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Così's new CEO Stutz prepares for future

Investor Brad Blum calls decision "a missed opportunity" for innovation

Carin Stutz said her first step as the new president and chief executive of Così Inc. will be to evaluate the bakery-sandwich chain’s operations and improve top-line sales.

Stutz, who on Jan. 1 will take the reins of the 138-unit company, and Stephen Edwards, who on the same date will become chairman of the Così board, spoke with Nation’s Restaurant News en route to its Deerfield, Ill., headquarters to meet with management and staff after Monday’s announcement.

Così has been under pressure to make leadership changes since earlier this fall from investor Blum Growth Fund, which owns a 6.8-percent stake in the company. Fund founder Brad Blum, a former top executive at Burger King, Olive Garden and Romano’s Macaroni Grill, had volunteered to serve as Così CEO for a $1 annual salary.

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Blum, who spoke by phone from New York on Tuesday, said his first reaction to the appointment was “a missed opportunity” for innovation at the struggling company. But he wished to congratulate Stutz and “wanted to be a strong supporter of her success there.”

“From Blum Growth Fund’s perspective,” he said, “our mission all along has been to protect the current shareholders’ investment and really focus on results or, as we say, results with integrity. I think there’s a lot more that needs to be communicated and to give them an opportunity to express a plan to move the company forward.”

Così’s losses and threat of having its stock delisted by NASDAQ require the company’s full attention, Blum added. “I remain an optimist, but I hope for the best and plan for the worst,” he said. “The brand has a lot of potential but has a lot of things that need to be sorted out quickly.” Among those things, he said, was access to long-term capital and “a bold innovation or two.”

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Meanwhile, Stutz on Monday said she was “assessing the current landscape, meeting a lot of the stakeholders and the team members and getting their ideas, and then bringing my years of experience to the brand to make it stronger and more consumer friendly. The core business has to make money and position ourselves to grow.”

Stutz most recently was president of global business development at Brinker International Inc. and was previously executive vice president of operations for Applebee’s International Inc.
Edwards, who has served on the Così board for about two months, said his efforts as chairman will be to help Stutz develop a strategy to stabilize the Così business.

“The business has been operating in a difficult economy with a little bit of capital constraint,” Edwards said. “Our biggest challenge is devising the right plan to get Così moving in the right direction from a top-line standpoint.”

Stutz said she will tap into her work experience at brands as varied as McDonald’s and Wendy’s as well as Applebee’s and Chili’s — the latter for which she led parent Brinker International’s global development for the past two and half years.

“When you get to work in the global business, it’s a great source of innovation,” she said. “You get to see different things around the world that you might not have thought about or expand the way you think about hospitality.”

While Così has four units abroad in Dubai and Abu Dhabi of the United Arab Emirates, Stutz said she doesn’t anticipate any global expansion moves for a while.

“When you have an operating model that works and gets decent returns, you have a concept that can grow,” Stutz said. “I think there is an opportunity to get our domestic business on track first. Global can take a lot of resources very quickly.”

Stutz also said she expects to honor the Così brand’s heritage.

Edwards said the board hired Stutz for her enthusiasm and energy as well her track record in other restaurant companies. That, he added, gives her credibility with the existing management team and the constituencies and the people on the outside that the company needs to deal with.

“We felt we could accomplish a great deal in a short period of time,” he said.

Così has 80 company-owned restaurants and 58 franchised restaurants in 17 states, as of Sept. 26, 2011.

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

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