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.
Major changes that have worked
What were some of the changes that moved the needle positively?
First it was team service … and then it was the kitchen and then it was technology and now, last, it’s reimage. In every case, there’s a win with a metric for the team member, for the guest and for the business.
What’s been the impact on sales?
Maggiano’s, through September, has had 11 quarters of positive top-line. Our global restaurants are up 11 quarters in a row. And Chili’s domestic is now [up] seven quarters in a row.
What are the best opportunities for casual dining?
There’s still 50 percent of the [casual-dining] pie that is smaller companies. [Brinker’s size allows] borrowing money to build and providing things like health care. There’s also a greater chance that organizations of that size don’t offer health care, where we do. So we think the impact will be less for us.
What has the kitchen renovation program provided?
Our team sizes are smaller. We’re more efficient than ever before. We’ve taken costs out of our P&L over the past several years.
Anything that didn’t work so well?
Several years ago we tried soup, salad and chips as a lunch deal. It was a good value, but people didn’t buy it. Then two years ago we introduced a Chili’s-style sandwich with French fries with salad or soup, made it a Chili’s combo and our lunch sales turned positive.
What has the reimage program done?
It’s not your father’s Chili’s anymore. The bars are really, really cool, with lots of video. It will let us compete more than ever before.
How will health care reform impact the company?
We don’t think there’s going to be a big impact. There are some idiosyncrasies in the individual mandate versus the employer mandate, but we feel really good about what we have and don’t think it will have as big an impact as some people thought. … The exchange part of it is still unknown, what the offerings from the federal exchange or state exchange will be. We aren’t sure of that yet.
Where is Brinker investing now besides the reimaging?
We’re investing in an innovation center right here on our campus [at Brinker headquarters in Dallas]. Our test kitchen we have today is woefully outdated and undersized. We are taking one of our buildings here on campus and in about 60 days will open a 17,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art test kitchen and consumer research [center]. … We will be doing a lot of research right here on campus that we had farmed out. Our chefs, our insights teams, our marketing folks will be able to work faster.
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