Monday, October 29, 2007

Are things bad all over?

If the restaurant industry has slogged through a worse reporting period than the last few weeks, a guy named Hoover was probably president—if not somebody named Voldemort. In a 19-day stretch, Domino’s posted a 55-percent freefall in net income, Ruby Tuesday posted a 48-percent plummet, Brinker notched a 21-percent decline, Wendy’s disclosed a 56-percent dive, P.F. Chang’s earnings sank 20 percent and IHOP finished $11.6 million in the red. For all but a few industry standouts (notably McDonald’s and Tim Hortons), the recent past has been the stuff of blues songs.

The industry has certainly shrieked through its share of rollercoaster drops before. As Ruth’s Chris CEO Craig Miller noted during MUFSO, the current ills of sky-high fuel prices and surging food costs are minor compared to what he saw in the 1970s, when President Nixon froze prices to check inflation and consumers couldn’t buy gas at any price because of an OPEC embargo. This is nothing compared to then, he suggested.

But what makes Quagmire 2007 unique, at least out of all the restaurant downturns I’ve witnessed, is its lack of discrimination. In past sales chills, business usually shifted, with the big brands wresting traffic away from the scrawnier players in a display that would have had Darwin smugly nodding. But this time, the dynamic seems to be more of a lowering tide. Many of the companies that reported their earnings with a decided wince were the very ones that filed their SEC documents with a swagger just a short while ago. This is truly a macro-effect, not a bad story with plenty of footnotes. The list of the unaffected is shorter than a mash note to George Steinbrenner.

Which, of course, underscores the question, What’s the industry to do? Miller offered his recollections of worse times to illustrate that better conditions will return eventually. But how can a chain hurry it along?

BJ’s Restaurants, one of the companies to clearly prosper during a period that most competitors characterize as a kick in the groin, has a very definite idea. “In this difficult operating environment, where consumer spending for casual dining occasions and the prime costs of doing business will likely continue to be under significant pressure on an absolute basis for the foreseeable future, we believe the more successful casual dining concepts will be those that protect their overall consumer 'approachability' for all dining occasions and that offer even greater quality, differentiation and overall value to the consumer," CEO Jerry Deitchle was quoted as saying in the company’s announcement of a 31 percent rise in net income on a 30 percent rise in revenues for the third quarter.

I’m not crystal-clear on what he means by “overall consumer ‘approachability,’” but I assume he’s trying to say that the objective is boosting customer frequency, a laudable goal. Certainly that’s more ambitious than the usual approach of trying to buy customers by giving them a deal, a reflex that can haunt a chain for years to come.

Avoiding that knee jerk to focus on “approachability” and differentiation—an objective that should trump the others, in my estimation—would be as much of a departure from the norm as this downturn itself seems to be.

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