Nearly a year to the day since her hiring as chief executive of Così Inc., Carin Stutz oversaw the Dec. 12 debut of the 129-unit fast-casual chain’s “pop-up” restaurant in downtown Chicago, where the brand will try out new menus and décor as an intended precursor to innovation-driven growth.
Stutz and her executive team at Così’s Deerfield, Ill., headquarters held their first meeting about the new food and design elements on display at the South Michigan Avenue store on Nov. 23, and about three weeks later arrived at the first iteration of a possible new Così prototype. The store was converted from a standard Così to the pop-up variant over the previous weekend.
A look at Cosi’s pop-up restaurant
The quick execution of the pop-up restaurant does not represent a hasty decision, but rather Così’s ability to be nimble and inventive, Stutz said. She acknowledged a sense of urgency within Così to reignite sales growth, as the brand struggled in recent years with negative earnings and a threat from NASDAQ to delist the company’s stock. Her appointment as CEO came after months of industry veteran Brad Blum, a Così investor, calling for a leadership change.
But “it’s more important to get it right than to just go fast,” Stutz said.
The goal for turning around Così’s sales is to get new traffic and to entice lapsed users to come back, Stutz said, and the chain would attempt that primarily through menu innovation.
“There’s a group of core guests that are looking for something that’s healthier, more adventuresome, and that would test the limits of their flavor palate,” Stutz said. “So we’re going to try things that you can’t get anywhere else.”
Remaking the menu
Stutz said she began trying to shore up operations at Così’s existing restaurants when she started as chief executive Jan. 1, 2012, but she and her team also examined all aspects of the business, especially the menu.
“It’s about food and food quality, first and foremost,” she said. “Second, it’s about convenience — we still play in the fast-casual arena, and we do a lot of our business at lunch, so we have to be fast. The third part is what we’re calling ‘culinary hospitality,’ where we want our people to be as passionate about the food as they are about service.”
Ideas for new menu items came from all over the company and were refined and tested by Così’s new vice president of innovation and brand strategy, Michael Foley, who had been an industry consultant following the closure of his venerated fine-dining restaurant in Chicago, Printer’s Row.
“We started at the beginning again and, in a short amount of time, came back to the key things that make Così competitive in the market and a leader in the community, and figured out why it had lost its compelling story,” Foley said. “It’s the bread and the hearth, done in a fast, fresh way.”
Così kept some signatures like its T.B.M. sandwich and the Così Signature Mixed salad, but nearly all of the items on the pop-up’s menu were new, including the Avocado & Cucumber and Vietnamese Pork sandwiches, the Sloppy Jane and Market Ham & Pear melts, and the Grains & Greens salad.
Stutz and Così Inc. executive chair Stephen Edwards agreed that the brand’s menu had grown too large and complicated.
“There were a lot of things that seemed logical for Così to do that we were not doing to take advantage of the bread and the hearth,” Edwards said. “We are trying to address every flavor profile we thought was appropriate. For every flavor profile a person has in mind when they come here, do we have a sandwich that fits that need?”
The pop-up restaurant’s menu, which largely scraps the restaurant’s current 65-item menu for one with 35 dishes not counting, does not have a predetermined endgame or timetable, they said.
“Any time you start taking some favored items away, you have to give people a place to land,” Stutz said. “I think we’ll get really good insight into people willing to trade out their favorites for something we think is even more interesting. If there are some obvious winners, we can move on them really quickly.”
In an effort to get more business in the evening, Così developed two new flavors of rustic flatbread and three new items listed simply as “Entrées” on the menu. The dishes are bowls of rice, grains and vegetables that serve as a base for flavors like Adobowith Avocado, Korean BBQ Pork and Stuffed Portobello.
The chain also hopes to fill in some in-between dayparts by having food that plays well both at lunch and dinner, Stutz said. Flexible décor helps with that aim as well, she added, noting new touches like a communal table, more high-tops, digital menu boards, and new fonts and colors for the trade dress.
“We had to change the look a little bit to make sure Così was a credible place to come in the afternoon,” she said. “In the urban markets, you get a really strong pop for lunch, but then it’s like 2:00 to 2:30 and everyone’s looking for that afternoon pick-me-up, and we wanted to make sure our place looked like the place to come for that.”
In all, the pop-up’s new food and décor attempted to “shake up” the Così system, because “the brand was not going to survive the way it was,” Edwards said, noting that the outside pressure of being a public company would not hurry Così’s innovation process.
“You get the business right, you deliver on the results, and the shareholders will be taken care of, in that order,” he said.
Così operates in 16 states, the District of Columbia, and two foreign markets.