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Title: Expert Call with the CFO of EAT

Speakers: Howard Penney, Hedgeye Risk Management; Guy Constant, Brinker International

Subscriber Link: CLICK HERE 


Industry-Wide Insight

  • The evolution of the casual dining industry
  • How Brinker adapted to these secular changes
  • The future of the casual dining industry
  • The difficulty in operating nine different brands
  • The whittling down of the company
  • The birth of operational efficiency
  • The evolution of the value proposition

Brinker-Specific Insight

  • Leveraging technology to drive traffic
  • Future technological initiatives
  • The development of the delivery business
  • Better executing on pizza and flatbreads
  • The Mexican food opportunity
  • The current reimaging initiative



Guy Constant: “It’s been an interesting time since 2006, when the industry, in our view, in the late 2000s entered into a mature phase.  The industry being casual dining, in this case, entered into a mature phase and how we reacted to that initially and how we’ve reacted to it since has been an interesting journey for our company.  But since, really, late 2009, early 2010, when we realized that the historic way that we had operated and been successful and had won in casual dining had changed, and we thought permanently, and continue to believe permanently, we realized there was a different way we need to compete and operate in this business. 

And so, for us, that meant focusing on our core Chili’s business, improving our business model and preparing for an environment where we felt in the future would result in a lower comp sales environment for casual dining, lower demand for the consumer going forward.  And so, that’s the journey we’ve really been on, it started with us stopping growth of our restaurant concepts. 

It followed very quickly with the pairing down of our portfolio from what was as high as nine brands in the mid-2000s all the way down to two brands today, that being Chili’s and Maggiano’s, followed very quickly by an aggressive effort from us to improve margins in the Chili’s business, which had deteriorated pretty dramatically from the early 2000s to the late 2000s, really with average annual volumes that were very similar when you looked at those two periods.  Margins at Chili’s, in particular, we’re down over 600 bps if you compare 2010 to 2002, again at similar unit volumes.  So we knew there was opportunity to turn the margins of the business around and do what, really, every company, every manufacturing company in America has done over the past 20 years.”


Guy Constant: “I think what can happen, at least what happened in our business, I certainly can’t discuss what happened in other businesses, but certainly in our business, with particularly Chili’s being so much larger than all of the other brands that we’ve had historically, was that if you were to look at the 20 best ideas for improving the Chili’s business, number 20 on that list was always worth more money than number 1 on the list of any of the smaller brands. 

And so, you were faced with this quandary that the best idea to improve one of our other brands, which you’d want to pay a lot of attention to since it was such a good idea, still wasn’t worth as much as an idea that was well down the list at Chili’s.   So, it could get easy to have the Chili’s part of the business say, “Why are you working on the smaller brands when there is so much opportunity at Chili’s?” and it would be very easy to be at the smaller brand and say, “You’re obviously either trying to turn us into Chili’s or all of your focus is on Chili’s and you’re not paying enough attention to us.” 

And so, over time, while we’re sitting in the middle of that, you could never really point to gosh the extra brands are distracting or they’re impacting our business, the end result was that you could see it in the results of the overall business that we weren’t performing as well as we should.  Is it a coincidence that we moved our portfolio down now to two brands, that our results got better?  Maybe.  But I actually think there is some correlation there to the ability to focus solely on Chili’s, which has always been the best part, and the most profitable part, of our business, and leverage that as best we could in order to compete in this new environment.”



How difficult was it to manage all 9 brands?

  • Characterize it is as the “impasse of brain space”
  • You end up paying more attention to the larger brands and the smaller brands are unable to fulfill their potential
  • Performance suffers
  • Think there is a correlation between moving the portfolio down to two brands and generating stronger returns

What technological initiatives have you undertaken in order to drive traffic?

  • In regard to kitchen and manufacturing technology, they are in the 6th inning; certainly more to be done, but they have made strong progress already
  • In regard to front of the house operations, they are in the 1st or 2nd inning
  • The primary differentiator in the casual dining industry is service
  • Technology allows businesses to enhance service
  • Fast casual is so attractive, because it is extremely convenient
  • Companies must figure out how to leverage technology in order to enhance convenience

What are the primary advantages of the tabletop technology?

  • It is an opportunity to enhance service
  • It allows for more convenience, by allowing the customer to control when to pay and leave the restaurant
  • There is an average check improvement
  • Tends to drive sales around beverages, desserts, and add-ons
  • Allows for useful feedback from guests
  • Allows the company to expand their database and leverage it through customer relationship marketing activities

How has the value proposition evolved over time?

  • Value proposition was broken from 2005-2006
  • Brinker, and casual dining as a whole, had low and declining value scores
  • By 2006, there was a wide gap between the prices of QSRs and casual dining companies
  • Fast casual filled this gap, which is one reason they have been so successful
  • Casual dining companies need to focus on investing in quality food and menu innovation

What potential do you see in the delivery side of the business?

  • Delivery is currently 10% of business, despite being poorly executed
  • Delivery orders typically fill the gaps between peak hours
  • There is a large amount of upside
  • Execution was holding them back
  • Cutting down the menu and linking up with kitchen technology in order to give accurate cook times will help drive the business and enhance the overall operation

How can you better execute on pizza and flatbreads?

  • There is an opportunity to drive incremental traffic from loyal guests by increasing frequency of visits or driving their ticket up
  • They need to do a better job marketing to non-loyal, newer school type customers
  • Made a commitment to invest slightly more in media

How will Mexican contribute to sales?

  • Mexican will be an innovative message from them, more so than a value message
  • Have tested all the items
  • Need to make a few, low cost adjustments in their kitchens in order to ensure operational execution is top notch

How far along are you in the remodeling process?

  • Have 50-65% of the system done; plan to have 75% done by June
  • Should be done with all of the company reimages by the end of FY14 or the end of 1Q15
  • Finished remodels in California around 6-9 months ago
  • Have seen very good results from these remodels
  • Still need to remodel most of Florida and part of Texas
  • Capex will come down significantly as the remodeling program unwinds

Howard Penney

Managing Director