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Golden Chain winners talk delivery, convenience and brand strategies Ron Ruggless

Golden Chain winners talk delivery, convenience and brand strategies

Chains must always remain true to their roots, panelists said

This is part of Nation’s Restaurant News' special coverage of the 2018 MUFSO conference, taking place Oct. 1-3 at the Hyatt Regency at Reunion Tower in Dallas. Follow coverage of the event on and tweet with us using #MUFSO. Stay connected on the go by downloading the MUFSO app.

When you gather five of the nation’s top restaurant executives together in one room, not everyone will agree on the best practices to run a successful company — especially among five distinct food brands.

That was the case during a panel discussion with five award-winning CEOs discussion, who expressed different views on everything from delivery to growth to kiosks.

But each shared one common denominator: Remain relevant without sacrificing the company’s roots.

“The heritage of your brand is that thing that should be driving principles,” said John Cappasola Jr., CEO of Mexican fast-food chain Del Taco, based in Lake Forest, Calif.

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Del Taco CEO John Cappasola

Cappasola joined four other industry leaders during a Tuesday morning panel discussion led by Nation’s Restaurant News editor-in-chief Jenna Telesca. 

The panel also included 2018 Golden Chain Award winners Todd Burrowes, president of LongHorn Steakhouse; Wan Kim, CEO of Smoothie King Franchises Inc.; and Denny Marie Post, CEO of Red Robin Gourmet Burgers; as well as Paul Brown, CEO of Inspire Brands, who was this year’s Norman Award Winner. Steve Easterbrook, CEO of McDonald’s Corp., was also a Golden Chain recipient, but was not in attendance.

The restaurant executives were selected for their leadership qualities, commitment to excellence, and ability to build strong teams that produce top results.

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Here’s the advice they gave during the CEO panel discussion:

Growth strategies

The strategies on growth ran the gamut among the panelists with Smoothie King pursuing rapid expansion and Red Robin halting unit growth in favor of shoring up sales at existing operations.

Others fell right in the middle, with Burrowes leaning on the idea that “speed kills.” 

“We believe at LongHorn controlled growth is the way to go,” he said.

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LongHorn Steakhouse CEO Todd Burrowes

Smoothie King, on the other hand, just opened its 1,000 unit. Wan, who bought Smoothie King from founder Steve Kuhnau in July 2012, plans to add 160 to 170 units next year.

He said he didn’t want to call it “crazy” growth. But for him, it’s about exposing the brand’s unique position in various markets.

“We want to be part of your lifestyle,” said Wan, who lost a Jamba Juice acquisition bidding war this summer to Focus Brands Inc.

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Smoothie King CEO Wan Kim

Don’t forget your roots

The CEOs agreed that too often brands lose their way when chasing consumer trends that don’t mesh with the core values of the chain.

“It is very easy to drift,” Cappasola said.

They said their companies’ success comes from remaining relevant without losing sight of the brands’ core ethos.

“You’ve got to contemporize your brand. Consumers are moving too quickly,” said Cappasola. “But that does not mean you walk away from things that make you great.”

Cappasola is credited for changing the way consumers view Del Taco by repositioning the brand into ‘QSR-plus’ category. Yet, he wasn’t reinventing operations. He simply exposed Del Taco’s fresh prep kitchens, where beans are slow cooked and cheese is hand grated daily.

It’s a fine line to walk, he said. He repositioned Del Taco by exposing pieces of the operations that the chain was “not getting credit for,” he said.

At Arby’s, Brown was a bit more philosophical about branding.

He said when chains lose their way, it’s because they focus on “what they do” and rather than “what they’re about.”

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Inspire Brands CEO Paul Brown

In turning around Arby’s, Brown said he reminded his team what the brand stood for: QSR firsts.

Arby’s introduced roast beef as a core staple in fast food. Keeping that tradition of adding QSR firsts to the menu has been the “magic” of the brand, he said.

Wan said the next piece of the puzzle is employee and franchisee buy-in.

A brand cannot be successful without everyone believing in the vision, he said.

Smoothie King, for example, is not about serving strawberry-banana drinks to the masses. It’s about giving health-minded individuals a choice of wholesome beverages that fits their wellness lifestyle.

“We are sticking with our vision,” he said.

And if he doesn’t have buy-in from franchisees, Wan does what every CEO must do from time to time: Get tough.

If a franchisee is not on board, then he politely tells them they should “exit” the system.

“If you don’t believe, then it will never happen,” he said.

Are kiosks and delivery a must?

In today’s at-home economy, convenience means different things to different brands.

For Del Taco, it’s about rolling out a nationwide mobile app and delivery partnerships to give consumers on-demand access to the brand. 

But at LongHorn, Burrowes said delivery doesn’t serve the brand well.

“We’re a steak house. We have a product that does not travel very well,” he said.

Burrowes said it takes discipline for leaders to ask: “What are you going to say no to?”

He said LongHorn brings convenience through a well-executed experience in the dining room.  

“Convenience is not about speed,” he said. “In full service, it’s how you can maximize the consumer’s time.”

Post said Red Robin made a choice to pause traditional openings to focus on driving AUV sales at existing restaurants. One key driver is off-premise sales.

“I believe, for casual dining, growth will come from those who modify our access and become more available for those who want to stay at home,” she said.

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Red Robin CEO Denny Post

“By being both a destination and a source, there’s a way to win,” she said.

Contact Nancy Luna at [email protected] 

Follow her on Twitter: @FastFoodMaven

The MUFSO bag insert sponsors are Jones Dairy Farm, Clemens Foodservice, Merisant, Gamay Food Ingredients and NRAEF

The track sponsors are Daiya and Omnivore

The track & session sponsors are Shift Pixy, MGH, Conversant, Oracle America, Inc., Zivelo, APSM Systems, Bringg and Ventura Foods

Breakfast is sponsored by Brill

Breaks are sponsored by Royal Cup and Smoothie King

The Hot Concepts celebration is sponsored by V&V Supremo Foods, Fonterra Foodservices (USA), Inc., Thomas Foods International and Impossible Foods

The lanyard sponsor is Clemens Foodservice

The hotel key sponsor is Matthew’s Real Estate

Shake, Sparkle & Stir is sponsored by The Coca-Cola Company

The Kitchen Hero Cook-off is sponsored by Texas Pete

The offsite tour of Legacy Hall is sponsored by Corrigo

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