Mike Feuer had a nice chance to buff up his somewhat-tarnished relationship with the business community a couple of weeks ago. Instead, he blew it.
Feuer, the Los Angeles city attorney who seems more eager to sue businesses than help them, came out to the Van Nuys offices of the Valley Industry and Commerce Association on July 26 for what was billed as a workshop with the city attorney on new laws boosting minimum wages and time off for employees. About 30 Valley businesspeople attended, no doubt to hear from Feuer but also to give him a sense of the considerable difficulties and expenses the new law foisted onto them.
After eating lunch, Feuer stood and introduced his staff along with representatives from the county. He described them as dedicated public servants who had to work extra hard to implement the new law, which was rushed so it could go into effect on July 1. Then, surprisingly, Feuer said those staffers could answer questions and he walked out. So much for the workshop with the city attorney.
Those half-dozen or more staffers, dedicated though they may be, were left to face a crowd that soon grew restive and then argumentative. The business operators expressed frustration – or desperation, as one woman put it – about the problems and costs the new law laid on them with no apparent regard from the city. No one at the meeting said it, but I suspect they also felt the sting of disrespect from Feuer.
Feuer has demonstrated that he’s not in the corner of the business community. About a year and a half ago, for example, the Los Angeles Daily News reported that emails showed Feuer’s office worked closely with pro-labor groups in drafting an ordinance to force hotels to pay workers more.
The workshop was a chance for Feuer to make amends with the business community. It was a chance for him to show a little empathy, perhaps to assure businesses, for example, that he’d work to head off lawsuits from lawyers who’ll shake down businesses for failing to implement one or two little provisions of the rushed-in new law, which will surely happen.
Feuer blew that chance. And disrespecting your audience is no way to make amends.
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Restaurant chains headquartered in opposite ends of the Valley appear to be going in, well, opposite directions.
Cheesecake Factory, based in Calabasas, is doing well, outperforming most chains. It recently reported its 26th consecutive quarter of comparable-restaurant sales increases – an impressive string. That tells you customers keep coming back. Its stock is up nearly 10 percent so far this year, according to prices last week.
But DineEquity, headquartered in Glendale and the parent of IHOP and Applebee’s restaurants, is going the opposite direction. Sales have been drooping for Applebee’s, it reported last week. Its stock is down more than 9 percent for the year.
In hopes of regaining customers, Applebee’s a couple of months ago announced a revamp. Its restaurants are installing wood-fired grills to create more of an all-American cuisine. Steaks and pork chops will be cut in-house. This is costing $75 million, borne by franchisees.
The response from stock analysts? Some reacted as if a cold steak had just been put in front of them. “While a step in the right direction, I see this move as too expensive for too little a return,” Kevin Fulmer wrote on Seeking Alpha. He said $75 million is “an obscene amount of money” for a chain that size, and he went on to say the move seemed “ill-advised.”
Personally, I’m grateful for the many Applebee’s scattered across America’s fruited plain. I’m fond of taking an occasional road trip, and Applebee’s often appears to be the safest choice in a small and unfamiliar town. While it’s not a superb restaurant, Applebee’s can be counted on to deliver a swallowable meal at a decent price with consistent quality at any location.
On the other hand, I never eat at an Applebee’s near home where I’m familiar with the local restaurant-scape. I know too many other local restaurants that are superb.
Will I be lured into my neighborhood Applebee’s because of the addition of a wood-fired grill along with steaks and chops that were cut in-house? Nope. I kind of doubt many others will, either.
So maybe the analyst was right. Perhaps $75 million is too much money for too little return. Maybe it is ill-advised. While DineEquity should be congratulated for trying to do something to boost sales, the whole decision comes off as having a whiff of desperation.
Hey, here’s a random suggestion. If Applebee’s really wants to lure in more customers, it could treat those customers with a bit more respect. You know, like having a manager stop by every table to check up. “Food good? Service OK? No? Let me get you a drink or a dessert on the house.” That’s happened to me at other chain restaurants. That happened to me at an Outback Steakhouse and, yes, at a Cheesecake Factory. I can’t remember the last time that’s happened at an Applebee’s.
I don’t know what it would cost to encourage Applebee’s managers to schmooze customers, but I imagine it would be far, far less than $75 million. And I know it would be effective.
Charles Crumpley is editor and publisher of the Business Journal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.