DALLAS Nation’s Restaurant News’ 50th Multi-Unit Foodservice Operators conference kicked off Sunday as hundreds of operators from across the country gathered to share best practices, seek out new solutions and network with industry peers.
Ideas for innovation were on the tips of everyone’s tongues, as attendees and speakers focused on creative ways to increase operational efficiencies and lure spending-shy consumers into their restaurants.
One of several afternoon sessions, “Find New Opportunities in Tough Times,” addressed ways operators can survive – and even excel – in a down economy by re-examining all aspects of their businesses, from lease negotiation to menu development to operations.
“We have heard that we are in unprecedented economic times, [but] with that comes unprecedented opportunities,” said John Namey, director of real estate for Firehouse Subs of Jacksonville, Fla.
Namey urged attendees to arm themselves with information about their businesses in order to have more leverage in lease renegotiations. He shared examples of Firehouse Subs units that had booked significant savings through proactive negotiating.
Kevin Reddy, president, chairman and chief executive of Broomfield, Colo.-based Noodles & Company, said his chain is focusing on making the guest experience more user-friendly. Those efforts have led to a line of Take & Bake pastas designed to be cooked at home, an iPhone application currently in test that would allow customers to place orders, and even the possible addition of sandwiches to capitalize on consumers’ desire for portability.
“There’s a saying, ‘Cook. Do. Fix,’” he said. “If you can cook it yourself, do it yourself or fix it yourself, you’re going to. So you’ve got to create reasons for people to come to your restaurant.”
Similarly, Mark Chmiel, executive vice president and chief marketing and innovation officer for Spartanburg, S.C.-based Denny’s, said the chain is focused on developing dishes that diners can’t replicate at home.
“People are dining out less often, so we’re always asking what can we create that is fun and exciting that people can’t make at home or can’t make at home easily,” he said.
He cited the chain’s Pancake Puppies, bite-size fried pancake balls served with syrup as an example of a dish consumers could only get at a restaurant. He added that Denny’s plans to introduce a mint version of the dish, which he calls “America’s first breakfast appetizer,” around the holidays.
Brad Saltz, director of restaurant services at SS&G Financial Services, spoke about maximizing profitability in today's economy and for the long term. Saltz, a former chief financial officer at Houston's Restaurants who now consults for hundreds of restaurant companies, discussed best practices for management bonus plans, menu engineering and financial leverage.
"You must set it and measure it," he said. "What you don't measure can't help you."
Sunday’s festivities also included a party to celebrate the 2009 Hot Concepts! award winners. Called “A Taste of What’s Hot,” the event brought together attendees to mingle and sample dishes from this year’s slate of emerging brands. The 2009 class of winners is made up of Lazy Dog Café of Westminster, Calif; Smashburger of Denver; Red Mango of Sherman Oaks, Calif.; Tutta Bella of Seattle; and Vino Volo of San Francisco.
Conference attendees, including many who have attended multiple MUFSOs over its five-decade history, shared in the excitement of opening day.
“MUFSO is our favorite show,” said Jane Hitzelberger, treasurer and chief financial officer of Utah Del Inc., Del Taco's largest franchisee. “The topics are always right on and the people we meet are wonderful.”