Friday, October 03, 2008

Lunch with Wendy's honcho, Friday's sauce on the side

Several of us had lunch yesterday with Roland Smith, the new CEO of Wendy’s, who’s shouldering that responsibility while continuing to lead the Nelson Peltz-affiliated corporation that previously ran only Arby’s. Besides providing a guilt-free chance to indulge in a Double and a Frosty—hey, it was research—the sit-down at a midtown Wendy’s yielded a few guarded indications of what the chain’s new owner may do with its $2.3-billion prize. But even better was a reality check the unit’s franchisee gave us after Smith left, not so much about Wendy’s, but about general industry conditions and his other concept, T.G.I. Friday’s.

Here’re the highlights of what Smith had to say about Wendy’s and its new parent, Wendy’s/Arby’s Group Inc.:

• Co-branding is definitely in the works for the company's two chains, particularly in high-rent locations like the midtown location where we ate. Smith said the pairing of the concepts—separate kitchens, but paired menus sporting the signature items of each brand—would be especially synergistic overseas.

• The acquisition of other restaurant brands is definitely a possibility for Wendy’s/Arby’s. Smith of course wouldn’t be specific about the possibilities, but he said the company favors concepts that are viewed as quality providers. not bargain peddlers.

• Although the two concepts will be run as separate brands, without any sharing of "trade secrets" like menu products, personnel could be transplanted from one to the other as need and availability arise, Smith said.

• The emphasis for Wendy’s near-term will be on boosting profits. Smith remarked that Arby’s unit-level margins are among the best in the business. Wendy’s was once up there as well, he said, but the profitability of company units slipped, with margins now falling below what franchisees have been able to maintain. Not that licensees are content with their incomes, either, he suggested. Asked for the top three present-day concerns of Wendy’s franchisees, Smith counted them off on his fingers: “Profit, profit, and profit.”

• Wendy’s and Arby’s may indeed cross-franchise, so an operator of one chain could open units of the other if the situation would be appropriate.

As we were leaving, we were asked about our meal by someone who was obviously a person of authority, but just as clearly not a part of Smith’s posse. Turns out he was the franchisee, Brad Honigfeld, CEO of multi-brand The Briad Group.

Honigfeld said he was optimistic about Smith and the change in ownership, and praised in particular the selections of David Karam as Wendy’s new president and Steve Farrar as the new COO.

He voiced more concern about his Friday’s restaurants, noting that Briad is that chain’s largest franchisee. Stores in Arizona are running 25 percent below what they were a year ago, he lamented.

Bakery-café concepts like Panera are stealing the lunchtime customers of casual chains, Honigfeld explained, and the battle for dinner patrons is just brutal. He dismissed discounting as the way to go, suggesting instead that the established players in casual dining need to re-invent themselves.

Perhaps not coincidentally, he revealed that Briad has just signed on to become a franchisee of Corner Bakery, a competitor of Panera.

Honigfeld also noted that his Wendy’s units in the New York area have been doing well, but that Briad’s restaurants on the West Coast suffered a “significant” decline last month. He called it a sign of things to come, which I took to mean the chilling effect could roll eastward.


  1. You would think the arby's/wendy's combo would be hit a hit with the new healthy crowd since neither concept sells real beef.

    Sincerely steakman

  2. What do you base that statement on, steakman? Both of these companies do indeed use real beef. That has never been an accusation aimed at Wendy's or Arby's. You need to check your facts before you levy harmful claims against honest companies. God forbid you would have to someday work for a company that has to deal with false accusations like this.