Wyman T. Roberts took the reins of Brinker International Inc. as chief executive and president on Jan. 1 after working in both the Maggiano’s Little Italy and Chili’s Grill & Bar divisions since joining Brinker in 2005.
Roberts succeeded Doug Brooks, chairman of Brinker, and remains president of the Dallas-based casual-dining company’s Chili’s division.
Roberts and Brooks last week discussed their new roles and what they mean for Brinker as the company again looks to increase its number of restaurants.
“We have started to look for new restaurant sites again for both Maggiano’s and Chili’s,” Brooks said during the interview with Roberts. “It’s a much more conservative growth plan, maybe 1 to 2 percent at Chili’s, which is 10 to 15 [units] a year … and Maggiano’s two to four a year, and we’re starting to look for those locations.”
Prior to joining Brinker, Roberts held executive roles at Universal Parks & Resorts and spent 17 years with Darden Restaurants Inc., including at that company’s Red Lobster division.
Roberts said he was excited about the Brinker team’s passion for the brand and its ability to increase consumer loyalty for Brinker’s nearly 1,600 restaurants.
“This [economic] rollercoaster for years now I think is wearing on [consumers],” Roberts said. “That means it’s more important for us to give them an escape. If we deliver that, they love it and appreciate it.”
Roberts elaborated in an interview with Nation’s Restaurant News.
How did you start reinvigorating Brinker?
It started with both brands realizing that things had to change. We couldn’t continue to just run the same plays. We put a plan together that strengthened the business model and then took that stronger business model and the proceeds from that and reinvesting it back into the brands, both of the businesses. We did that more aggressively at Chili’s. It had gotten to be a little less relevant than the Maggiano’s brand.
What were the aspects of that new strategy?
We focused on how we were going to become more efficient, but at the same time not negatively impact the guest experience. That’s the challenge: getting the margins, but typically there is a price to pay. We put out a plan that would get us 400 basis points in margin improvement and get a better guest experience and get a better team member experience. We invested the proceeds in kitchens, in remodels and in tools that allow our operators to become even more efficient.
How has the consumer changed since the recession?
Consumers are becoming less and less tolerant of any value proposition that doesn’t really stand out. We track that. Our value scores at Chili’s have almost doubled. That’s as our business model has gotten better.
What makes up the value proposition?
In this environment, especially, a strong value proposition is not just driven by price but by the whole experience and a consistency. No matter what you are paying, if you get disappointed today in this environment, they don’t come back. There is very little tolerance for a second chance. Consumers are not as confident as they used to be. They are nervous. They get angrier, and they take that out on brands.
How do you test your ideas for the brands?
I’ve been a marketer for a long time, so I’ve had a lot of comfort with consumers and insights. We just put more rigor to our process. … As we started to push innovation more aggressively, it became more important for us to really make sure the consumers were really supporting what we were doing. When you roll something out and it doesn’t work, not only does it have implications for your guest, but also for your operations and your credibility with your operators and their willingness to climb that hill the next time you bring out something new.
Your Chili’s system is about 40-percent franchised. How do you work with the franchisees?
The franchise community, at the end of the day, is a great feedback mechanism. They don’t pull any punches. There is nothing but truths from those guys. We embrace that. Whenever we go into an operations test, they are brought in during the conceptual process. We say, “Here are the ideas we’re working on.” But when it comes to a market test, we always test in both a company and a franchise situation.
What are the best opportunities for casual dining in 2013 and the years ahead?
You kind of have to segment it a little bit. In bar and grill, from a Chili’s perspective, it’s still always going to be about a value proposition. How are you going to take share? It’s going to be a share battle. It’s still a huge pie. And half of that pie is independents. How are you going to take share from that half of the segment? That’s where we use our size and scale to generate and develop more innovative and relevant product, and bring it to the market more quickly. We can develop marketing programs and systems that are going to be very difficult for an independent to create and get scale. That’s where our size helps us a lot.
When you think about the chain side of the pie, it’s our ability for the Chili’s culture to come to life and deliver a better experience than most concepts that are chain delivered. Our passion in this organization is making people feel special.
What about international growth?
Global doesn’t happen quickly. There are a lot of things to learn wherever you go. In Mexico, we are closing in on a hundred restaurants. We’ve gone through a lot of learning to be successful. We just opened two restaurants in Costa Rica in the past month. What we’ve already learned in that part of the world makes it easier to open in new markets. Middle East is another great market for us. We also see opportunities to take those markets we’re already in and fill them out.
What’s the biggest challenge for casual-dining brands?
It’s this whole path to greater and greater relevance, continuing to challenge ourselves to push and bring innovation and raise the bar on execution. … There’s no rest in the business.
Chili’s has had success with the “2 for $20” and Lunch Combo platforms. What other initiatives helped the brand through the recession?
For 35 years we had one daily menu. We never really thought about how the world had changed and how lunch and dinner had become separate. We couldn’t expect how dinner prices would work at lunch the same way. That was one big step. We built that to fit with the Chili’s brand. … We decided to run our own race. … We went through the research process, and figured out how it worked: Does this say Chili’s, or is it generic? There were some little things we did that made us say, “Now that’s Chili’s.”
It’s easy for competitors to copy or mimic your efforts, so how do you protect your branding?
It’s very hard to create positioning off innovation. As soon as you come up with something, someone can knock it off. And vice versa. But when it’s true to who you are, then it’s hard for people to knock it off if they are not lined up with you. Chili’s has a unique position, the Southwest position. Maggiano’s has a unique position that’s “abundant Italian.” We do have territory that is unique to us. They can see what we are doing, but it’s harder to knock it off.
How is Chili’s positioned?
The Southwest positioning for Chili’s really, in today’s world, just fits perfectly where the consumer is going. In the terms of flavors, consumers are looking for more interesting, more spicy. That’s part of our DNA.
What do you have planned for Chili’s, Maggiano’s and Brinker?
Food innovation with the new kitchens rolling out at Chili’s. All the company restaurants are done. All 816 of those are done. And we are deep into the franchise community, and they will be done in a couple of months. That platform will let us leverage it across the country. There is some very exciting food that couldn’t be done at Chili’s, and now it can be done.
Any other areas?
There are some very exciting things going on in the marketing area, between social and consumer relationship marketing. We leverage a database and have a very large number of our guests that we have a good relationship with already. We think we can take that to another level. That’s where a lot of energy is going, and that will hit the restaurants in the next six months to a year. It will significantly step up our impact from a marketing perspective.