Jon L. Luther (Research Chefs Association)

Steering consumer spending through Cloud Control. Emerging trends like Latin Immersion, rapid cooking technology, “stoner food,” and Food Halls replacing Food Courts. How food incubators work. Asian chefs extracting juice from bug glands. These are just a few things you learn when you attend the Research Chefs Association (RCA) annual conference. This year’s event in Portland was outstanding, and I want to share with you some wisdom from one of the most successful restaurant executives of our time.  

Qualifications of a Culinary Warrior

This year’s keynote address was delivered by one of the most prolific innovators and turn-around executives in American food service, Jon L. Luther. Luther’s career has seen success and failure, and those experiences prepared him to successfully transform and turn-around major restaurant chains. He declared that the Chefs must be brought into the board room because innovation is the key to success. Luther charged the chefs in restaurant chains, food service and manufacturing to be “Culinary Warriors,” and he prescribed three critical qualifications:

TAKE RISKS

“We’re in a time of unparalleled pressure to perform but also unlimited opportunity for growth,” Luther declared, citing that food companies must innovate to remain competitive. The American consumer demands creativity like never before.

Luther took a major risk by convincing not-yet-iconic fine dining Chef Wolfgang Puck to open a restaurant in an airport. Everybody thought he was crazy, even his superiors. But the move was phenomenally successful, and Wolfgang Puck Express restaurants are among the most profitable in Puck’s company. Shortly afterward his competitors followed suit, and now every major airport boasts restaurants run by regional Chefs and restaurateurs.

While president at Popeye’s Louisiana Kitchen, Luther found his point of difference in steering the concept back to its rich New Orleans heritage. With consumer data showing Americans ready to broadly embrace a spicier menu profile, he repositioned the brand to create an authentic Cajun experience. That move drove store count 67% and pushed Average Unit Volume past $1 Million – best in class among chicken QSR’s. He credits his Chefs and innovation team, and Popeye’s won the prestigious Menu Masters award for their new menu.

Walking out of this session I could overhear some chatter among attendees: “He doesn’t know my boss…” and “My company would never do that.” That is Luther’s point exactly. As a leader, you must be a force to move your company toward innovation practices that are better, stronger, and faster. That’s the risk you need to take! 

LISTEN

A Culinary Warrior must be a good listener. The pace of business has quickened and will only gather speed. The proliferation of social media and mobile devices means that a chain’s critics and fans can cause a media stir at a moment’s notice, and everyone’s a critic. A Culinary Warrior isn’t just a great chef, but has executive-level soft skills and emotional intelligence.

You have to listen intently and objectively to understand the strategy of your company, the needs and opinions of peers, and especially to your customers. Utmost attention must be paid to consumer insights. Luther cited a transformational “A-ha” moment: “We learned that Dunkin Donuts was a coffee leader trapped inside a donut shop.” Dunkin coffee drinkers are fiercely loyal, and Luther leveraged that loyalty in the battle against Starbucks through the award-winning “America Runs on Dunkin” marketing campaign. 

LEADERSHIP

Luther cites values-based leadership as the basis for “everything,” and considers core value system as the vital framework for life and relationships, especially keeping connected to customers and peers. He and his team rolled out the following core values to reset the culture at Dunkin Brands:

Honesty – You can always recover from the truth
Fairness – Always do the right thing, especially when it is tough to do
Responsibility – Own the outcome whether it’s good or bad
Transparency – Share your thoughts without hesitation
Respect – Give people their dignity and earn others’ respect
Integrity – Character shows when no one is looking
Humility – It’s about the team. Never lose sight of those who helped along the way or those less fortunate in our communities

Adherence to these values resulted in a 66% increase in system-wide sales and 135% EBITDA growth from 2003-2009. Dunkin Brands’ 2011 IPO was beyond successful, and the stock has more than doubled in the last three years.

Life is moving fast, friends. Jon Luther teaches that your brand must drive innovation into the hearts and minds of customers. If you don’t, someone else will, and you may not survive! Basically, innovate or die.

To properly innovate you need Culinary Warriors, not just Chefs or product developers. You need risk-taking leaders with as much passion for consumer insight and commercialization as they have passion for culinary.

Do you have a Culinary Warrior on your team?