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Cheddar’s CEO expects slower growth

Cheddar’s CEO expects slower growth

Ian Baines says chain will focus on fine-tuning the guest experience

Cheddar’s Casual Café chief executive Ian Baines said the concept will slow its growth to focus on making the guest experience as “frictionless as possible” at the casual-dining chain.

In late October, Baines succeeded Cheddar’s cofounder Douglas H. Rodgers at the company. Rodgers had served as interim CEO since the departure in January of Kelly Baltes, who had held the position since 2007. Baines most recently served as chief executive at Uno Restaurant Holdings Corp.

“For me, it’s a dream job. Here’s a casual-dining brand that still believes in quality food cooked from scratch at a price point that makes it incredibly attractive for a broad, broad group of people,” Baines said in an interview Tuesday at Cheddar’s new headquarters in Irving, Texas.

He added that the brand has stuck to such fundamentals as all-scratch cooking, which were laid out when it was founded in 1979.

“You don’t find so much of that in today’s world,” Baines said. With Cheddar’s move at mid-year into a new headquarters building, the company now has a dedicated research, development and training kitchen.

Baines, who trained in England as a chef, has worked in a variety of culinary roles and corporate restaurant positions. Prior to Uno, Baines served as senior vice president of strategic innovation for Brinker International and its Chili’s Grill & Bar brand.

Baines also served as president and chief executive of Smokey Bones Bar & Fire Grill, regional vice president of operations at Romano’s Macaroni Grill when it was a division of Brinker, and president and chief operating officer of Jack Astor’s Bar & Grill, owned by Toronto-based SIR Corp. Restaurants.

Working in both large and small organizations, Baines said, has given him a background in how to scale a brand. He said he wants for Cheddar’s “growth that is efficient but doesn’t lose consistency.”

In the coming year, Cheddar’s will slow its pace of growth, he said, and open four new restaurants. The company currently has 157 locations in 29 states, with 92 of those units corporate-owned and the remainder franchised.

“We have got to play catch-up,” Baines said. “We had a nice growth spurt. Now is a time to kind of pause, take stock of where we’re at, continue to learn what from that part we did exceptionally well, and what can we learn and do differently in the future.”

In August 2006, when private-equity firms Catterton Partners and Oak Investments purchased Cheddar's, the company had 55 restaurants in 15 states.

“Cheddar’s is a legacy brand,” Baines said. “It’s been around for 35 years, and it has a strong future.”

In its operations, Baines cited the double-edged sword of long wait times, which at some locations can be 30 or 40 minutes. He said the chain is looking at ways to reduce wait times with efficiencies throughout the operations.

Baines said Cheddar’s will maintain its “very accessible price point for great-quality food with ample portions.” The brand’s check average is about $12.80, he said.

“It’s not something that families have to limit themselves to just a special occasion,” he said. In addition, the typical 280-seat restaurants offer an atmosphere that often surprises guests, he said.

“You would expect to be paying a much higher price point,” he said. “It’s really a great recipe for success, and they haven’t messed with the recipe.”

Cheddar’s ranked No. 1 in value in the Nation's Restaurant News’/WD Partners' 2014 Consumer Picks survey.

In Nation’s Restaurant News’ most recent Top 100 census, Cheddar’s ranked No. 4 for U.S. systemwide sales growth in 2013, rising 24.5 percent, to $613.2 million, from $545.8 million in 2012. Overall, Cheddar’s ranked No. 68 in the 2013 Top 100 and claimed 10th place in the Top 10 Growth Chains.

Contact Ron Ruggless at [email protected].
Follow him on Twitter: @RonRuggless

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