Why Chipotle’s Southeast Asian chain couldn’t make it work

March 16, 2017

imrs

By Becky Krystal
https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/going-out-guide/wp/2017/03/11/why-chipotles-southeast-asian-chain-couldnt-make-it-work/?utm_term=.7c03019833f5

All 15 locations of ShopHouse, the Southeast Asian fast-casual restaurant owned by Chipotle, will close on March 17. The closings, first reported by Nation’s Restaurant News on Thursday, left fans distraught.

But it was easy to see the move coming after Chipotle announced in October that it was halting investments in the brand. Instead, the burrito giant’s spinoff aspirations will focus on two other endeavors: Pizzeria Locale and Tasty Made, a pizza joint and a burger place, respectively. “We just didn’t believe that ShopHouse warranted continued investment,” Chris Arnold, a spokesperson for Chipotle, said in an email.

ShopHouse, which opened its first location in 2011 in Dupont Circle, offered customizable rice, noodle and salad bowls inspired by the cuisines of Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia and Singapore. It represented a glimmer of hope for diners interested in something different and at least marginally more nutritious than what was served at most fast-casual chains.

But selling Southeast Asian cuisine proved to be a losing gamble in an industry dominated by burgers and sandwiches. The top 10 quick-service and fast-casual brands, as ranked by U.S. sales in 2016’s QSR 50, an annual list published by industry publication QSR magazine, don’t include any restaurants serving Asian cuisine. The list is topped by the likes of McDonald’s, Starbucks, Subway, Burger King and Taco Bell.

Even when QSR broke out supposed “ethnic” brands — the label is a bit of a stretch — the results aren’t that impressive. Taco Bell was ranked at No. 5; further down the list are Chipotle (12), Panda Express (22), Qdoba (34), Del Taco (37) and Moe’s Southwest Grill (43). Only one Asian concept made the top 50: Panda Express, a chain perhaps best known for its fried, sticky orange chicken, which is a far cry from ShopHouse’s grilled steak seasoned with fish sauce, or its sweet and sour tamarind vinaigrette.

Those Southeast Asian flavors were unfamiliar to many Americans. Darren Tristano, president of market research firm Technomic, said that when the brand launched, he believed the biggest challenge would be getting consumers to see that Southeast Asian cuisine wasn’t outside the norm. “When your core focus is on that, it just makes it very, very difficult,” he said. He points to Mexican, Italian and Chinese as the big three when it comes to popular international flavors, while Japanese and Greek make the cut to a lesser extent.

In an interview last year with The Post, ShopHouse brand director and co-founder Tim Wildin said he wanted to work with traditional Asian ingredients, noting that Thai flavors in particular had a universal appeal. He acknowledged there was a bit of a learning curve when customers complained the food was too spicy. But there wasn’t necessarily a need to “Americanize” the food, he said, just a need to communicate better.

ShopHouse probably could have improved its communication in at least one other way, said Sam Oches, editorial director of Food News Media, which produces QSR magazine. He said the brand didn’t do enough to promote itself as innovative and unique, which is ironic given the way Chipotle was able to establish a reputation as a trailblazer in the industry.

ShopHouse was “pretty ahead of the curve,” Oches said, adding that Asian fast-casual restaurants are now increasingly popular with millennials.

In the last five years, several have opened in Washington, including Buredo, SeoulSpice, Maki Shop and Four Sisters Grill. Had ShopHouse debuted now, or even just a few years later than it did, it would have entered a market still lacking immediate competitors but perhaps one more receptive to its food. Oches expects that 10 or 15 years from now, the top 10 quick-service brands may not look too different from today, but the rest of the list will likely include more concepts serving Asian cuisine, which are just now scaling up to compete.

ShopHouse may also have partially been a victim of Chipotle’s greater struggles. Following outbreaks of food-borne illness at its restaurants, the company has seen a sharp decline in sales. From 2015 to 2016, revenue dropped more than 13 percent, to $3.9 billion, according to the company’s most recent earnings report, released last month. The decrease in net income was staggering, from about $476 million in 2015 to around $23 million in 2016. “It’s startling how far their fall from grace has been,” Oches said of the brand he described as once being the most bankable restaurant company in America.

[A year after food safety scares, Chipotle has a new set of problems]

Jettisoning ShopHouse may be at least one way the burrito chain is attempting to trim the fat and refocus on its core business, especially considering that, at the time the company announced it was pulling back on ShopHouse, Chipotle chairman and chief executive Steve Ells said that the concept “was not able to attract sufficient customer loyalty and visit frequency to make it a viable growth strategy.”

While ShopHouse only launched a small family of locations, the expansion might have actually made success more difficult to achieve, Technomic’s Tristano said. ShopHouse may have worked best as a single location or limited regional chain, he said, especially as the fast-casual market matures, with possibly not enough customers to go around.

Instead, the brand was diluted between two coasts, with eight locations in the Washington area, five locations in California and another two around Chicago. Had it been able to establish itself as a major player with good recognition in one region, it could have performed better, Tristano said.

But the locations also speak to the demographics that prompted Wildin to pick Washington for the first ShopHouse: urban, diverse, young professionals. Limited appeal, in other words, was baked into the concept before it was barely off the ground.


‘The Founder’ Offers Nostalgia, Inspiration For A McDonald’s That’s Come A Ways Since ‘Super Size Me’

January 25, 2017

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http://www.forbes.com/sites/darrentristano/2017/01/20/the-founder-offers-nostalgia-and-inspiration-for-a-mcdonalds-thats-come-a-long-way-since-super-size-me/#58d92d12634f

I am proud to say that the late longtime McDonald’s CEO Ray Kroc and I were both born in Chicagoland in Oak Park and graduated from Oak Park and River Forest High School. But while Kroc spent his life building a global mega-burger brand, I’ve spent mine eating his burgers, French fries and drinking his shakes.

Kroc is legendary in the foodservice business. His passion, energy and determination fueled his competitive spirit and has served as an inspiration for many of today’s successful brands.

Today’s consumer may not understand the importance of fast food and its place in history. Kroc redefined the term convenience through the expansion of the McDonald brothers’ Speedee service system and gave Americans a consistent, affordable and fast option to dine away from home. The chain’s efficient systems in the back-of-house and focused customer service not only served billions but created millions of jobs. Through innovation and drive, this founder invested in a business that has stood the test of time.

This story, as told in the new movie The Founder, is a classic representation of the American dream as realized by an ambitious and aggressive salesman risking everything to invest in a blue sky idea. Choosing hard working franchisees and gaining the insight of a few smart people along the way, he was able to navigate obstacles that stood in the way of his success. The portrayal of Ray Kroc by Michael Keaton gives the audience a taste of his persistent, aggressive and ruthless tactics that allowed a businessman in the 1950s to achieve his goals and build a food service empire.

So how could the portrait of the company in this movie impact visits to McDonald’s restaurants? Will consumers leave the theater with their own renewed sense of personal ambition and strong sense of respect for an American institution or will they continue to see fast food giants in an increasingly negative light?

After spending the last 24 years doing research at food service consultancy Technomic, I believe the movie will meet with a favorable reaction from consumers. Younger generations who grew up with the brand will be able to better relate to the story and begin to emotionally connect to a brand they are familiar with but perhaps outgrew as they aged beyond happy meals, play places and fun characters like Grimace, The Hamburglar and Mayor McCheese. Millennial consumers who grew up eating at McDonald’s and often finding their first employment at there will reconnect with a brand that served them convenient breakfasts, café beverages and affordable dollar menu items. Older Gen X and Boomer generations will reminisce by finding their way back to McDonald’s for a nostalgic signature Big Mac or Quarter Pounder. They will remember the legendary jingle “two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce cheese, pickles, onions on a sesame seed bun” as they sink their teeth into a fresh Big Mac which can now be customized into three different sizes for any appetite.

It wasn’t that long ago that Super Size Me hit the big screen and outraged Americans. But since 2003, McDonald’s has dropped super sizing, focused on improving the quality of their ingredients, enhanced their supply chain practices supporting animal welfare and worked hard to maintain convenience, affordability and consistency across their 14,000-plus U.S. restaurants and global locations. Although this movie likely won’t have a significant effect on traffic to the stores, it’s more likely that moviegoers will consider McDonald’s a bit more in the short term and patronize a business that has been a pillar of our post-war culture.

I enjoyed the movie with my son and then we stopped in to our local McDonald’s for a couple of Big Macs and apple pies. McDonald’s has always been a part of my life and I don’t ever think the day will come that I won’t drive through or stop in for a fast food bite of nostalgia and some great family memories from my parents and with my children.

 


McDonald’s Turnaround Fails to Get More Customers in Door

October 26, 2016

1x-1

Leslie Patton
Bloomberg
http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-10-26/mcdonald-s-turnaround-fails-to-get-more-customers-in-the-door

McDonald’s Corp. has figured out how to capitalize on the popularity of its breakfast menu, stop a slide in same-store sales and cut corporate overhead. What it hasn’t figured out is how to get more customers into its restaurants.

The world’s biggest fast-food chain is facing its fourth straight year of U.S. traffic declines, according to internal company documents obtained by Bloomberg. The drop follows at least four consecutive years of customer gains.

“Growing guest counts is our main challenge,” said an e-mail recap of a September meeting among McDonald’s franchise leaders and company executives. “Over the past 12 months, we have been pretty flat.”

The only way to build a sustainable business is to show progress on three key areas: sales, guest counts and cash flow, the e-mail said. “And today we are making uneven progress.”

McDonald’s declined to comment on the notes summarizing the meeting with franchise leaders.

McDonald’s last week reported third-quarter earnings and revenue that topped estimates as results in markets abroad, such as the U.K. and Germany, helped results. The company’s division known as international lead markets boosted same-store sales by 3.3 percent. It wasn’t quite as rosy in the U.S., where sales increased just 1.3 percent.

McDonald’s has made progress in the U.S. since Chief Executive Officer Steve Easterbrook took over in March 2015, but there’s still work to be done. He’s revamped drive-thru ordering and improved food quality by getting rid of certain antibiotics from chicken and switching to real butter in Egg McMuffins. While the introduction of all-day breakfast and speedier kitchens have provided a bump, they may not be the long-term catalyst the chain needs.

The stock began climbing about a year ago after the breakfast expansion, gaining 26 percent in 2015. But the shares haven’t fared as well lately. Shares fell 1 percent to $111.54 at 9:57 a.m. in New York on Wednesday. The stock had lost 4.6 percent this year, through Tuesday’s close.

“McDonald’s has become less relevant to the younger generations,” said Darren Tristano, president at industry researcher Technomic in Chicago.

Three Areas
To lure more U.S. customers, the company is focused on three segments, according to the the document: diners who frequent the chain for breakfast and coffee, those who go primarily for lunch, and families and children.

“We’ve talked about our main focus being growing guest counts, certainly in the U.S.,” Chief Financial Officer Kevin Ozan said during a conference call last week.

Through the third quarter, McDonald’s comparable customer counts are down 0.1 percent this year, compared with a 3.1 drop in the same period in 2015, according to a company filing. The U.S. restaurant industry also is facing a broader slowdown as consumers dine out less due to the turbulent election season and cheaper grocery-store prices.

To better compete, restaurants are aggressively discounting fare with offers such as 50-cent corn dogs at Sonic and $1.49 chicken nuggets at Burger King. But those deals haven’t helped so far. Burger King owner Restaurant Brands International Inc. and drive-in chain Sonic Corp. this week reported disappointing U.S. sales in the latest quarter.

Last year, McDonald’s U.S. traffic declined 3 percent, following a 4.1 percent drop in 2014. Customer counts also fell in 2013, filings show. To reverse the trend, McDonald’s needs to stick to its core identity of convenience and affordability, while also improving ingredients, Tristano said.

“It’s hard to imagine they’re going to be able to compete with better burger and fast casual,” he said, referring to chains like Shake Shack Inc. and Panera Bread Co. “They have to operate within their customers’ perception of their brand.”


10 Nuggets For $1.49? Here’s Why Fast Food Is Ridiculously Cheap Right Now

April 1, 2016

Venessa Wong
Buzzfeed News
Feb 29, 2016
http://www.buzzfeed.com/venessawong/why-fast-food-is-ridiculously-cheap-right-now#.gnYqPoN15

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The country’s largest fast food chains have been showering customers with deals after years of losing out to newer, higher-end chains. And now, in a battle for customers who remain loyal to old-school fast food, the big chains are engaged in a brutal price war.
Fast food companies have always targeted lower-income consumers. What’s different now is that these customers are expected to benefit from lower gas prices, falling unemployment, and rising minimum wages, according to research by investment bank Cowen and Company. And as low-income consumers find more money in their wallets, commodity prices are no longer shooting upward as they did in recent years.
As “forecasts for key restaurant commodities including beef, chicken, pork, dairy and wheat are in-line to below long term averages,” restaurants are particularly eager now to take advantage of the lower costs to boost traffic to stores, said Cowen’s report.
McDonald’s announced that starting Feb. 29, customers could pick two of four “iconic menu items” — a Big Mac, a 10-piece order of Chicken McNuggets, Filet-O-Fish or a Quarter Pounder with Cheese — for $5. This deal replaces the even lower-priced McPick 2 deal launched in January, in which customers could get two items — McChicken, McDouble, mozzarella sticks, or small french fries — for $2.
Meanwhile, Wendy’s has been offering a four for $4 deal. Value monger Burger King has an even cheaper five for $4 promotion, as well as an ongoing two for $5 sandwich deal, and 10 chicken nuggets for $1.49. Even Pizza Hut has a $5 “flavor menu.”
“All the major chains have jumped on the dollar pricing in an effort to maintain share against competitors,” said Darren Tristano, president at restaurant consultancy Technomic.


Fast-food chains are gaining muscle again

February 23, 2016
JONATHAN BERR
MONEYWATCH
February 17, 2016
http://www.cbsnews.com/news/fast-food-chains-mcdonalds-burger-king-wendys-gaining-muscle-again/

McDonald’s (MCD), Burger King and Wendy’s (WEN), which have struggled in recent years, are now dishing up some appetizing operating results.

Same-store sales, a key metric of sales at locations open a year or more, have been on an upswing for the big chains recently. For instance, that figure has risen 5.7 percent at McDonald’s over the past 13 months, by 3.9 percent at Burger King over the 2015’s last quarter and by 4.8 percent for Wendy’s in the same period.

According to Darren Tristano, president of restaurant consulting firm Technomic, consumers are spending more at the chains, thanks to lower gas prices and an improving job market. The companies are also selling their food more aggressively to budget-conscious diners, a key demographic for the industry.

“With so much advertising shifted toward value play, $4 for 4, $2 for 2, etc … low prices are driving consumers toward convenience, value and comfort food,” he said, adding that renovations at the chains have also paid off. “Locations are becoming more appealing to consumers, who have viewed these restaurants as old and outdated.”

Burger King parent Restaurant Brands International (QSR) benefited from remodeling the burger restaurants and the expansion of the Tim Horton’s donut shop chain, which it also now owns. During yesterday’s earnings conference call, the company said U.S. franchisee profitability rose by more than 30 percent over last year, which CEO Daniel Schwartz called a “tremendous accomplishment.” Franchisees, who are independent business operators, own many fast-food restaurants.

Restaurant Brands has high hopes for an American classic: Grilled hot dogs, which Burger King is rolling out at more than 7,000 U.S. locations later this month. It may be chain’s largest new product launch since the 1970s.

“I personally visited the test market to confirm that the Grilled Dogs could be an operationally simple but pretty impactful product,” Schwartz said during the conference call. “And we’re all excited about it.”

Restaurant Brands was created in 2014 after the $11 billion acquisition of Tim Horton’s by Burger King Worldwide, which is controlled by Brazil’s 3G Capital. The transaction, called an inversion, lowered the company’s tax bill because it relocated to Canada, and it remains controversial.

Restaurant Brands on Tuesday reported better-than-expected profit, excluding one-time items, of 35 cents per share on revenue of $1.06 billion. Same-store sales rose by 6.3 percent at Tim Horton’s.

Wall Street, though, remains skeptical. Shares of Restaurant Brands have slumped more than 18 percent over the past year, underperforming McDonald’s, which gained more than 23 percent during that same time amid investors’ enthusiasm of a potential turnaround at the Home of the Golden Arches.

Morningstar analyst R.J. Hottovy, however, argued in a recent note that investors were overlooking Restaurant Brands’ potential for growth.

“While McDonald’s turnaround may have generated the most quick-service-restaurant headlines the past several months … Restaurant Brands International continues to fly under the radar with effective menu strategies, new franchise partnerships across the globe and exceptional cost discipline,” he wrote.

Earlier this year, McDonald’s reported its strongest quarterly earnings in nearly four years as consumers responded to the chain’s decision to offer breakfast all day. Wendy’s results beat Wall Street’s analysts’ expectations, and the chain forecast better-than-expected sales at existing locations in 2016.

Other fast food chains are also doing well.

Yum Brands (YUM), the parent of Taco Bell and KFC, recently reported better-than-expected quarterly profit, though revenue growth was hurt by the sluggish performance at Pizza Hut.

Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen (PLKI) announced in January that it expected 2015 per-share earnings to be better than it had previously forecast. It plans to release results on Feb. 23.

If the industry keeps this momentum going, investors may soon start ordering more fast-food shares.


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.


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.