Monday, April 24, 2006

Back to the future?

A Near is overseeing Wendy’s operations and a burger giant is planning to increase the size of its most famous sandwich. Have we slipped into some sort of time warp?

It might seem that way, given this morning’s news. First, Wendy’s International names Dave Near the new COO of its Wendy’s chain. No, this isn’t one of those quirky coincidences, where the 37-year-old franchisee, called into headquarters to right the concept’s operations, just happens to share the last name of an earlier savior for the chain. Dave is the son of the late Jim Near, the one-time franchisee who took command of the concept when its operations were similarly in need of refocusing. He’s a legend in the chain’s history, the no-nonsense guy who did so much for the brand that Dave Thomas carried business cards reading, “Jim’s right-hand man.”

Jim was a ketchup-in-his-veins kind of guy, though he first rose to prominence as head of the burger giant’s secondary operation, a chicken-and-biscuits quickservice chain called Sisters that he had sold to Wendy’s. He later insisted the company focus on its core business, a call his son will likely hear time and again in headquarters.

Hopefully, the younger Near has inherited his father’s focus in another respect. Facing an occasionally hostile investment community, Jim would often begin a presentation by acknowledging his job could be gone tomorrow. But before long, he assured them, they’d start hearing about a nice little neighborhood place that offered good food for a decent price in a clean, comfortable setting. The implication was clear: He could be successful because he knew operations; they could either be part of it, by letting him do his thing, or let him go off and do it on his own.

It’s a message that might serve the younger Near well, not only as an operations specialist, but also as a senior member (at age 37) of Wendy’s management. Activist shareholders have succeeded in pushing out former CEO Jack Schuessler, as well as operations specialist John Deanne. Now they have to back off and let Near: The Next Generation do his thing.

Of course, this isn’t new management’s first invocation of the Near name. When Kerrii Anderson was elevated from CFO to interim CEO, succeeding Schuessler, the company trumpeted the simultaneous appointment of Jim Pickett as chairman. The announcement stressed that Pickett had served as a director since 1982, when Wendy’s was still largely an extension of Dave Thomas, and that he had served as a counselor to Near and his successor, Gordon Teeter. The company had fared far better under those chiefs than it did under Schuessler.

If the appointment of a Near to a key turnaround post wasn’t enough of a flashback, there was the added time transport of McDonald’s disclosure in Great Britain. Surprisingly, the chain plans to fiddle with its signature of signatures, the Big Mac, for a limited-time promotion. As a spokesperson explained, every ingredient in the sandwich—the two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, etc.—will be increased by 40%, yielding the Bigger Big Mac.

As well as we can remember here at Nation’s Restaurant News, this will be the first time Big Mac has altered its Big Mac. But it brought to mind the lone instance when NRN reformatted its front page to highlight a story. Once, and only once, did the 40-year-old publication run a story above its logo, a practice known in newspapering as dropping the flag, and something only reserved for the hugest of stories. That time, it was a scoop about another mondo burger pumping up its patties: Burger King was adding two ounces of beef to its Whopper, so the meat stuck out from the bun.


Hopefully our news sense is a little sharper this time, and McDonald’s judgment will be more astute than Burger King’s. In short order, BK reverted back to the original specs, and began its long, painful slide.

And what was Wendy’s doing during that time? Struggling to find the comeback that would finally be delivered by a man named Near.

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