Written for and distributed at the Marketing Executives Group, Chicago, May 19, 2011; 
Published in Restaurant Marketing Group’s MEG Consumer Talk  

Lane Cardwell

President, P.F. Chang’s China Bistro
I have had a lot of beginnings lately.  In the past two years I have doubled the number of restaurant companies that I have worked for in the past 32 years.   I was recently the CEO of Boston Market, and have just joined P.F. Chang’s China Bistro as its president.  My other two restaurant companies, going back 30 years, were S & A Restaurant Corp. (Steak and Ale, Bennigan’s) and Brinker International.
It gives you a different perspective on our industry when you start fresh with a company after so many years in the business.  Let’s call it “nuanced naivety”.  You are naïve about the way that the new company that you have joined does business; however, you understand the nuances of the way that business is done in the restaurant industry.  It must be how a professional athlete feels when they join a new team after a long time in the league.  To be of value you must take what you already know and make it work within a team that you don’t know well yet.
I remember all of the new people that joined my earlier companies.  Full of questions (“why don’t we?”, “could we?”, “have we ever?”), lots of ideas, and challenges about the way that we have been doing business for a long time.  They were irritating.  It took us old hands several months to break these new people of their question-asking and mold them into one of us.  Some never could be taught the way that we did things and moved on to annoy some other company.  I never stopped to question the opportunities to reexamine our company and concept with fresh eyes that we may have missed.
I have been that irritating person over the past two years.  I am early into annoying my team at P.F. Chang’s with my constant questions about why we do things the way that we do them.  “Why did we decide that?”  “What else did we consider?”  “Is it working?  How do we know?”  It’s hard to join a successful team and a successful concept.  It’s easier to join one that is struggling.  It makes sense that you would question things in the struggling company, not so the successful one.
The one thing that I have noticed in most of the restaurant concepts that I have worked on is that the customer rarely gets a seat at the decision-making table.  They are paid great lip service, but rarely are consulted about changes to a brand that they make possible with their money.  Our front line employees talk to our customers every day.  They know what they like, don’t like, don’t understand, and what delights them.
Somehow a lot of this information gets distorted or filtered as it drifts its way up the chain of command.  Sometimes we drown in the quantity of the information.  We try to capture it with customer feedback systems and formalized marketing research, but it’s like trying to report on local weather from across the country.  Nothing quite replaces stepping outside and looking up in the sky.
Every day decisions are being made throughout the industry about the care and feeding of our restaurant concepts.  Different departmental groups with different views of what is important weigh-in with their opinions.  Very different operating regions must often compromise by deciding on one approach, with the result neither exciting nor disappointing all of their guests.  Like the story of the three blind men trying to describe an elephant by touching its leg, trunk and side, each constituency sees the situation a little differently.
There are three normal outcomes of a decision being made about a concept:
  1. Good for the company, good for the customer (the proverbial win-win)
  2. Good for the customer, not as good for the company (absorbing a cost, or adding a new service or offering)
  3. Good for the company, not good for the customer (large price increases, quality cuts, concept elements being trimmed or deleted)
  4. We will assume that good management would not allow something bad for both the company and the customer to occur (but sometimes they do)
I have learned over time that if you stay vigilant against letting #3 dominate (Good for the company, not good for the customer), everything else will tend to take care of itself.  Sometimes it is a lonely voice representing the customer when decisions are being made.  Often your co-workers are not even aware that the decision-making process is one-sided.  They don’t understand why something that cuts costs, or makes the restaurant run more smoothly can sometimes be a bad thing.  After all, aren’t we paid to take care of the company?
I always tell people that gravity works on restaurant concepts like it works on everything else…it pulls things down.  Usually a concept is at its best in the early years.  It is fresh, new, exciting, and pleasing the customer is an all-consuming activity each day.  As you grow you begin to look for efficiencies that offset the difficulty of managing 10, 100, or 1,000 restaurants remotely.  Programs are introduced.  Policies are spelled out.  Buying power and standardization are introduced.  When you add up the impact of all of these “efficiencies” over the years you begin to see the effects of gravity.  The concept is bigger, but not better, than it was in the early glory years.
Do you want to make a difference on the restaurant concept that you work on?  Every time a change is proposed, ask yourself whether it is good for the customer.  There is nothing wrong with something being good for the company, but is it also good for the guest?  If you can bring this mindset to the job every day you will be a success in the long run. Brand building is hard work and good companies want to be challenged on issues where the customer is not the winner.
Do you find that your company doesn’t want to hear it?  Go find a good company that does.  A career is a terrible thing to waste, and you are wasting your time waiting for the inevitable decay that sets in when each flip of the decision-making coin comes up heads only for the company.
Let your own new beginning be the way that you think about each decision affecting your brand that crosses your desk, or is raised in a meeting.  It takes a lot of effort to hold on to the things that made your concept successful when it started, much less to improve it.  By being customer-centric you greatly improve your long term odds of success.