Recap of the 17th Annual Restaurant Industry Conference

The 17th Annual Restaurant Industry Conference took place this week at UCLA through UCLA Extension. Focusing on brand relevance and evolution, the one day event was attended by more than 350 industry executives, including restaurant operating companies, owners, C-level executive, lenders, private equity investors, investment bankers, suppliers and professional advisers.

17th Annual Restaurant Industry Conference Restaurant Industry Conference

Here are some highlights I took away from the day:

Opening Keynote

Walter Robb, Co-CEO of Whole Foods Market gave the opening keynote address. Walter Robb spoke about “conscious capitalism” which includes 1) knowing your purpose and core values, 2) stakeholder integration, 3) conscious leadership and 4) conscious culture and management. As the company has evolved and grown over the years, Whole Foods has stayed true to its core values, as reflected in the pride of their team members. Aside from the quality of products, I respect their corporate culture and am proud to shop there and support them.

Strategic Menu Evolution: An Approach for Today’s Marketplace
Panel: Donald Moore, Chief Culinary Officer and SVP Kitchen Operations, The Cheesecake Factory, Inc.
Randy Kies, Senior VP Growth and Development, Lark Creek Restaurant Group
Marshall Scarborough, Director of Menu Development, Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen
Alex Benes, Partner, Wood Ranch BBQ & Grill

This was an interesting session as the panelists were from large chain restaurants discussing the ways in which they keep their menus current and relevant in the competitive market. While the restaurants all have core menus that will never change, they all follow trends and listen to customers in order to satisfy their current customers and attract new customers and keep their menus current.

That said, in a case like The Cheesecake Factory, they seem to continually add to their menu and never eliminate anything.  They currently offer 280 items on the menu. New items have been added, including snacks and small plates to offer more value for their customer as well as a health and fitness menu with 50 items under 500 calories.  I was impressed to learn that everything is made from scratch in each kitchen across the world but in my opinion, the Cheesecake Factory menu offers too many choices. Every time I look at the menu I feel overwhelmed from the information overload.  Selections are great, but as Tom Collicio always says on Top Chef and Tim Gunn also says on Project Runway – “Edit, edit, edit.”

Is Your Company Prepared for a Crisis?  Managing Your Public Relations and Operations

I was drawn to this session because we should all be prepared to handle negative press. I used to work in Corporate Communications when I worked in the satellite industry (a lifetime ago) and we wrote crisis plans in cases of communication loss, or even worse, a satellite crash.  No company wants to deal with negative publicity but if it happens, how do you handle it and keep your business running.  In running a restaurant there are many crisis that can happen – from food safety issues to financial issues to negative customer feedback. If not handled correctly, any of these issues can shut a business down.

Elana Mejie Hobson, VP Operations, Jack in the Box, talked about how it has been 20 years since their major crisis. Jack in the Box had an E-coli outbreak in which 4 children died. Sales decreased for three years and the stock plummeted. David Theno, CEO, Grey Dog Partners, was brought in to fix the issue.  He explained that you have to own your work. You are responsible for proportional liability, standards of practice, financial reporting and workers safety requirements. The best way to avoid a crisis is to avoid a crisis. Bet your business everyday on food safety. It is better to lead than follow. Protect the people that consume products you are responsible for because if something happens, the ramifications are far more extreme. Jack in the Box took responsibility for the 4 children who died and have since put in strict safety measures to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

Michael Sitrick, CEO of Sitrick and Company talked about what you do when the media prints negative content. First, get the facts because the truth will always come out. The thing to remember is that you will not just be judged for what you did but how you handled it. He gave the example of his client Food Lion. ABC News had video footage showing that Food Lion sold out of date rotten meat, bleached meat, and rat-gnawed cheese. Food Lion denied it but also had 40 hours of video and were able to prove that the media had taken clips out of context

Mark Wayne, Executive VP at ANXeBusiness discussed the issues with Cyber crime. The financial impact of a data breach results in immediate revenue loss, operating cost increases and costs not covered by insurance. Customers feel angry and violated and attribute the incident to negligence.  His crisis plan is three-fold: Pre-Crisis (predict, prepare, prevent); Crisis (cross-functional execution plan, act and communicate); Post Crisis (remediation, act, communicate, rebuild).

Morgan Remmers, Manager Local Business Outreach at Yelp, discussed how restaurants should respond to negative reviews. I know Yelp is a sensitive subject and there are strong opinions about it.  But, it’s not going away. There are 9.2 million unique mobile device users. So here are some ideas of how to deal with it.

For consumers, remember these are personal opinions and we never have the full context of the situation.  Also, there are some issues critiqued that are not valid.  On the other side, as a business, you are about customer service and have to deal with this. Not everyone will love you and you may not agree with all critiques but here are some great ways to deal with negative comments.

Stop….don’t respond immediately, sleep on it

Drop – don’t be prideful, defensive or harsh, have someone ready your response

Roll – roll with hit, you can’t control all opinions

Emerging Concepts

This final session of the day focused on the entrepreneurial spirit in the restaurant industry.  The panel was made up of Burton Heiss, CEO and Managing Director of Nando’s Peri Peri, Ian Olsen, COO, and Alan Jackson, Chief and Founder of Lemonade Restaurant Group, Adam Fleischman, Founder and CEO, Umami Restaurant Group and Tony Shure, Co-Founder, Chop’t Creative Salad Company. After listening to speakers who work on the large chain side of the restaurant industry, it was refreshing to hear from these entrepreneurs who are passionate and creating brands that are fresh and relevant. These are the restaurant leaders of tomorrow.