Dec 20, 2017

Cover Story Interview


December 20th, 2017   |   By Mike Raven, live at Brinker International, Dallas, Texas on November 1, 2017

Erin King and Anna Krone
Maggiano’s Little Italy® and Chili’s® Grill & Bar are recognized as two of the most successful restaurant brands in the country. Erin King is the Marketing Director for Innovation, Food and Beverage at Chili’s. Anna Krone is the Senior Beverage Manager at Maggiano’s Little Italy.

In 1975, people were waiting in a line that wrapped around the corner of Greenville Avenue and Meadow Road in Dallas, to sample the food and casual atmosphere of a funky, new burger joint called Chili’s. Chili’s welcomes guests in more than 1,600 restaurants in all 50 states and across the world in 31 countries and two territories. Chili’s serves more than 135,000 gallons of Presidente Margaritas® every year – that is one gallon every 15 minutes for the entire year and is enough to fill 13 swimming pools. With more than one million guests served daily, Chili’s could feed the entire population of New York City 35 times in a year!

Erin King and Anna Krone

Maggiano’s opened its first location on the corner of Clark Street and Grand Avenue in Chicago, on November 11, 1991. Maggiano’s serves guests at 52 locations in 24 states and the District of Columbia. Maggiano’s menu features both classic and contemporary Italian-American recipes, accompanied by a large selection of wines from acclaimed vintners and its own private wine label, Salute Amico by Ruffino. The food is made from scratch when ordered, and is available family style or as individual entrees.

Dallas-based Brinker International, Inc., a recognized leader in casual dining, owns both restaurant chains. Brinker owns, operates or franchises more than 1,600 restaurants under the names Chili’s® Grill & Bar and Maggiano’s Little Italy®.

Erin King and Anna Krone

Mike (to both): What are your respective roles with Chili’s and Maggiano’s?

Erin: My job consists of all things innovation. Everyday is an adventure! It’s the best job in the world when you get to think about burgers, ribs, fajitas and margaritas all day. My job is to help figure out how Chili’s can continue to push the envelope within these categories. These are core equities that guests know and love us for.

Mike: What are you innovating?

Erin: Everything is fair game when your job is innovation! We are constantly looking at new trends and new flavors that might lead us to what the next hottest margarita could be. The key is to filter all of those trends and ask ourselves if this make sense for Chili’s and will this delight the Chili’s guest.

Mike: So you do food, wine and liquor?

Erin: Yep, all food and beverages.

Erin King and Anna Krone

Anna: Being the Senior Beverage Manager means I own everything beverage. From iced tea, coffee and soda all the way through cocktails, beer and wine. Essentially, anything a guest drinks in a Maggiano’s, I get to have a say in.

Mike: Do you make the decisions for every Maggiano’s in the country?

Anna: What I do is capture industry data, guest data and team feedback. I manage supplier partner relationships. It all helps me come up with ideas to present to leadership. No drink is ever put on our list without the involvement of several different people. We have our team in the restaurant that helps test the drinks and make sure they taste great; then, we put it in front of leadership and they make sure it aligns with the direction we are going. But mainly from a beverage perspective, what we’re looking to do is to align our beverages with the focus of our brand. A great example of that is brunch. We added brunch to the Maggiano’s menu in February and that’s been a big focus for us. To align, we launched the brunch beverage program shortly after, with all sparkling-based cocktails outside of the Bloody Mary.

Mike: Tell us about the Bloody Mary.

Anna: We definitely look for ways to be unique and distinguish ourselves, while leaning into our heritage. For instance, in our Whiskey Bloody Mary, we use a maple syrup, bacon and brown sugar rim and stuff our olives with Calabrian pepper whipped blue cheese to bring on an Italian feel. We look for ways for our beverages to complement the rest of the experience.

Mike: You mention leadership often. Would you describe that tier of the company?

Anna: When speaking about leadership, I’m talking about our Chief Operating Officer and Chief Concept Officer, and all the way through to our Area Directors, our General Managers and Executive Chefs in our restaurants. I try to have a touch point with all different levels of leadership because they’re all going to bring a different perspective. By doing this, we make sure the idea will have as many legs as it can and buy-in from all levels.

Mike: It sounds like an idea may take a while to pass “congress.”

Anna: No, it’s not as slow as you would think! We’re a small concept – 52 restaurants – and we move quickly and respond quickly, so it’s not as long as you would think.

Mike: Erin, how many restaurants do you oversee?

Erin: In the U.S., there’re more than 1,250 Chili’s restaurants. That includes corporate and franchise; 937 are corporate. We work very closely with our franchise partners – I believe we work very well together. They participate in many of our beverage programs, including new food and drink innovation.

titos handmade vodka

Mike: What is the most successful single beverage at your respective restaurants? There’s a big difference in the cuisine you two are matching.

Anna: Hands down, wine. Red wine dominates the mix and our alcohol sales. With traditional varieties like Merlot, Chianti and Cabernet, wine is king at Maggiano’s.

Erin: That’s easy. You know it’s going to be a margarita, right? And yes, it’s the Presidente, by far. Margaritas are core to our menu and it’s what our guests know and love us for. We sell quite a bit of them.

Mike: What is the up-and-coming cocktail or wine in your restaurants?

Anna: We have a couple of things that are really exciting. The Signature Barrel-Aged Cocktail is something we just launched in all of our restaurants on October 24. The reason it is called the Signature Barrel-Aged Cocktail is because we are being very deliberate in telling our guests exactly what we want them to know about this cocktail. This cocktail is the signature cocktail of Maggiano’s – it is mixed and barrel-aged in-house, which makes it unique. It’s truly a start-to-finish scratch cocktail.

Erin: Seasonal is fun to innovate with and our guests like it as well. In October, we launched our new Black Cherry Margarita featuring Hornito’s Black Barrel Tequila. For a couple of years now, we have been presented with all kinds of data related to Whiskey. While I don’t disagree it’s a trend, we need to make sure it’s the right trend for our guests. Hornito’s Black Barrel was a great option for us to leverage the Whiskey trend but we wanted to “Chili-ize” it so that it makes sense for the brand. It’s the best of both worlds – Tequila aged in Whiskey barrels. So far, so good. It’s been a great seasonal addition to our beverage lineup.

maggianosMike: Are you looking at any new trends or new implementations for the year ahead, 2018?

Anna: For Maggiano’s we look at industry trends and I think those are very important, but we have a very unique guest so we line that data up with what our guests tell us. We ask our guests and our team to give us feedback on the trends they’re seeing or would like to see. I think that gives us a little more depth than just depending solely on industry data. This method of looking at data helped us decide to lean into Bourbon cocktails and ultimately a barrel-aged cocktail. We also know that guests in our restaurant drink wine. That is why we just introduced the Coravin wine preservation system in all our restaurants. It allows us to offer every single one of our still wines by the glass.

Erin: Being on the innovation team, we have access to all kinds of data and trends. It’s great information to have, but we have to make sure those trends don’t make us stray from our strategy and what the brand is known for. For beverage, Whiskey was a great example of that – we are always looking at how to take a current trend and make it our own. But I will say, as much as we are margarita experts and we will always be considered the margarita place, we also know that a large portion of our liquor mix comes from non-Tequila-based drinks because not everyone drinks Tequila (not sure how that is even possible!). So, because of that, we look at other top trending spirits like Vodka and Rum. We have a handcrafted cocktail list and they all do very well. But for us, our focus will always be centered around what the next big ‘rita could be.

Mike: What age group would you like to see more involved with your restaurants?

Anna: Well, the easy answer is I want them all in our restaurants. Our core guest is in the Gen X to baby-boomer age range. The beauty of that is the boomers are bringing in their millennial kids, so we are getting more exposure to them. And there’s kind of a throwback feel that is trending with the speakeasy and mixology groups. With our Frank Sinatra culture, I think there’s an automatic tie to that. We’re seeing things like our monthly features and our barrel-aged cocktails are bringing in millennials, and they’re finding things that really resonate with them.

Erin: It’s hard to give a specific age group. We did what a lot of brands did and chased the “ultimate” millennial for a while. Although millennials are important to us, the focus for us is going back to our heritage – going back to the people who know us and love us, the people who remember visiting us as kids and having that Old-Timer with cheese. Now maybe they are married, in their 30s and have kids of their own. It’s about bringing back the people who love the brand and the heritage behind it. You can get caught up in chasing one particular group, so it’s really more of a mindset for us versus an age. It may be a Chili’s lover from years past or maybe guests who haven’t been in a while. It’s all about getting them back into the restaurant and showing them we’re the same Chili’s but with a stronger focus on our core equities (burgers, ribs, fajitas and ‘ritas).

Mike to Anna: Anna, great job on your handcrafted classic cocktail list. I see a new version just came out this past October. How often do you change it?

Anna: We change it about twice a year to align with the season. We have a seasonal Sangria, which is a great selling cocktail for us; Sangrias in general sell well. We want to stay on top of seasonality. We also use the seasonal changes as a time to re-evaluate our list and ask our guests and our team about what is working and what is not.

Mike to Anna: I see you use Knob Creek Rye in your Old Fashioned and Manhattan. You are keeping with a truly classic Rye-styled cocktail. Do your guests notice?

Anna: Yes, I think we do get credit for it. We launched our handcrafted cocktail program about three and a half years ago and we saw rejuvenation from our team and our guests in excitement around cocktails. So, we really want to take those classic cocktails from the pre-Prohibition era and put a little twist on them to make them in our own Maggiano’s style. We do try and take the classic and find one or two ways to make it different.

Mike to Anna: What’s the best seller on the cocktail list?

Anna: It’s hard to say; it does switch back and forth. I will say our Old Fashioned is one of our top sellers, which was just one more reason to lean into the barrel-aged cocktails. We have things that you would not necessarily think would be super popular in an Italian restaurant, like our Primo Margarita and our Moscato Mojito; but again, those are things we put an Italian twist on that are industry-wide popular cocktails.

Mike to Anna: What category or type of wine would you like to see added? It’s a well thought-out list and it obviously has to be contained in size.

Anna: I’m a wine lover and I want everyone to love wine, whether it’s a $5 glass or a $50 glass, dry or sweet. I constantly challenge myself with finding discovery wines – things that are maybe not known as widely, but still have that craveability and the lushness that we know our guests love. So last year we put on a Barbara and a Lambrusco. We’ve seen that guests who normally order Italian wines like Chianti have been excited about finding something new that they didn’t know they would love, in the Italian wine family.

We are able to bring in these fun wines like Barbara and Lambrusco that not a lot of people know or haven’t tried lately. Little moves like that will build to a day when we might put on a Garganega, but today is not the day. We’re building towards finding great wines that people don’t know. I want people to come in and discover a wine they’ve never heard of and fall in love with it.

Mike to Anna: Let’s talk about Lambrusco. It’s been around a long time. A lot of Lambrusco drinkers started with Riunite and moved on to something else, maybe White Zinfandel or whatever. Do they love it? It’s a fun wine; you just need to have the right one.

Anna: Yes, it is fun. Here’s a wine that pairs beautifully with food because of the high acidity. It’s got that sweetness that you crave from the style that it’s made in. I really enjoy re-introducing this wine to people who haven’t tried it in a long time, or to someone who loves sparkling sweet wine like Moscato and had no idea that this wine existed. Sparkling wine is on fire. It kind of fits everything that we know people love, so sometimes you just have to give them a taste and it will bridge that gap. The younger generations love Moscato so we know they love things that are a little sweet and a little effervescent. I think it is all in the way you position it; we find our guests are really enjoying it. We also put it in one of our brunch cocktails, Sparkling Sangria.

chili's bar & grillMike to Erin: Margaritas are king at Chili’s. The Presidente Margarita is the best seller, according to the impressive sales claim on your website of 135,000 gallons a year. What other big movers do you have?

Erin: Nothing sells like the Presidente ‘rita but there are other strong sellers on our list, too. The Patron Margarita does very well; our guests know Patron and they love it. They know its quality and they will pay for that quality and brand love. We also have a Blueberry Pineapple Infused Margarita that’s been on our menu for a couple of years. It came out as a seasonal and stuck as a top-three seller. There’s a freshness cue that our guests love with the Tequila being infused in-house for 48 hours. Who wouldn’t love that?

Mike to Erin: Even though margaritas are king at Chili’s, how is the Tito’s Punch doing, not being a Tequila-based drink?

Erin: It is one of our best selling drinks. It’s pretty much a tropical vacation in glass.

Mike to Erin: Beer, I presume, is a large part of your beverage sales.

Erin: It’s our second biggest category.

Mike: How many beers do you carry?

Erin: Well, last year we installed 12 taps in every restaurant across the brand (corporate). It was really a way for us to expand and offer local craft beer. There will always be a demand for the domestic favorites and some of the larger national crafts, but being able to offer something smaller and unique to our guests can be very appealing. On average, 50–60 percent of the taps are consistent across the nation, but our restaurants have the flexibility to pick the rest. It’s a great way for them to have ownership and autonomy for their draft beer lineup. It’s very cool when I travel around the country and get a chance to experience the local lineup and the different brands restaurants choose to bring in. Since implementing the 12-tap lineup, we have seen category growth.

Mike to Erin: Your wine list is very limited, understandably, but is there a varietal you would like to add?

Erin: Honestly, no and we’re okay with that. Wine is a small percentage of our mix. What we’ve learned with beverage is we can’t be everything to everyone. We focus on the ‘ritas because that’s what we are known for when it comes to beverage. We do, however, have wine drinkers so because of that, we will always be sure to have a few good selections of reds and whites. We’re probably due to look at our wine selection to see if there’s anything we need to change or add to the lineup. I get asked all the time if we are going to bring in a Rosé or a sparkling. At the end of the day, it’s not our focus.

Mike to Erin: How often do you add new cocktails, such as the new Coconut State of Mind with Blue Chair Bay Coconut Spiced Rum? It’s up in the corner as a special. Is it something that’s added to the list or is it seasonal?

Erin: We are getting much better as a brand in getting new beverages to our menu quickly. Beverage innovation to menu is very different from food, where it typically takes longer. What I absolutely love about beverage is that you can get to market fast with very little risk. The Coconut State of Mind is an example of that. It was a perfect cocktail for summer, the guests loved it and it’s a newer brand in the Rum category, so we put it out there and so far it has earned its spot on the menu. There are things we bring in that are truly seasonal, like the Black Cherry or Watermelon, and then depending on how it does through that season helps determine whether it will come back next year. The Watermelon ‘Rita is one we’ve had (seasonally) three or four years now and it’s a true guest favorite – so it’s a no-brainer to bring it back every summer. Guests look forward to it and start asking for it when spring starts to come around.

Mike to both: You have a new relationship with in the Mix’s parent company, IMI Agency. How has that helped your ability to manage the beverage business in your respective restaurants?

Erin: On the Chili’s side, selfishly I’ll say, IMI has made my life a whole lot easier. They’re experts in what they do, there’s no doubt. Our partnership is new – new is always good and you’re kind of in that honeymoon phase, but we really try to treat our partners as if they are family and not just a vendor to us. In the few months we’ve been with them, they have added tremendous value. For example, we know because of having more than 1,250 restaurants across the country, that liquor laws and happy hour laws change all the time. So there are all these crazy things we deal with and it’s so nice to go to IMI as a partner and say, “Hey, I want to do something in Georgia, a one-day promo. Can I run it?” Within fifteen minutes they can get back to me and let me know if I’m covered. It’s so awesome to be able to reach out to them as a trusted resource.

Anna: We’re really pushing the boundaries of innovation as far as what we’ve done and how we’ve done it in the past. So having a partner like IMI, who can give us guidance on things such as legal parameters and the like, I think is super helpful. And beyond that, they help us manage relationships. It’s just so helpful to have our representative, who already has relationships with so many of the supplier partners, to be there to lean on and help us bridge some of those conversations.

Mike to both: Paybev is a new way of supporting your relationships with suppliers. Has it helped simplify supplier relations for you?

Erin: The way we leverage PayBev is that we can have real-time reports and access. I can go in at any time and know what’s been paid and what’s pending. That’s big because we have a lot of transactions going in and out. Our finance guys love it; they have full visibility.

Anna: The only thing I would add to it is just how easy the interface is to use. When you’re dealing with so many transactions, it can be cumbersome. The system makes it very clear and very easy. When you’re looking for quick information, it’s right there at your fingertips.

mike raven
Mike to both: What would you like people to know about your restaurants?

Erin: For the Chili’s brand, what’s important for us to get through is our culture. When you think about the original Chili’s on Greenville Avenue, the reality is we’re a 42-year-old brand that started in 1975. When you go back to who started the brand, we tag it as the “hamburger hippies” – it was just a fun time of burgers and margaritas. So, it is really about going back to our roots for us. The culture of Chili’s is very fun and focused on making our guests feel special when in our restaurants. We want to make sure that comes across loud and clear. From a core equity perspective, we’re never going to be everything to everyone. We just did a drastic menu cut this past October, removing 40 percent of items. It’s all about burgers, ribs, fajitas and margaritas for us.

Anna: I would say for Maggiano’s, we really want people to know that we are unlike a lot of restaurants out there because we have real chefs in our kitchen. They’re culinary trained and make sauces and desserts from scratch, for example, our cheesecake that takes 12 hours to make. We really want to reinforce the chef-driven, scratch-kitchen culture because we know a lot of our guests don’t know that about us. We look for opportunities to put our chefs out in the dining room. We get credit for accommodating allergies better than anyone in the industry. Special occasions are big with us; people come in and celebrate their anniversaries, birthdays and mitzvahs. We are that special occasion place and we are great at it. We also want people to come in on a Tuesday because they don’t want to cook. From a beverage prospective, we really look for opportunities to enhance our guests’ experience no matter what the occasion is, by offering a beverage that pairs with it.