How Disrupting His Own Business Led To “It’s Just Wings”

SPEAKERS

Wade Allen, Zack Oates

Wade Allen (Preview)

But I promise you, if you aren’t dedicating resources and dollars and time to thinking about the future – especially today in a post-COVID, we are in the middle of a COVID and almost in a post COVID world, where we’ve all been accelerated five to 10 years in the future – you’re gonna fall behind or you’ve already fallen.

Zack Oates

(Intro) What’s up? Zack Oates here – author, entrepreneur and customer relationship guru. Welcome to Give an Ovation: growth strategies for restaurants and retailers, where we find industry leaders to share their secrets to grow your business. This podcast is sponsored by Ovation, the actionable guest feedback tool that works on or off premise, and is easy, real-time, and actually drives revenue. Learn more at Ovationup.com.

Welcome to another edition of Give an Ovation: A Podcast for Restaurants. Today, I am joined by Wade Allen, who is the Senior Vice President and Head of Innovation for Brinker International, has over 18 years experience in restaurant and retail innovation. He’s the former president of the Coupon Factory, and if you’re joining us on a video you will see that yes indeed – Wade has discovered the fountain of youth. Apparently he’s got a kid in college and he looks like he’s in college. Anyway. also really cool, Wade and I just found out before we hit record that we actually met 30 years ago, randomly. So anyway, for not only just like, you know, he’s got the youth but he’s got the memory! Man, can’t believe it. You remember that Wade.

Wade Allen

Well thanks Zack. It’s awesome to be here. It was an amazing story as we talked to you that you know, just just remembering who your dad was, who your family was, how we connected. That was just really cool. You know, it kind of puts a smile on my face that we live in a pretty small world.

Zack Oates

We do yeah. And Wade, as we got on, I look in the background and he’s got a BYU helmet, football helmet in the background. So we’re fellow cougars here. So anyway. Well, first of all, Wade, tell me a little bit about what does a senior vice president head of innovation – what does head of innovation mean? And tell us a little bit about Brinker international for those who might not know.

Wade Allen

Yeah, so we’ll start with Brinker. So we’re Brinker International, call it a parent company. It owns restaurant brands. So you may not know Brinker but you probably know our brands: Chili’s Bar and Grill, and then Maggiano’s Little Italy. And then we just launched a brand this year, called It’s Just Wings. It’s a virtual brand, which means it’s only available on DoorDash but it’s been a lot of fun and kind of my personal passion. So that’s Brinker. I think your question’s funny, what does the head of innovation do? I can’t say what they do in other organizations. I’ll tell you what I do here at Brinker, I get paid every morning to wake up and think about how to disrupt my own business and our own industry. Which to be very honest, if I had had this job posed to me coming out of college, whether that’s my BYU years, or my Northwestern years, where I did my grad work, I would have been ecstatic to know that I get paid to come in and think about crazy stuff that’s bleeding edge, that’s going to change and disrupt casual dining. So that that’s what I do all day long. It’s a lot of fun.

Zack Oates

That’s awesome. Normally people get fired for doing that kind of stuff and that’s your job description. So in thinking about innovation, how do restaurants, you know, it’s oftentimes very hard for restaurants, when you’re dealing with razor thin margins. You’ve got employee issues, you’ve got locations that some are bleeding, some are doing well. You know, you’ve got location by location issues. Like there’s so many things going on. A lot of times, it’s hard Wade, for restaurants, to take that step back and to think innovation. It’s like the last thing on their plate. What do you recommend to those people? How do you think about innovation as a restaurant owner/operator?

Wade Allen

I think maybe the best way to put it is, I’ll put it in the analogy of a golf shot. Right? If I was talking to a company that didn’t have an innovation department, I would tell them look, sometimes the scariest thing you can do is play down the middle of the fairway. Sometimes not cutting for the green, not going over the trees or trying to go over the pond is the riskiest shot, because that middle fairway golf shot will set you up so that you’re not going to be able to Eagle or birdie that hole. And what’s allowed us to be successful as a big entity is that we have dedicated resources and dollars – now I’m not saying how much you should dedicate, depending on the size of your brand – but I promise you if you aren’t dedicating resources and dollars and time to thinking about the future, especially today, you know, post COVID or In the middle of a COVID, and almost in a post COVID world, where we’ve all been accelerated five to 10 years in the future, you’re going to fall behind or you’ve already fallen behind.

So you know, the thing, I think that is most important for restaurant brands, yes – you have to have the operation square, you have to have a strong P&L, you have to understand your supply chain. But just as important, is you have to be aware of what’s coming down the pike. Because if you’re not, you’re going to be behind, and that’s going to push you even further out of the game. And it doesn’t matter how good your operations are, if you’re not meeting the guests, where they need to be or not meeting, the demand of where you should be playing. So that would be my pitch to someone who hasn’t invested in innovation.

Zack Oates

Is there money to be had an innovation? Or is it just an expense?

Wade Allen

That is a fantastic question. I think it all depends on your focus in innovation. So you can get really sidetracked and sideways just thinking about all sorts of crazy things that don’t matter. You have to be a little bit pragmatic in your innovation. Sure, you’re gonna have some – you’re gonna swing for the fence. Again, I’m using the sports analogies, right? You can, you can try to hit some home runs, but base hits and innovation are what return dollars. So take virtual brands, this brand we launched recently at Brinker. We’ve been messing around with this for probably the better part of a year before we launched it. And so had we not been able to do that we would have never launched a $150 million brand in that year. Right? We would have never done it.

Zack Oates

Wait, It’s Just Wings – you’re telling me that was something that was in the works prior to COVID?

Wade Allen

Well, so it’s a crazy story. But yeah, I mean, we prior to COVID, we were looking at this virtual brand idea. And it started in a food truck. And and then we realized, no, food trucks too expensive. And we don’t want somebody driving a, you know, 13 ton truck through the downtown of Dallas at night full of propane, because you can’t keep the truck on the law. Right. So then we said, well, why don’t we utilize our existing assets? So then we started putting and testing different concepts in these assets like California. And then we realized, hey, rather than pay somebody else to put a concept in one of our assets, and use our kitchens, why don’t we just create our own? And you know, there’s a lot of story to it. But that’s basically how we found our way to virtual brands. And it was an innovative idea that started somewhere else. But had we not focused and been pragmatic about hey, let’s just start here and see where it takes us. We would have never gotten there.

So the answer to your question is yes, it can be a massive cost center if you’re not focused. But if you’re super focused on what you’re trying to do, and or at least start with an idea, and do it on a shoestring budget, you’ll find eventually something that hits or resonates with a guest. And it’ll be a success, you got to have those homerun swings. But sometimes those are 2,3,4 years out, you know, and you got to keep working.

Zack Oates

Yeah, and I love that because 2,3,4 years out, a lot of restaurants are like, are we even gonna be around? But at the end of the day, it’s like you’ve, you’re having much more likely, much, much higher likelihood of succeeding as you’re trying these different aspects out. And what we talk a lot about in startups, and we talked about in this podcast before is an MVP. A minimum viable product. What is the least amount of money, the least amount of effort to get the smallest thing that is good enough to test if it works or not? And that’s the great thing about these virtual brands is you can try that out. And virtual brands are like, think of it like a cheaper, you know, truck, cheaper food truck, right? Because before, that’s how a lot of concepts would, you know, restaurants would start as a food truck and work their way up, or they’d have their location at a food truck. Well, the cool thing is, you know, you could do a virtual concept. And I think that there’s a lot of people have done it very well. And I think that a lot of people haven’t when when you invest so much into an experiment that it hurts, you know, maybe you’ve gone too far, right?

Wade Allen

Oh, yeah, I mean, and you have to be prepared to fail fast. So like you said, prototypes, and minimal viable products, and just get it to market and be willing to be okay with some failure and and let it go and then move to the next or let it iterate. Rather than being so passionate that it has to be something that you believe is, you know, the box that you’re trying to deliver. I think that’s where you will find more successes, get something down, get it out there, see if it can work if it doesn’t let it pivot to where it can work, or jettison the idea and go to the next one. But you know, that’s how we found success. And I think that’s how our innovation department is thinking.

Zack Oates

Cool. Well, here are the Fast Five. Number one, what do you feel like is the most important aspect of guest experience today? You mentioned guest experience before and you mentioned, you know, needing to to meet that experience. What do you feel like is one of the most important things about that today?

Wade Allen

Today, I think it’s all about convenience. I think our guests more than ever are pressed for time. We’re in this weird – mobile phone dominates my life. So if it can’t be easy, if you can’t have something delivered to me on Christmas Day, if I can’t order it on Christmas Day and have it delivered on Christmas Day, you know, there’s something wrong because Amazon set the bar. So it’s all about convenience and speed. Right?

Zack Oates

I know. And isn’t it so frustrating that nobody cares if you’re Amazon or if you’re not, they want Amazon quality, Amazon speed, but they want you to do it from your one shop in Oklahoma. Like, crazy, man, it’s crazy. Number two, what are successful things that you have seen or tried lately?

Wade Allen

Man, the one I’ve seen that I’m just completely floored with, enamored with, I should say, is drone delivery. I watched a pilot two weeks ago deliver products from a large convenience store and a large grocery store into neighborhoods, and land the product on the lawn. And it was all done through a mobile app. I’m completely enamored with that. And and if I have my way, Chili’s will be delivering or it’s just waiting to be delivered by drone shortly.

Zack Oates

Well, speaking of which, number three, talk to us about the crystal ball and next few years. What’s in the pipeline for the restaurant industry?

Wade Allen

So robotics is gonna come in a big way. I mean, you’re gonna get a lot of pressure around wage increases to do fairly mundane jobs that that robotics could probably do. And we could use humans in more important roles. So I think you’re gonna have automation, you’re gonna have robot automation, I think you’re gonna see food, food delivery vehicles, like neuro pop up, and they’ve already been there, the Domino’s is doing, you know, there’s very different regulations for just delivering a cheeseburger versus driving a person. You don’t necessarily need rearview mirrors or a windshield or blinkers necessarily to be safe. Whereas you do if you’re carrying people. So I think food delivery is coming in a very interesting way. And it’s going to be different than traditional vehicles, drone delivery, I think, you know, and I think the guest experience is just going to continue to get better on the mobile, mobile device, food anywhere, anytime, how you want it. I think those aspects are coming aggressively to casual dining in the next year or two.

Zack Oates

Yeah, and you know, it’s one of those things where it was kind of trickling, trickling, trickling, and then floodgates opened, right? So what, what piece of advice would you give? Number Four: what piece of advice would you give to restaurant owners and operators?

Wade Allen

I would tell them to innovate. I’d say think differently every day, wake up thinking about how you can disrupt your existing business or make do something different that you haven’t done before, tried something different, you haven’t done before. Because you’ll never evolve, if you don’t. So that would be my piece of advice.

Zack Oates

What about someone who doesn’t have like a full time role? I mean, is it is it realistic to say, hey, set aside an hour a week and just like, read about what’s coming down the pipeline looking at stuff?

Wade Allen

That’s a great comment. Because about a couple years ago, I just set aside every Friday for an hour and a half, anybody who reaches out to me with a startup or has some kind of interest, I read their presentations or decks to understand, hey, there’s something here. Because if you’re not up to speed on what’s going on, again, you’re not gonna know what to take advantage of. The marketing technology mapping today is well over, you know, 15, 20 30,000 companies, whereas 10 years ago, it was like 300 companies or 200. So, you’ve got to take the time to learn. So yeah, it doesn’t have to be a full time job. If it’s an hour a week, take the time, investigate, look at you know, learn about these new technologies that are coming out.

Zack Oates

Okay, so lastly, who deserves an ovation in the restaurant industry?

Wade Allen

You know, this is gonna sound a little crazy, but there’s a guy by the name of Robert Earl. He started Planet Hollywood. He did a few other things. He’s now doing Mr. Beast burger as a virtual brand. I love Robert. He’s a crazy, kooky guy, but he’s so creative and I think he deserves a shout out for some really cool stuff. He’s always got something up his sleeve and Mr. Beast burger is is fantastic, right? My kids love Mr. Beast. They don’t even even if they don’t like the food. They want to order it all the time, because it’s Mr. Beast. So you know, kudos to him for tapping into these borrowed equities. He does a good job.

Zack Oates

Awesome. Wade, how do people find you/follow you?

Wade Allen

So I’m a big LinkedIn guy. That’s that’s kind of where I put most of my stuff is out on LinkedIn. So you can find me, Wade Allen. And then I you know, I’m occasionally on Twitter, but I don’t do a ton on there but I’m on LinkedIn. That’s where you gotta follow me.

Zack Oates

All right find him on LinkedIn. Well Wade, for for being such a great light in the restaurant industry for helping us realize that innovation is not so far away, and for giving us all hope that we can look that good. In a few years, today’s Ovation goes to you. Thanks for joining us on Give an Ovation.

Wade Allen

Thanks. It’s so fun to be here. Appreciate it.

Zack Oates

(Outro) Glad you were with us today. And thank you! Thank you to the risk takers, the troublemakers, the crazies who are keeping this world clothed and fed. You’re the ones who deserve an Ovation. Again, this podcast was sponsored by Ovation! To see how we can help you grow your business, go to Ovationup.com. Don’t forget to subscribe, and as always, remember to give someone in your life an Ovation today!

Find out why a focus on innovation is so important to your restaurant from the SVP and Head Of Innovation at Brinker’s International (Chili’s, Maggiano’s Little Italy, It’s Just Wings).

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Wade Allen is the Senior Vice President and Head of Innovation at Brinker International, the parent company of Chili’s Bar and Grill, Maggiano’s Little Italy, and their new virtual brand and Wade’s passion project, It’s Just Wings. Wade spends each day searching for cutting-edge technology in the restaurant space, and shared what’s working for him on this episode.

Here are Wade’s main points and his answers to our Fast Five, the five questions we ask each guest:

Takeaway: If You’re Not Innovating, You’re Falling Behind

Wade used a golf analogy and explained that sometimes the most dangerous thing you can do is shoot straight down the fairway, because it puts you out of position to birdie or eagle a hole. If you aren’t taking risks and looking for cutting edge tech, you’re not meeting the guest where they need to be. Cutting over the forest led to Wade’s team looking at virtual brands before COVID hit, which allowed them to launch It’s Just Wings during the pandemic.

Q1: What is the most important aspect of the guest experience today?

Convenience. “If I can’t order it on Christmas day and have it delivered on Christmas Day, something is wrong because Amazon set the bar. So it’s all about convenience and speed.”

Q2: What is something successful you have seen or tried lately?

Drone delivery. “I watched a pilot two weeks ago deliver products from a large convenience store and a large grocery store into neighborhoods, and land the product on the lawn. And it was all done through a mobile app. I’m completely enamored with that.”

Q3: What do you see in your crystal ball about the future of the restaurant industry in the next few years?

Robotics, food delivery vehicles, and an improved mobile experience. “We could use humans in more important roles.”

Q4: What would be your one general piece of advice for restaurant owners and operators?

Innovate. “If it’s an hour a week, take the time, investigate… learn about these new technologies that are coming out.”

Q5: Who is someone in the restaurant industry that deserves an Ovation?

Robert Earl. “He started Planet Hollywood, he did a few other things… He’s now doing Mr. Beast burger as a virtual brand… He’s so creative and I think he deserves a shout out for some really cool stuff. He’s always got something up his sleeve.”

For more from Wade, you can find him on LinkedIn as Wade Allen.

Thanks for reading! Make sure to check out the whole episode, as well as other interviews with restaurant gurus by checking out “Give an Ovation: A Podcast For Restaurants” on ovationup.com/podcast or your favorite place to listen to podcasts.

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