Tuesday, January 31, 2006

A two-sake week

Consider the emotional seesawing this week has held for executives of P.F. Chang’s, a company whose signature brand is second only to The Cheesecake Factory in average restaurant volumes, at least among the big chains. Yesterday brings word that arch-rival Outback Steakhouse was bailing on its Asian dinnerhouse venture, Paul Lee’s Chinese Kitchen, a would-be competitor of Chang's. Outback announced that it would sell the four restaurants in existence to the Paul Lee referenced in the title, Paul Fleming, who, ironically, is also the P.F. in P.F. Chang’s.

Fleming will presumably still operate those outlets, and may even open more. But Outback’s resources will no longer be stoking the growth.

It must be particularly sweet for Chang’s since Fleming brought the concept to them first. But they didn’t like the notion of building a concept that sported a lower average ticket than Chang’s. It requires a plot that can be just as expensive as the setting for a Chang's, yet generates less per sale, making Cheesecake-like volume a necessity for success. In the prevailing mindset of the big casual-dining companies, that’s not the way to go. So Chang’s decided instead to develop a high-end Japanese concept.

The announcement must’ve been delicious indeed. But the conga line likely ground to a halt with today’s blockbuster announcement. Buckingham Research restaurant analyst Mark Kalinowski, a keen market-watcher, alerted clients today that he’d learned of the start-up of another Asian dinnerhouse chain. This time, by Cheesecake Factory. Although Mark couldn’t provide many details, he recounted that his source had said the venture would be an Asian version of Cheesecake Factory. And Cheesecake, in case you haven’t noticed, is successful. Very, very successful, with a good-sized ticket and stunning levels of traffic, particularly repeat business.

For Chang’s executives, it must have been similar to a cop letting you off with just a warning for speeding, then noticing as he’s walking away that you're not wearing your seat belt.

But don’t feel too bad for them. Their Chang's is lightyears in front of any challenger at this point, and they’ve done what Outback decided it couldn’t, or at least shouldn’t. Outback is no slouch, so perhaps Cheesecake Factory will find an Asian concept to be tougher to refine and launch than it anticipates. After all, Darden Restaurants, another casual titan, saw its China Coast concept lose its feng shui almost as soon as the first basket of Chinese breadrolls were served (I kid you not on that; the cheese-bun-like dough balls, presented as soon as you sat down, were supposed to make the Chinese experience less alien to Middle America. Ditto for the Asian-sounding-but-New-York-style cheesecake that was offered for dessert.)

And, of course, that’s if Cheesecake indeed intends to enter the field. Howard Gordon, the company’s senior vice president of business development and marketing, told Southern California editor Lisa Jennings this afternoon that no lease or letter of intent has been signed for a prototype of an Asian concept. Indeed, he balked at confirming the test of an Asian venture altogether.

Then again, nor did he deny it.

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