue to grow in popularity, but the “effect” Technomic predicts is that chefs and chain restaurant executives will search for the next hot ethnic flavor to find lightning in a bottle again. Early indications are that this will drive more use of and consumer interest in ghost pepper from India, sambal from Southeast Asia, gochujang from Korea, and harissa, sumac and dukka from North Africa.

The Delivery Revolution: Popular apps that simplify online and mobile ordering making “dining in” even easier and, in some cases, “dining out” irrelevant. Delivery services like GrubHub are starting to proliferate far beyond urban centers, bringing the convenience of a restaurant meal home, where plenty of people are likely camping out in front of the TV to binge-watch a season or two on Netflix. Other services are muscling in, including the aforementioned Uber and Amazon, which is expanding its Prime Fresh memberships for grocery delivery.

One particular threat to restaurants could be app-only services like Munchery, which delivers restaurant-quality food from a commissary, cutting out brick-and-mortar restaurants completely.

Negative on GMOs: In some cases, consumers have made up their minds before scientists have reached consensus, but many restaurant customers are declaring genetically modified organisms to be nonstarters. Many diners will agree with calls for labels of GMOs on menus and food packaging; some will go further and gravitate toward restaurants that advertise a GMO-free menu. That will be a major issue for the nation’s food supply, since many crops—particularly soy fed to livestock and other animal feeds—have been modified to boost their yields and productivity.

Modernizing the Supply Chain: Speaking of the supply chain, it already has enough challenges to deal with, including climate destabilization, rising costs for transportation and shipping, and pests. These will cause frequent repeats of shortages similar to those witnessed in 2015, like the unseasonable freeze that decimated Florida’s orange crop or the egg shortage that resulted from avian flu. Those hurdles will proliferate while more and more consumers demand food that is “fresh,” “local,” or just free of additives and artificial ingredients. Every brand, from restaurants to grocery stores and convenience stores, will make big investments in supply chain management in 2016.

Year of the Worker: Restaurants will also contend with rising labor costs, because of new mandates to cover full-time staff with health insurance and because the minimum wage could increase sharply depending on the state or city where they’re located. Pressure groups will ratchet up their call for a $15-per-hour wage, and they could possibly succeed in more cities like they have in New York and Seattle. Don’t expect any changes to the federal wage floor of $7.25 per hour, because no cooperation between a Democratic White House and a Republican Congress is possible, especially in an election year.
How will restaurants respond? Most will raise their wages to either comply with a new law or to compete for the best staff—but that means menu prices are going up as well, everywhere from fast food to fine dining. Also, more brands will experiment with technology and automation in the kitchens and the dining rooms to do more with fewer employees.

Fast Food Refresh: Consumers gravitate to “better” quick-service restaurants, which has transformed the industry. That has created a subset of “QSR-Plus” concepts with fresher menus and more contemporary designs, which exploits a price threshold between fast food and fast casual. Culver’s, Chick-fil-A and In-N-Out Burger are examples of this. “Build-your-own” menus are springing up across the industry, and many quick-service brands are adding amenities like alcohol.
QSR-Plus also helps other restaurants clarify their positioning by giving up their attempt to go upscale in a piecemeal approach, and those chains instead are returning to their roots with simplified menus and lower prices.

Elevating Peasant Fare: The popularity of street foods and consumers’ demand for portability and affordability have put things like meatballs, sausages and even breads back in the spotlight. But this time, those meatballs might have a nouveau twist, such as a blend of fancier meats like duck or lamb. Multiethnic dumplings will also continue to grow in popularity, from Eastern European pierogi to Asian bao.

Trash to Treasure: Rising prices for proteins will raise the profile of underused cuts of meat, organ meats or “trash fish.” The “use it all” mindset has also moved beyond the center of the plate. Some restaurants will use carrot pulp from the juicer to make a veggie burger patty, and perhaps other chains will follow the lead of Sweetgreen, which last year partnered with celebrity chef Dan Barber to make the wastED Salad, an entrée that saves vegetable scraps like broccoli stalks and cabbage cores and combines them with upscale ingredients like shaved Parmesan and pesto vinaigrette.

Let them eat kale stems!

Burned: Smoke and fire are showing up everywhere on the menu—smoky is the new spicy. Look for more charred- or roasted-vegetable sides, desserts with charred fruits or burnt-sugar toppings, or cocktails featuring smoked salt, smoked ice or smoky syrups.

Bubbly: Effervescence makes light work of the trendiest beverages. Technomic expects rapid sales growth of Champagnes and Proseccos, Campari-and-soda aperitifs, and adults-only “hard” soft drinks like ginger ales and root beers. In the nonalcoholic space, sales will also increase for fruit-based artisanal soda and sparkling teas.


Snacking and Healthier Options are on the Rise

October 30, 2015

pictureSnacking is a growing trend and consumers are snacking more frequently. About half of today’s consumers (51 percent) say they eat snacks at least twice a day and 31 percent say they’re snacking more frequently than they were two years ago.

According to Technomic, Americans also are broadening their definition of a snack to encompass a wider range of foods and beverages.

Smoothies are they a snack or a meal? According to Vitamix and ORC International, 59 percent is snack, 25 percent is part of a meal and 18 percent meal.

“Snacking occasions represent a growth channel for restaurant operators. The retail market is aggressively promoting snacks, but there’s plenty of room for restaurants to expand their snack programs and grab share. By providing more innovative, healthy and easily portable snacks, and boosting variety, restaurants can position themselves to increase incremental traffic and sales –particularly among a younger customer base.” Darren Tristano, executive vice president of Technomic.

In an article by WholeFoods Magazine called “Healthy Snacking on the Rise in the US” this article reports that more Americans are snacking more than ever before – but are also make smarter snacking choices. In a recent survey taken, 33% of the survey population is snacking on healthier foods than they were last year. This number has steadily risen with time, and is something that only stands to increase with nearly a third of all parents surveyed mentioning that they are serving healthier snacks to their children.

What a great opportunity for any restaurant, café, juice or smoothie bar to take advantage of this growing trend. Now more than ever it is important to offer customers what they want and that is healthier options.

The healthy trend is also dominating menus. Gone are the days of serving only indulgent foods or offering calorie laden menu items. The most prominent industry buzzword over that last decade is healthy which appears in various forms on today’s menus. This change has been inspired by the growing public awareness of healthy attributes in food and consumers are leaning on restaurants to go beyond adding a side salad to create a healthy meal.