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Faltering restaurants shed secondary concepts

Nation's Restaurant News - Wed, 2017-05-24 20:34

This post is part of the On the Margin blog.

Restaurant companies seem intent on getting smaller, at least if you’ve read the news lately.

On Monday, for instance, I wrote about Buffalo Wild Wings Inc.’s sale of its minority interest in the fast casual chain PizzaRev to an investment firm led by former McDonald’s Corp. CEO Don Thompson.

That same day, the Chalak Mitra Group, owner of the Genghis Grill chain, sold a trio of its “non-core brands,” including Elephant Bar, Baker Bros. American Deli and Ruby Tequila’s Mexican Kitchen.

Those two deals came just days after Jack in the Box Inc. said that it was looking at alternatives for its Qdoba Mexican Eats chain — meaning a likely sale.

In March, meanwhile, Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. sold its ShopHouse Asian Kitchen concept. Or, more specifically, it sold the leases for ShopHouse’s 15 locations to Bibibop Asian Grill — essentially killing the ShopHouse brand.

The concept shedding stands in direct contrast to what seems like a trend toward industry consolidation. Just this year, for instance, Restaurant Brands International Inc. bought Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen, JAB Holding bought Panera Bread Co., and Darden Restaurants Inc. bought Cheddar’s Scratch Kitchen.

The Popeyes and Panera deals, in particular, were notably expensive. Indeed, private-equity firms represented only 16 percent of buyers in the consumer space last year, the lowest percentage since 2005, according to a study by A.T. Kearney. One big reason: Strategic buyers pushed them aside. 

In the restaurant space, the diverging trends of consolidation and concentration demonstrate the wide gap in performance in the restaurant industry.

Strategic buyers only get permission from their investors to acquire additional concepts when they’re doing well. Three years ago, Darden investors would have gathered outside the company’s Orlando headquarters with torches and pitchforks if the company bought a varied menu casual dining concept like Cheddar’s.

In the case of Buffalo Wild Wings, however, the chain is struggling to generate a sales lift. Its stock is down more than 20 percent off of its peak. And an activist shareholder, Marcato Capital Management, is pushing for seats on the company’s board and wants the CEO, Sally Smith, to resign.

Chipotle was another activist investor influenced decision. The company gave seats on the board to Bill Ackman late last year, and is still working to recover from an awful sales slide in 2016 after various foodborne illness outbreaks late in 2015. 

The divestitures of both ShopHouse and PizzaRev made sense from a corporate standpoint. Neither did much to add to the revenues and profits at their respective companies. They were long-term bets on the part of the companies’ respective executives.

Such long-term bets seem silly at a time when the typical public company CEO is in his or her job for about six years. And the concepts made it appear as if the executives were distracted at a time when their core concepts needed work.

Qdoba is a different animal. It is bigger than PizzaRev, ShopHouse, Elephant Bar and the others combined. It’s not entirely clear that Jack will sell Qdoba — the company could theoretically refranchise the concept to make it more like its flagship chain. Indeed, any buyer is likely to sell off those company stores.

Yet in that situation, Jack executives concluded that operating the two brands is hurting the company’s overall valuation. It probably is, but that won’t keep someone from buying the chain if it is put up for sale. 

And that would enable Jack in the Box to focus on its single concept. Until it’s successful enough that it could think about buying again.

Jonathan Maze, Nation’s Restaurant News senior financial editor, does not directly own stock or interest in a restaurant company.

Contact Jonathan Maze at

Follow him on Twitter: @jonathanmaze

Prices for restaurant chains near their peak

Nation's Restaurant News - Wed, 2017-05-24 20:34

This post is part of the On the Margin blog.

Prices for restaurant companies keep increasing. Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen and Panera Bread, among other brands, were acquired for multiples once thought to be unheard of in the big chain world.

But the multiple expansion of recent years could be coming to an end, at least in the views of one firm.

“We’re almost at peak,” said Bahige El-Rayes, principal in the consumer and retail practice at the consulting firm A.T. Kearney.

Multiples for restaurant companies are crazy. Multiples for large restaurant companies in 2016 averaged 15.5 times earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization, or EBITDA.  

Smaller deals are getting a more modest, 13.3 times EBITDA on average, meaning that buyers are paying heavily for the safety of a large company.

Both numbers, however, are down from where they were in 2015, when both large and smaller deals averaged 15.7 multiples. Still, the size of large-scale deals so far in 2017 — Panera and Popeyes both went for enormous prices — suggests the pricing levels remain elevated.

Pricing levels for restaurant acquisitions are important because they fuel much of the activity in the industry. A multiple of 15, for instance, means a buyer would require 15 years to pay off the acquisition at existing earnings levels.

Those kind of prices put pressure on buyers to expand, even if they plan on keeping their acquisitions for many years — which is certainly the case in both the Panera and Popeyes deals, where buyers JAB Holding Co. and Restaurant Brands International Inc. have no plans on flipping them in five years like traditional private equity buyers.

It also pushes buyers to look for other deals. And as we reported earlier this month, private-equity groups that are reticent to pay multiples of 15 for companies have been looking “down market” at smaller concepts they can grow.

Not surprisingly, there were more down market deals for upstart restaurant chains than during any year since the recession — and probably ever.

There are two huge reasons multiples for restaurants have expanded even amid concerns over sales.

First, the Internet has hammered consumer companies, particularly retailers, as companies like draw business. So there’s a sense of safety in the restaurant world. People always have to eat, after all.

Second, there’s a major sense among investors that the restaurant industry is evolving, paving the way for newer types of concepts. But companies can also find expansion opportunities overseas, which provides opportunities for growth, even though the U.S. market is filled with restaurants.

One other factor, at least at the chain level, has been the presence of strategic buyers, which tend to pay higher prices than are private equity and other financial buyers.

Indeed, financial buyers are “having a hard time, especially with megadeals,” El-Rayes said. “They’re getting priced out.”

But, he said, expect private-equity groups to make a comeback. These firms should get more financing and more interest in making deals. And that could keep the deal flow moving in the coming years. 

Jonathan Maze, Nation’s Restaurant News senior financial editor, does not directly own stock or interest in a restaurant company.

Contact Jonathan Maze at

Follow him on Twitter: @jonathanmaze

BJ’s aims to set standard with new slow-roasted meats menu

Nation's Restaurant News - Wed, 2017-05-24 20:04

BJ’s Restaurants Inc. pushed protein to the center of the plate earlier this month, a move that is both uncharted and familiar to the casual-dining chain.

“This is very much in keeping with what we’ve been doing for a number of years,” BJ’s president and CEO Greg Trojan told Nation’s Restaurant News. 

The new Brewhouse Slow-Roasted Menu lineup features a hearty selection of protein entrees, including prime rib, pork ribs, pork shoulder and a double bone-in pork chop. Meats are roasted for up to eight hours before being carved to order.

Prime rib is only available on peak weekend evening hours and all day on Sundays. The pork chop is served exclusively after 4 p.m., every day.

“I don’t view this as a change in strategy at all,” Trojan said of the menu.

“[BJ’s is] not a bar-and-grill,” he added of the Huntington Beach, Calif.-based chain.

Last year, Applebee’s, which is a bar-and-grill chain, sought to energize its menu with new items centered around hand-cut steaks cooked in wood-fired grills at each restaurant.

But the new platform could not save Applebee’s from stumbling. After launching the new menu in May, Applebee’s same-store sales fell 4.2 percent by the close of the second quarter ended June 30. As a result, Julia Stewart, then chairman and CEO of parent company DineEquity Inc., eventually resigned. 

When asked if BJ’s new menu could face a similar fate, Trojan did not express concern with Applebee’s results.

“These are the products that people have shown that they want,” he said. 

There were no qualms about the price points of the new items, Trojan said, and BJ’s goal to “deliver a surprising level of quality at an amazing value” has not shifted. 

BJ’s has successfully executed center-of-the-plate protein entrees before, he noted, saying that customers complained after the chain removed a previous incarnation of the pork chop dish in the past. 

The new menu items range from $11.75 to $26.95, and require new ovens to be installed in BJ’s 192 restaurants across 24 states.

In addition to the new meat-centric menu, BJ’s is not shying away from its bar program. 

BJ’s has been brewing its own beer for over 20 years. On the menu, beers are paired with mainstream brands that are similar to the in-house selection, so customers can make more informed choices before trying a new pint. 

The restaurant’s bar areas and sports-friendly atmosphere tend to draw a Millennial crowd looking to watch games in a social environment, Trojan said. 

BJ’s same-store sales in the first quarter ended April 4 fell 1.3 percent. The company reported net income of $9.3 million, or 42 cents per share, compared with $11.6 million, or 47 cents per share the previous year. Revenue rose 5.9 percent, to $257.8 million. 

Jefferies said it continues “to model flattish same-store sales for the year, as we believe BJ’s will need at least some modest improvement in the overall full-service operating environment to see same-store sales turn more meaningfully positive.”

Trojan admitted that the casual-dining segment faces challenges. He cited oversaturation of competition and the declining state of retail as two obstacles.

With retail stores failing, there are less opportunities for customers to stop in while out and about on shopping trips. And developers and property owners turn to restaurants to fill vacant storefronts when retail options can no longer pay the rent.

Despite the roadblocks, Trojan was bullish about the new menu. 

“What we love about [the new menu] is the chance to do this segment of product in a way that sets a standard in our segment,” he said.

Contact Dan Orlando at

Follow him on Twitter: @danamx

Top 5 challenges of cross-border e-commerce

Store Front Talk Back - Wed, 2017-05-24 18:07
Retailers that sell across borders experience 50% more fraud than those who only conduct business domestically. A recently published eBook from Whitepages Pro breaks down the hurdles standing in the way of global e-commerce, predicted to be a $27 trillion market by 2020.

Toyota hires VW marketing exec Shahani

AutoNews - Wed, 2017-05-24 17:37
Toyota has named Volkswagen of America marketing executive Vinay Shahani its vice president of integrated marketing operations. The move is effective June 5.
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Soupman CFO indicted on tax fraud charges

Nation's Restaurant News - Wed, 2017-05-24 17:20

The chief financial officer of Soupman Inc. was indicted Tuesday on tax fraud charges after he allegedly failed to pay taxes for the company’s employees over a four-year period.

The company suggested this week that the indictment could cause serious problems in its ability to stay afloat. 

Robert N. Bertrand was charged in a New York federal court over failing to pay $594,000 in Medicare, Social Security and federal income taxes for employees at Soupman from 2010 through 2014.

Soupman, based in Staten Island, N.Y., immediately suspended Bertrand.

“The company is deeply shocked and saddened by these events,” Jamieson Karson, Soupman’s CEO, said in a statement.

Bertrand allegedly paid employees in cash on the side, along with “large unreported stock awards,” according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Eastern District of New York.

From 2010 through 2014, Bertrand allegedly paid $2.9 million in cash and stock to employees.

Soupman will immediately launch an internal investigation to determine whether its public filings need to be amended during the period in question, Karson said. And he indicated that the indictment would hurt the company, which is struggling with financial losses. 

“We expect that this news will not make it easier for us to raise the capital we need to remain in business,” Karson said. 

Soupman Inc. licenses the recipes of Al Yeganeh, the “Soup Nazi” character from the television program “Seinfeld.” As of Aug. 31, 2016, Soupman had nine franchised locations. But in recent years, the company has focused more intently on selling its Original Soupman brand soup to grocers, convenience stores and other restaurant chains. 

The company’s most recent financial report said it no longer has revenue or costs associated with its franchise operations. About 6 percent of revenue last year came from franchising operations.

Soupman reported a net loss of $1.7 million in the six months ended Feb. 28, on revenue of $1.9 million. The company had a working capital deficit of $9.4 million.

“These factors raise substantial doubt about the Company’s ability to continue as a going concern,” Soupman said in its most recent earnings report. 

Contact Jonathan Maze at

Follow him on Twitter: @jonathanmaze

Turnover: The root of all restaurant problems

Nation's Restaurant News - Wed, 2017-05-24 15:41

Jim Sullivan is a popular keynote speaker at leadership, franchisee and GM conferences worldwide. This article does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the editors or management of Nation’s Restaurant News.

“Ideas are easy. Execution is hard.”—Jeff Bezos, founder, chairman and CEO,

The only thing more challenging than the expansive pile of problems that restaurant operators and managers deal with daily is the fact that those problems are frustratingly familiar.

It’s hard to shake the nagging notion that we may be systematically treating symptoms and not root causes, resulting in constant reoccurrence and escalation of the same issues over and over again.

Let’s examine the root cause of why 90 percent of restaurant systems and processes fail. Here are four snapshots from four different restaurants to frame the discussion:

1. A District Manager visits a restaurant for the third time in 30 days, and for the third straight time, cleanliness is an issue. Not so much on the counters or floors, where it’s obvious, but where you don’t see it: behind the grills, under the fryers, on the walk-in shelves. You recall the words of Ray Kroc, who said, “Clean the corners and the middle will take care of itself.” But the corners are being overlooked. Frustrated, the DM looks for the team member they showed how to clean the grills and fryers during their last visit. But he quit nine days ago. The cook he showed how to clean and organize walk-in shelves? Took a different job yesterday. The DM resolves to get a district-wide memo out detailing how and what to deep clean.

2. A GM at another restaurant a thousand miles away is tasked to reduce labor costs 5 percent in the next quarter. She discusses options and strategies with her assistant managers at this week’s meeting. One of the other numbers that comes to light during the discussion is the hourly turnover rate of 90 percent. What parts of the recruiting, hiring and onboarding budget would she recommend scaling back on in order to hit the 5-percent labor reduction goal? One of the managers volunteers to cover an hourly shift three times a week to help hit the labor goal this period, since hitting the labor cost goal is a prime factor for her to hit her bonus, too.

3. Equipment and facility repair and maintenance costs have risen 24 percent in the last six months at another restaurant 850 miles northeast of the previous one. So the restaurant’s owners and managers invest 30 additional hours researching equipment suppliers, interviewing new repairmen and trying to renegotiate leases with their landlords in an effort to get a grip on the escalating costs.

4. Five hundred miles to the southwest, at a different restaurant chain’s headquarters, a CFO is reviewing spreadsheets and notes that Unit #118’s Thursday night sales were down 18 percent from a week earlier, and down 22 percent from the same day a year ago. But he also notes that that market was hit with a big thunderstorm that night and concludes the weather is to blame.

Four different surface challenges: cleanliness, labor costs, repair and maintenance issues, and an unexpected sales dip. These challenges send supervisors scurrying in four separate directions to source a solution. But the one thing they probably would overlook is the real underlying cause for each situation: employee turnover.

If a DM instructs hourly workers on how to deep clean fryers, grills and walk-ins, but those employees leave and take that knowledge with them, all the cleaning memos in the world won’t improve the restaurant’s cleanliness as much as employee retention will.

Saving labor costs by not filling open positions and having managers work the shifts instead so they hit bonus is not a strategy for success; it is a broken bonus system guaranteed to hollow out and exhaust supervisors who will soon join the ranks of fleeing hourly workers themselves. The real culprit? Endless employee churn.

Escalating repair and maintenance costs could be the result of a vast conspiracy of landlords leasing decrepit facilities, equipment manufacturers selling faulty designs and repair people buying new summer homes. Or maybe it’s the result of that 100-percent turnover you’re experiencing, which interconnects an endless stream of new untrained employees with breakable ovens, grills, slicers, dishwashers, plumbing and POS systems.  

And as far as last Thursday’s sales dip goes, yep, maybe the storm kept people home. Or maybe the restaurant was busy traffic-wise, but you had a brand-new cashier who didn’t upsell and was overwhelmed because she’s not familiar enough with the POS system’s order-inputting, and Jason the manager was so busy filling in for a cook who didn’t show up that he couldn’t help her. Sure, it may have been the weather, but it’s just as likely that it was a perfect storm of employee turnover and training forfeiture.

The employee turnover crisis in foodservice began nearly two decades ago. Like a casual game of ping-pong, the ball slowly tapped back and forth over the net between employee and employer. It was an issue in motion, but controllable. Then 10 years ago, then five years ago, then five months ago, the turnover game suddenly accelerated into faster and faster volleys, slices, lobs and serves. Retail competitors, joint-employer regulations, anemic unemployment rates and government agencies joined in. Now there are more than two players and more than one ball, and it’s flying so quickly from all directions and from all the players that the end game is unclear. No one can follow it anymore; no one knows how to win; but everyone knows this much: it can’t go on like this much longer.

The facts are that our industry averages 100-percent annual turnover among hourly teams, we are also inching toward a $15 per hour wage but not getting $15 per hour skill competencies or equivalencies in return. In order to maintain consistent levels of profitability in the face of rising wages, and lower skills, you have to increase sales, reduce costs or boost customer traffic. There’s only one strategic process that will achieve all three: Training. And the solution to lowering employee turnover? Increasing employee retention. That results from training combined with fair pay, reciprocal caring and sustaining a culture of kindness.

Either way, you’d better address the issue now, with all hands on deck. Employee turnover is the root of all evil, or at the very least, the cause of most problems in your business. Retention is a pay-me-now or pay-me-later proposition.

Jim Sullivan is a popular keynote speaker at leadership, franchisee and GM conferences worldwide. His book “Fundamentals” has sold over 175,000 copies. Get it at Amazon or You can follow Jim on LinkedIn, YouTube and Twitter @Sullivision.

Investment group buys a controlling stake in PizzaRev

SmartBrief - Wed, 2017-05-24 15:12
Cleveland Avenue, an investment group started by former McDonald's CEO Don Thompson, has acquired a majority interest in Pizz -More
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Tenn. to get new Kiddie Academy location

SmartBrief - Wed, 2017-05-24 15:12
A groundbreaking ceremony was held last week in Franklin, Tenn., to celebrate the start of construction for a new Kiddie Acad -More
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When's the last time you praised an employee?

SmartBrief - Wed, 2017-05-24 15:12
The monthly volume of people quitting their jobs suggests that too many employees go unrecognized for their hard work, says S -More
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How to reduce the stress facing employees

SmartBrief - Wed, 2017-05-24 15:12
In many cases, employees feel more stress than their managers do, research suggests.  -More
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CTOs, CIOs play key role for health clubs

SmartBrief - Wed, 2017-05-24 15:12
Technology leaders at health clubs are seeing their roles evolve as these businesses become increasingly dependent on automat -More
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Quickserves make a bigger production with breakfast

SmartBrief - Wed, 2017-05-24 15:12
Most consumers are creatures of habit when it comes to breakfast, making it challenging for restaurants to get creative with  -More
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The digital edition of Franchising World's May issue is out

SmartBrief - Wed, 2017-05-24 15:12
The May 2017 digital edition of Franchising World is now available!
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IFA chair and CEO to open International Franchise Expo in New York

SmartBrief - Wed, 2017-05-24 15:12
IFA Chair Shelly Sun, CFE, BrightStar Care Co-Founder and CEO and IFA President and CEO Robert Cresanti, CFE, are slated to o
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A closer look at Trump's budget proposal

SmartBrief - Wed, 2017-05-24 15:12
Here's a look at how certain government programs would be affected by President Donald Trump's budget proposal, which was rel -More
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Home care industry affected by state regulations

SmartBrief - Wed, 2017-05-24 15:12
State and local jurisdictions have passed regulations that may differ from federal law and could affect the home care industr -More
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