Recipes for success at a time of slow economic recovery was the theme of opening day for the 54th annual MUFSO SuperShow on Sunday, an event that brought about 1,000 restaurant operators, suppliers and other industry professionals to Dallas to learn, network and share best practices.

The three-day event is produced by Nation’s Restaurant News along with sister publications Food Management and Restaurant Hospitality, which are all part of Penton Restaurant Group. Randall Friedman, Restaurant and Food Group publisher, said, “MUFSO is the largest annual gathering of restaurant decision makers in the U.S.”

Though the event is weighted toward restaurant chains, it also attracts independent restaurant operators who aspire to be the next big multi-concept operator, as well as noncommercial foodservice players, Friedman said.

“Fundamentally, MUFSO is about learning,” he added, noting that the growing event this year has about 30 breakout sessions, roughly twice the number offered even three years ago.

On Sunday, for example, three industry analysts offered a “full circle” view of restaurant performance trends in today’s rough economy.

Since 2009, comparable same store-sales have declined about 5.2 percent across full-service segments and traffic has dropped 8.7 percent, said Wally Doolin, founder of the research group Black Box Intelligence.

Though consumer confidence is climbing, restaurant sales in recent months have not followed the same upward track, as has been the case in past years. Meanwhile, the quick-service segment has outperformed casual dining, in part because consumers are still seeking out the best price-value equation, said Larry Miller, chief executive of industry benchmarking service MillerPulse.

Quick-service brands are innovating on menus and upgrading atmosphere, he said. “QSR has evolved and casual dining has not.”

Hudson Riehle, senior vice president of the research and knowledge group at the National Restaurant Association, said the agonizingly slow and inconsistent pace of growth is expected to continue into 2014. As a result, restaurant operators will be forced to continue to look for operating efficiencies, including the use of technology, to boost productivity.

In NRA surveys, operators said one of the top challenges they face this year is not the economy or food costs, as in past years, but government. The regulatory environment will have a significant impact on future growth, Riehle said.

In another panel, “Gaining Alignment in a Franchise World,” executives, John Longstreet, president and chief executive of Quaker Steak & Lube; Grant Kreutzer, director of franchise, licensing and recruitment for Jack in the Box Inc.; and Tom McCord, vice president of franchising for CiCi’s Pizza, shared insight into “creating franchise luv” or improving the franchisee/franchisor relationship.

Communication, transparency, flexibility and providing tools and support are key from the franchisor, said Longstreet. But the No. 1 way to create franchise ‘luv’ is to “make sure franchise owners are profitable,” he noted.

In the session, “How to Stay True in the Era of New,” John Neitzel, chief executive of Bar Louie, told of how his casual-dining chain strives to realize its “mission to surprise guests” by, among other things, returning 4 percent of sales to the stores for employees to use to comp regulars or otherwise enhance their experience.

One way the chain “re-engages” guests, he noted, is by selling regular menu burgers for $1 on Tuesday nights. “We sell a lot of those [$1burgers], and they are very profitable. The burgers aren’t [profitable], but they [guests] spend around $14 once they get here,” on higher-margin items, such as bar drinks and sides, Neitzel said.

Sunday at MUFSO closed with an all-star celebration of the 2013 Nation’s Restaurant News Hot Concepts award winners: Fresh to Order, Max’s Wine Dive, Modmarket, Piada Italian Street Food and Umami Burger.

Also celebrated Sunday were Food Management’s Best Concept awards, including this year’s “Best of Show” award, which went to Henry Ford Health System.

On Monday, representatives of NRN’s Hot Concepts will discuss their concepts and planned growth in a panel discussion hosted by Sarah Lockyer, editor-in-chief of Nation’s Restaurant News.

In addition, Richard Melman, founder, chair and chief executive of Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, based in Chicago, is scheduled for a candid discussion with Stephen Starr, owner of Starr Restaurants in Philadelphia, the 2013 recipient of Restaurant Hospitality’s Richard Melman Innovator of the Year Award. Michael Sanson, Restaurant Hospitality’s editor-in-chief, will moderate.

Also on Monday, this year’s winner of the Nation’s Restaurant News Operator of the Year and several other awards will be revealed.

For all coverage from the conference, stay at NRN.com and follow the #MUFSO hashtag on Twitter.

Contact Lisa Jennings at lisa.jennings@penton.com.
Follow her on Twitter: @livetodineout