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Q&A with 2010 Golden Chain winner Elie Maalouf

Q&A with 2010 Golden Chain winner Elie Maalouf

Elie Maalouf, president and chief executive of travel food specialist HMSHost Corp., says he remains optimistic about business as the economy continues to recover from its long downturn. One of this year’s Golden Chain award winners, Maalouf recently talked to Nation’s Restaurant News about how much he enjoys his job, how the company navigated through the recession and the trends he thinks will define the segment’s future.

Your background is in real estate and finance. How did you become chief executive of one of the largest on-site companies in the world?

It happened slowly. I didn’t come into this job initially. I joined HMSHost Corp. in a middle management capacity. My experience in real estate development and finance were applicable to a part of the business and I learned the rest. But it took some time and I had some very talented and great teachers in this place.

What is the best thing about being involved in this line of business?

Above all, it is incredibly fun. Where else can you combine travel, shopping, food, chefs, airplanes and dining? It’s intrinsically fun, dynamic and always evolving.

What is the secret to success in this business?

You want to make sure you’re doing it with a great management team, a great associate team, and relevant brand partners that all of you are constantly figuring out. That’s what makes it so much fun – it’s not the same menu or idea every year. You’re constantly evolving your aspiration to satisfy travelers with new and relevant experiences.

Speaking of your team, you’ve said you don’t like to take individual credit for the company’s successes.

I struggle with taking credit for anything we’ve accomplished. We don’t do anything individually here; this is not really an organization of individual accomplishments. There is very little you can do alone. We’re extremely interconnected by the nature of what we do. Those who are successful as individual producers won’t be very happy here. Accomplishments require input from a lot of different people coming together over a plan or vision and preparing and executing it, being patient with it and adjusting it until it flourishes.

What is the biggest challenge in the travel concessions business?

Constant change is a necessity. You always have to envision the trends in food travel, [as well as] consumers’ patterns and desires. There can never be a static moment in our approach. That constant regeneration is essential to our prosperity and satisfaction of our customers, on whom we depend.

How have you managed to stave off the effects of the economic downturn?

We know our industry quite well, I think, and had a fairly good read at the beginning of the downturn on how it would affect our customer base. First, we were not imprudently aggressive in the beginning like some others might have been. We were not imbalanced at the top of the market, so when the contraction began, we were not in an uncomfortable position. We also were positioned well between airports and motorways in terms of diversification.

So what’s your advice to other operators at this trying time?

There are a lot of [them] that think they can survive by slamming on the brakes or the accelerator. That’s not even a good way to drive a car so you know it’s not a good way to drive an organization. You have to remain even-keeled and stick with fundamental innovations, new restaurant and menu ideas and the great people that make it all happen.

What do you see going forward? Is the economy recovering?

We don’t have a crystal ball, but we’ve adjusted our expansion plans accordingly to take advantage of the growth that is returning. The one thing to remember is you don’t exaggerate optimism in an up cycle or pessimism in a down cycle. It’s important to be balanced and persevere on the strategic elements of success. We may modulate expansion factors, but we don’t stop innovating or planning the design work on trends and investing in good people. Those are the fundamentals of continued success throughout the cycles.

What are the popular trends and concepts on the horizon?

We’ve opened a Counter Burger store [in an attempt] to stay in front of the gourmet burger trend. We’re also focusing on more healthful options. There are some emerging themes. Clearly, we have to address the transparency of products. People want transparent information about menu items. They want to know about their origins.

So where do the segment’s next big successes come from?

If you look at where the greatest growth is coming from, it’s the emerging markets in Asia. You cannot disregard the phenomenal growth of those emerging markets.
We also believe in this thing called feminization. Restaurants, bars and menus will increasingly be designed to accommodate women; females are becoming the principal market segment. We think that is going to be a key theme and trend.

Contact Elissa Elan at [email protected].

Read more about the 2010 Golden Chain Award winners, including exclusive online content and content for subscribers.

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