Monday, October 13, 2008

Live from MUFSO

Greetings from the ballroom where some 600 industry leaders have gathered for NRN's annual MUFSO conference. I'm going to provide the highlights, as well as an overall sense of the conference's mood, by live blogging for the first time. This is best read from the last posting up to the first.

Mon., 2:05
Tase noted that Wienerschnitzel has saved $125 per restaurant per month by swapping out its incandescent light bulbs for flourescent versions.

Ken Reimer of Baker Bros., the fast-casual deli chain, is echoing what other operators have said during MUFSO: Using standardized restaurant features can cut costs and construction times. Reimer said that many of his chains' units buy their supplies from Home Depot.

Leondakis said her company's fine-dining restaurants cut costs, not to mention water and detergent use, by foregoing tablecloths. She noted that restaurants are being designed with hardtop tables, even when they're position as a fine-dining choice.

Mon., 1:55
Denise Tase revealed that Wienerschnitzel is trying end-cap locations because of the lower costs. He noted that the chain will spend about $500,000 for one of those locations, turnkey, while the cost of a traditional store could run to more than $1 million.

Mon., 1:40
Among the fast-circulating pieces of gossip here at the conference is the departure of David Goronkin from Redstone American Grill, where he'd served as chief executive and president since early January. Goronkin had resigned the same posts at Famous Dave's of America to join the upstart Redstone concept, a venture of Champps founder Dean Vlahos.

Staffers in New York were able to confirm that Goronkin did indeed part with the chain last week. They're awaiting a callback to get the details.

Mon., 1:35
Niki Leondakis from Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants is offering the wartime perspective of fine dining. Discounting or deal-making "has to be more subtle," she explained. She recommended "doing anything that conveys a sense of value."

She addressed what she acknowledged is the fine-dining version of "bundling," where disparate elements of a meal are packaged into an attractively priced packaged deal. At Kimpton, that means combining a meal with theater tickets.

Similarly, she said, the company's in-hotel restaurants are going to local businesses and offering a discount to employees who come for a special "event." A slight twist, she said, was creating a Hungry Actors' Club, to draw in folks who are drawn by both the networking opportunity and the deal that's extended.

Among the new things Kimpton is trying is cutting the price of a bottle of wine in half.

Mon., 1:30
On stage are the three chain executives participating in our "Capital Ideas in Challenging Times" panel, a look at the tactics operators are using to weather the grueling current economic environment.

Dennis Tase of Galardi Group, parent of the Wienerschitzel chain, just touched on what has proven to be a theme of the conference: Discounting may get butts in seats today, but what's it going to mean when conditions improve? Won't it ultimately cheapen the concept? Will the discounting binge leave a hangover of sorts?

Clearly much of the industry regards that issue as purely academic; they're discounting like Christmas tree vendors on Dec. 25. Yet the question underscores the underlying optimism that the industry will rebound from the current mess. It's just a matter of time.

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