Shrinking sales pushing Bonefish Grill chain to close 14 restaurants, restructure

February 22, 2016
Justine Griffin, Times Staff Writer
Tampa Bay Times
Wednesday, February 17, 2016 11:12am
http://www.tampabay.com/news/business/retail/bonefish-grill-to-close-14-restaurants-and-restructure/2265710

Times files
Bonefish Grille on North Dale Mabry Highway.Bonefish Grill will close 14 restaurants this year as the seafood chain restructures following several quarters of disappointing sales results.

Tampa-based Bloomin’ Brands, the parent company of Bonefish Grill, Outback Steakhouse, Carrabba’s Italian Grill and Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar, announced Wednesday that it expects the 14 Bonefish Grill locations to close within the year. Bloomin’ took a pre-tax charge of $24.2 million during the fourth quarter of 2015 in connection with the closures. No specific stores were named.

“We needed to strip out the complexity that had impacted the core service at Bonefish and focus on what wasn’t broken,” said Bloomin’ Brands CEO, Liz Smith, during an earnings call Wednesday. “We’ve done that. It’s important to look beyond quarter to quarter. We expect 2016 to be a strengthening and momentum story for Bonefish Grill as we move through the year.”

Sales were down at Bonefish Grill by 5.4 percent for the months of October through December as compared to same period in 2014. Sales for the quarter were down a combined 2.8 percent at all Bloomin’ restaurant brands in the U.S.

Bonefish Grill, which was intended to be the leading brand for new growth in Bloomin’ Brands’ restaurant portfolio last year, saw the steepest declines. This is the third quarter of decline for the chain, which is in a competitive class of “polished casual” chain restaurants, and tends to be more pricey than dining experiences like a TGI Fridays or Olive Garden. The menu quality is similar to restaurants like Seasons 52 or Carmel Cafe.

But Bonefish’s biggest competitors are independent restaurants, said Malcolm Knapp, a restaurant economist in New York City and the founder of Knapp-Track, an industry tool used to track restaurant sales.

“Bonefish is in a good spot where they can appeal to a higher demographic because the food quality is good,” Knapp said. “But independent restaurants are getting bigger and there are a lot of really great chef-driven places out there. With the shrinking size of the middle class, restaurants are seeing less frequency from consumers, who have a lot more choices.”

An “anti-chain” movement from a younger demographic has changed the way consumers are spending their money and hurt chain restaurants like Bonefish. Millennials and generation X-ers are looking for value but often opt to try a locally owned restaurant rather than a chain.

“This is a symptom of a bigger issue,” said Darren Tristano, president of Technomic, a Chicago-based food research firm. “Fast food and fast casual concepts continue to do well but casual dining is staying stagnant. It doesn’t help that Bonefish is a seafood restaurant, which has its ups and downs and isn’t as broadly appealing as steaks or Italian.”

Nevertheless, Knapp believes Bloomin’ is taking the right steps to get Bonefish Grill back on track this year. The company named Gregg Scarlett as Bonefish’s CEO in March 2015. Founding Seasons 52 chef, Clifford Pleau was hired away to Bonefish in Sept. 2014. Since then, the restaurant chain has simplified its menu and instituted an updated look inside newer restaurants.

“They are clearly in the middle of a turnaround,” Knapp said. “Bonefish is not young. The market has moved on from them. But it’s not unusual for large chains to do some pruning like this periodically.”

Bonefish Grill opened two new restaurants in the U.S. from September to December 2015, bringing the total count to 210. The company opened more than a dozen Bonefish locations from 2014 to 2015. However, Smith said in August that development for Bonefish would stall until sales improved.

Carrabba’s Italian Grill also had a shake up in leadership. Bloomin’ Brands announced that Mike Kappitt was named president the day before Bloomin’ released its fourth quarter results. Kappitt will be responsible for leading operations and development of the Carrabba’s brand in the U.S. He most recently served as the senior vice president and chief marketing officer of Bloomin’ Brands. The former president, David Pace, left the company to become CEO at Jamba Juice last month.

Bloomin’ Brands fourth-quarter revenue was $1.04 billion, down 5.3 percent from the fourth quarter of 2014. The company’s net income for the fourth quarter was $17.7 million, down from $22.4 million the year before. Earnings per share were 14 cents for the quarter, down from 17 cents in 2014. Sales were down for the quarter at brands across the U.S. Sales in international markets were up — Outback Steakhouse sales in Brazil saw a 7.3 percent increase. The company operates 75 Outback Steakhouse restaurants in Brazil and 75 in South Korea.

Shares in Bloomin’ Brands fell nearly 11 percent Wednesday to $15.10 despite strong daily gains by all the major U.S. stock markets. The company’s stock price has not been this low since 2012.


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.”


Romano’s Macaroni Grill Has a New Twist to Dining Options

July 10, 2015

pictureMike D. Smith
Copyright 2015. Hearst Communications, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Distributed by NewsBank Inc.
http://www.pressreader.com/usa/houston-chronicle/20150709/281973196325188/TextView

As chain with 147 locations adjusts to desires of millennials, it adds a walk-up express line to its traditional sit-down table service

Fans of Romano’s Macaroni Grill can still walk in, take a seat and wait to order from a familiar-looking Italian-American menu. But diners seeking quicker, cheaper meals now can turn toward a walk-up express line and order from “Romano’s Kitchen Counter.”

The addition of this “fast-casual” option, with lower-priced and easier-to-prepare items, represents the latest shake-up for a chain that has seen its value plummet since 2008. Macaroni Grill’s newest owners are hoping to attract more of the typically younger customers drawn to places like Chipotle, Panera Bread and Zoës Kitchen, while not abandoning the full-table service it has provided for 27 years.

“We decided to play in both spaces,” CEO John Gilbert said recently at the Macaroni Grill at 5802 Westheimer Road.

The makeover comes amid an industrywide shift as restaurants struggle to keep pace with demographic changes, diners’ ever-evolving moods and a post-recession dining landscape that favors new, fresh, quality and quick.

Gilbert took over earlier this year after the sale of the company by Houston-based Ignite Restaurant Group for just $8 million. Ignite had paid $55 million for the properties two years ago, taking them off the hands of a California private equity firm that had given Dallas-based Brinker International $88 million in 2008.

The number of restaurants in the chain dropped as well, to 147 today from 200 at the time of the Brinker sale.

Those 147 locations churn out annual sales of about $350 million, serving about 20 million meals each year.

However, Gilbert saw much room for improvement.

The restaurants had undergone only one makeover once since 1992. That is a far longer interval than the seven years that Gilbert said is ideal.

As the restaurant chain’s brand aged, so did its core customer.

Part of the formula for Mac Grill’s turnaround is a remodel. The dimly lit interiors will undergo changes to make better use of each restaurant’s ample space. The exteriors are being studied for more eye-grabbing details that can capture passing traffic.

Those changes are to complement the most noticeable shift – the mix of express and casual service, cashing in on what Gilbert said is an undeniable industry change toward express service.

Dual-concept mode

The company first tested the dual-concept model in a Cleveland, Ohio, restaurant.

First came express lunch. Customers order at the counter from a different menu more suitable for quicker service, with more “handhelds,” like sandwiches, plus calzones, pastas and spaghetti. Express customers get a number and take a seat.

The chain took its express lunch national in October, then added a dinner express menu in February with a seven-minute guarantee for the $7 lunch and nine minutes for the $9 dinner.

“In the aggregate, it’s working,” Gilbert said, adding that he measures success through dining traffic. “Are we getting more people in our restaurants than we did before? I think, absolutely, that’s true.”

A growing segment

Of the 61 billion American restaurant visits in the year ending in May, fast casual accounted for 5 percent of the market, said Bonnie Riggs, a restaurant industry analyst with NPD Group.

Still, it’s the segment everyone’s talking about. In 2009 and 2010, during the recession, overall restaurant industry growth was negative two years in a row for the first time.

Overall growth has been flat since. The segment bucking that trend is fast casual, which has posted 7 to 8 percent quarterly growth.

All of this is happening as the restaurant industry now features more options for ready-to-eat, fresh food – think, supermarkets and enhanced convenience stores – and sees, increasingly among millennials, more cooking at home.

“It’s been a real battle for market share, and with this one segment growing, everyone is seeming to try and emulate it,” Riggs said of fast casual.

While mixing fast casual with casual is attractive, Darren Tristano, executive vice president of food service consulting firm Technomic, says it can have its pitfalls.

One challenge is the potential for customer confusion. Those who know a restaurant’s brand will expect full service, and there can be a learning curve for others.

There’s also the risk of alienating core customers.

“I think that the mistake many of these concepts are making trying to compete with fast casual is they are losing sight of consumers coming to them for a particular reason, what they’re known for,” Riggs said. “You really have to do your homework and understand what your customers’ needs are. They can go to a fast-casual restaurant if they want fast-casual.”

Some brands have created offshoots to tap the express service market. Examples include Pizza Inn’s Pie Five and Red Robin’s Burger Works. Other brands have tried and failed.

The best use of a hybrid model is to boost lunch sales with more value, convenience and service, Tristano said.

Gilbert said that is happening with Macaroni Grill’s changes to date. Lunch sales, which represent about 30 percent of the chain’s business, have increased by about 20 percent.

Lunch express, so far, is more lucrative than express dinner.

Interior remodeling

Customers will begin to see the other changes soon. A Houston location will undergo the first interior remodel within a few months.

The company continues to explore additional express-service menu items, a new pizza-menu lineup, steakhouse items, additional salads and seafood. The dozen new express-menu items are being evaluated for their popularity, with such items as parmesan truffle fries and brunch offerings being explored.

There also are plans to test a “wine-on-tap” system and an express-only version of the restaurant – all part of the effort to retain its loyal customers and appeal to younger diners.

“The bigger risk is not doing anything,” Gilbert said.

Gilbert said, too, that he admits the chain has to catch up to its competitors.

“There are customers who like us truly because we’re not busy,” he said. “That’s not healthy for us.”