Monday, August 07, 2006

What's gotten into Wendy's?

Floyd Landis pedals at the speed of a Toyota Camry and the world rightfully suspects performance-enhancers. Wendy’s vows to hire an executive who can deliver innovation on an everyday basis, and nary a blood sample is taken. Come to your senses, people. We’re just a grassy knoll short of a conspiracy here.

How else do you explain the lack of Rohrshachs in the wake of Wendy’s disclosure that it’s forming an executive group—a veritable small department—to foster innovation as a strategic point of difference? Remember, this is chain foodservice, the realm of the me-too. Wendy’s is bucking the sort of thinking that made casual-dining menus all but interchangeable. Your fried-onion appetizer may be Awesome instead of Bloomin’, or touted as Petals. But is it fundamentally any different? Any more so than the spinach dip, chicken fingers, wings, quesadillas, fajitas or pot stickers offered by virtually every player in that arena? The big casual chains could cut their costs by jointly printing a single menu, with a space left blank for each concept’s name.

It’s not much better in the quick-service sector, despite the prod for originality that fast-casual upstarts delivered a few years ago. By now, the best ideas from that cheeky lot have been co-opted. Look at ethnic breads. The die-cut sponges that once passed as sandwich buns have been panini’d out of acceptability. Today, you can get foreign-sounding designer breads at 7-Eleven.

It’s a situation that must be particularly difficult for Wendy’s, originator of the sector’s last true head-turner. When competitors were aiming no higher than serving their food hot, the Number Three chain boldly introduced premium salads, at proportionate prices. It rollicked in the green while almost every direct competitor merely pushed its interchangeable bargain items that much harder, typically in vain.

But it’s not been a cakewalk for Wendy’s since then. A fruit salad bombed. Its own upscale breads, finished in the units from dough spec’d by Los Angeles’ famed La Brea Bakery, has been a plus. But by the time of the rollout, plenty of other chains had already taught customers to pronounce foccaccia.

And what’s next on its roll-out schedule? Bigger, multi-patty burgers, a la Burger King, followed by breakfast sandwiches that are square instead of round, like the chain’s burger patties. Whoa.

That’s why the chain can’t move fast enough in hiring a “senior strategist,” a move it pledged to make two weeks ago. Reporting to this individual, the head of a new Innovation and Strategy braintrust, will be three execs promoted into new titles that underscore the forward spin of their expanded responsibilities. There’s a menu R&D person, who has the added task of developing tomorrow’s packaging and recipe tweaks. A second team member, the vice president of strategic insights and innovation, has the duty of strategic planning, with an eye toward business development. And, finally, in a nod to Wendy’s unique situation, there’s a person ostensibly devoted to evolving operations. They’ll report to the senior strategist, who in turn answers to Wendy’s longtime chief marketing officer, Ian Rowden.

It’s a bold undertaking, though not without some marketing spin. Yet even more ambitious is the goal of finding this innovation maven. Chances are strong that he or she will be taken from outside the industry, or certainly from outside a corporate foodservice office. Just between us, innovation has not been a strong point of the industry in recent years. Look at the new products that merited a second look from consumers this summer. Wendy’s added a vanilla version of its Frosty, a frozen dessert offered solely in a chocolate flavor until now. A few chains stole Starbucks gee-whiz technique of serving milkshakes and other chilled-and-garnished drinks in cups with a clear dome. And many of the major fast-food brands upgraded their coffee. Wow.

Clearly the industry has not been a hotbed of creative thinking in the near-past. Recruitment will be difficult if Wendy’s is determined to find a corporate-office vet with proven foresight and creativity. It’d best look outside chains’ headquarters, for some free-thinking franchisee or indie operator.

But, hey, I have the perfect candidate for them: Whoever runs the shoe-shine concession at MacArthur Airport, the flight center that serves the bedroom community of Long Island. Nestled in the heart of suburbia, the airport is used more by leisure travelers heading off to DisneyWorld than by the suited business travelers who predominate at places like LaGuardia or O’Hare. Passengers were more likely to be in Nikes or New Balances than in Florshiems or Prada. The guy with the Kiwi wax gets less play than the insurance vending machine.

Then, during a recent visit, I found the stand abuzz with activity. The reason was right there, on a sign that looked hand-fashioned: “We now clean sneakers!”

If Wendy’s hires him, I expect a free Frosty out of this. Chocolate and vanilla.

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