On the Ground with Restaurant Operators at MUFSO

By: Peter Filiaci, vice president of Brand Solutions, Univision Communications Inc.

Our Restaurant team joined hundreds of operators last week at the 53rd Annual MUFSO (Multi-Unit Foodservice Operators) Conference in Dallas. The event’s tagline “where foodservice leaders meet,” describes just the tip of the iceberg of this much-anticipated event. There was learning, innovation and discovery involved, too. We heard from Brad Taylor, vice president of Customer Marketing at Coke, about how he believes mobile is a critical marketing tool. He singled out the brand’s freestyle initiative – 100 plus flavor drink dispensers found in restaurant locations around the country – as a compelling case study. Firehouse Subs’ Social Media Manager Melissa Simpson shared how programs like “Meet & Eat” and “Dinner with the Founders” have helped increase customer acquisition and retention and develop brand evangelists.

The conference recognizes “hot concepts” each year and it was clear that one of those could have been the country’s ever-growing multiculturalism. The CEOs on the closing day panel – representing Popeye’s, Caribou Coffee, Bonefish Grill, Jimmy John’s Sandwiches, P.F. Chang’s and Sheetz – agreed that “the opening up of America’s taste buds” is a trend that they’re excited about and Chef Dave Zino echoed this during his Monday session. “We’re becoming a more ethnic nation and this is exhibited through the food that’s being served and the food we’re willing to try,” Zino said. “Millennials in particular are drawn to this.”

But our multicultural nation is much more than just a concept. It is very much a new consumer that can drive sales for quick service restaurants (QSRs) and other food service categories. Dennis Lombardi, executive vice president of Foodservice Strategies for WD Partners, noted that operators must cater to Hispanics, since one in four births in this country today is to a Latina. Add that to the fact that Hispanics are an already engaged consumer – making up 18 percent of all QSR dollars in 2011, with 161 annual visits each year versus 148 for non-Hispanics.

At the conference, Popeye’s CEO Cheryl Bachelder shared that the Popeye’s brand is ramping up to win. There is a big Popeye’s push to develop Hispanic leaders, knowing that if the brand understands the opportunity and the culture, much of the work is done.

Additionally John Dillon, vice president of brand marketing and product innovation at Denny’s, named Hispanic consumers a “critical segment” for his brand. Denny’s new “openness” brand positioning extends to all consumers and the brand has made a consistent, concerted effort to engage with Hispanics in their language and culture. Check out Denny’s “Skillet Whisperer” campaign featuring Cesar Millan: here. It is just one reason why Denny’s over-indexes with this consumer.

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