Appointed CEO of Chilean parent company Brinker International
The tour showcased an enthusiastic workforce filled with people who have been there for decades, many calling themselves the Chiliheads.
“I like to talk about listening tours because I find it’s a really fun workforce that loves serving our guests. We have a lot of managers and restaurant up people who start out as hourly workers here,” Hawke Mann said in a recent interview. “We’ve been hearing for months how much they enjoy working at Chili’s and feel like they are family. When Chili’s is at its best, it’s a dynamic time for guests and staff.”
“Once” can be a powerful word here. There’s no question that Covid-19 has had a particular impact on “energetic” sit-down concepts like Chili’s, which continues to struggle to restore traffic to pre-pandemic levels. Hochman believes that simplifying the business is a quick way to get back there.
For example, early in the pandemic, Brinker added two virtual brands — It’s Just Wings and Maggiano’s Italian Classics. The delivery-only concept works especially well when restaurants are closed, providing operators with an additional revenue stream and additional options for adventurous consumers.
Virtual brands now account for about 6% of the company’s sales.
“And they add a lot of complexity. There are new projects to learn, two different sites and a lot of training on those two lines,” Hochman said.
To better optimize these lines, Brinker has started adding virtual items to its brick-and-mortar stores. For example, It’s Just Wings sauce is now available on Chili’s chicken tenders, while wing/chips combos are available on Chili’s menu, starting at $7.
“We can’t ignore this part of the business, but we’re spending more time and resources than this small part might need, so we’re trying to make it easier for both brands to do business in our restaurants,” Hochman said. “Now, they have access to a bigger business, and we expect that to continue to grow and have a bigger impact.”
In addition to integrating virtual menu items into Brinker’s flagship brand, Hochman and his team are simplifying operations — removing several items from the menu and viewing product builds for greater efficiency.
“Some of them we’ll test, some we’ll remove. We’re also working on the complexity of our recipes. We have a burger with 14 different things on it. It has individually roasted jalapeños, which is just one ingredient. Is it? Is it necessary, or can we focus more on making burgers?” Hochman said.
Much of this process is based on feedback employees get from listening tours. For example, employees told Hochman they had to serve shrimp and broccoli every morning.
“An hour a day of preparation is about 46 years of labor every year. That’s millions of dollars. It’s frustrating. There’s a better way to do it. Counting shrimp doesn’t help our guests. These are things we’re trying to do better,” Hawkman said.
Brinker is also exploring equipment efficiencies, such as flip-top grills, which are currently being tested at dozens of Chili restaurants. So far, they have been shown to speed up the cooking process. A medium-sized steak takes about 6 minutes to cook on a flip grill, compared to about 15 minutes on a conventional grill, Hochman said.
“We’re bullish on this device. Assuming testing goes well, we have a system-wide plan,” he said.
Of course, technology is also at work to improve efficiency, but Brinker is reining in some of its more ambitious deployments in favor of less flashy solutions. For example, Rita, the robotic waiter who sets tables and interacts with guests, is being left out of the lineup.
“Our young guests love Rita, but operationally, it’s not doing what we need it to do. We’re going to focus on other things that add value. We’re using technology to handle back-of-the-house management tasks like taking inventory Or transfer things done with pencil and paper to a tablet,” Hochman said. “One of the things that’s clear to me now is that we have to make it easier to work at Chili’s, and that means getting rid of things that don’t add value.”
Hochman is also focusing on “making Chili a fun place to work again” as the streamlining process progresses. That means returning to some of the brand’s signature promotions and events that have been on hold during the pandemic — like “giving back nights,” where restaurants can host all-day fundraisers for local organizations, or Chili’s expanded food and beverage happy hour plan.
Chili’s also recently ran a promotion for Nicki Minaj fans, starting with the “Chili’s is for the barbz” tweet and featuring “Barbarita’s” for $5.
“We made a lot of impressions on social media and our guests loved it. We were slammed, but everyone had a good time. It felt like old-school chili,” Hawkman said.
This is the type of stuff that fits right into the cab of a former marketer. Before joining Brinker, Hochman was widely credited for leading KFC’s return to positive same-store sales and unit numbers, thanks to the chain’s years-long marketing campaign that included various celebrities depicting the Colonel.
He understands the importance of making things easier and more fun. Such an environment can not only bring more guests, but also attract employees to stay. In fact, the industry’s turnover continues to hover near all-time highs, and Chili’s has not been spared. Turnover also happens to be very expensive, costing around $6,000 per employee.
“Before the pandemic, we were ahead of the industry with low turnover. We’ve lost some edge and haven’t caught up yet, but we know tenured team members are more productive,” Hochman said.
That’s the equation Hochmann was trying to solve in the first few months of his new job. Consolidating efficiencies and streamlining operations will create higher productivity. He bets that culture will too. Both have been implemented at Chili’s, and both can be implemented again.
“What I hear widely is that employees want things to be easier and more fun. It all boils down to getting rid of things that don’t make guests happy,” he said. “We’re working on these fundamentals to make sure our guests feel special in a fun, inviting atmosphere. I think if we do that, we’ll increase our share.”