What is in this article?:
- Brinker chairman Doug Brooks on the casual-dining scene
- Major changes that have worked
35-year industry veteran and former Brinker CEO speaks with NRN about the past, present and future for Chili’s and Maggiano’s
Brooks says casual-dining restaurants "democratized eating out."
Doug Brooks stepped down from the chief executive and president position at Brinker International, parent to the Chili’s Grill & Bar and Maggiano’s Little Italy chains, on Jan. 1 and retained his chairman’s position at the casual-dining company.
Brooks had been CEO and president of Brinker since 2004, a capstone to a restaurant career that he began at age 13 in Dallas restaurant and parlayed into management at Houston steakhouse. He joined Chili’s in February 1978 as manager of the company’s original Dallas location.
Brooks also serves on the board of directors for Romano’s Macaroni Grill, in which Brinker retains minority ownership.
Brooks and his successor, Wyman Roberts, sat down with Nation’s Restaurant News last week to talk about how the two brands have weathered the recession and their plans for the Dallas-based company’s future. Read what Brooks had to say below, and watch for an upcoming Q&A with Roberts.
What have been the biggest changes during your 35 years in casual dining?
Just the number of outlets. In 1978 when I started with Chili’s, we had one in Dallas. Larry Lavine, the founder, said ‘OK, I’ve got to go to Houston.’ He didn’t think you could have two in a city. And now we have 70 in North Texas. Back then everyone ate at home. I use the “Leave It to Beaver” analogy: June Cleaver made dinner for the family at the kitchen table. Going out to eat was either fast food – McDonald’s or Burger King – or you went to a white-tablecloth restaurant, where not only you had to wear a suit but the waiter had a tuxedo. There was nothing in the middle.
What was the effect of casual-dining restaurants on that scene?
[They] democratized eating out, making it affordable with high quality. The consumer didn’t have to put on a coat and tie. They could go in blue jeans because the server was in blue jeans.
What did the economy do to the casual-dining marketplace?
You have fast-casual growing, and the environment got a lot more competitive. QSR got better; they improved their choices and they improved their value proposition with the dollar menu. What Maggiano’s and Chili’s did was to create everyday value platforms on our menus. At Chili’s, you have the “Two for $20,” which is a great value component, and we added the lunch combos. At Maggiano’s, we added Classic Pasta, which is buy-one-get-one-free.
How else did Chili’s and Maggiano’s react?
Both brands did some serious evolution. When the recession hit, Maggiano’s was a 20-year-old brand and Chili’s was a 32-year-old brand. And there were some things that needed be upgraded. A lot of those are the business plans that Wyman [Roberts] has put into place.
What were the key elements of that evolution?
Around that time, we made some major changes in leadership in the organization. You can have all the great strategies you want … but we brought in an entirely new group of leaders. Those leaders have made a major difference. They basically came from other companies with different perspectives and backgrounds.