Keith Sirois has had much to be proud of during his tenure as president and chief executive officer of Checkers Drive-Thru Restaurants, the drive-thru and walk-up fast feeder recognizable by its race-inspired black and white checked exterior. In fact, Sirois helped resurrect the company from the certain death predicted by Checkers' own auditors, elevating it to its status today as the largest double-drive thru restaurant chain in the United States.
"I was around when Checkers was at rock bottom...when our auditors projected that we'd be out of business the following year," Sirois recalls.
"We had gone through a number of years of decline, closing restaurants, and we merged with Rally's which had similar declines and debt. We were all focused on survival and reversing decline. As we went about our business, people would say, 'Oh Checkers -- I didn't know you were still around.'"
This harsh reality prompted Sirois to launch a re-branding effort for the Checkers/Rally's name that served not only to jumpstart sales, but became the rallying cry for the company's turnaround effort.
Sirois' retirement, announced in mid-February, comes at a time when he can be satisfied with a job well done. At the close of 2006, the average unit volume for Checkers/Rally's existing restaurant population was $807,624, a 22 percent increase over 2000, when the average unit volume was $628,314. By the end of this year, the chain plans to have added 55 new locations to its 800-plus existing units. Sirois will retain the title of chairman emeritus, passing the reigns of president and CEO to Enrique "Rick" Silva, who comes to Checkers from Burger King Corporation, where he served in a number of leadership roles for more than 13 years, most recently as senior vice president of franchise operations.
Thinking back over the years, Sirois says his most satisfying moments have been watching Checkers' franchisees achieve income levels they'd never dreamed possible.
"I love watching people realize their dreams, whether it's to run a part of the business or restaurant or become a franchisee -- I love watching that evolve."
A brand is born
Deep in the midst of its decline, Checkers executives met around a conference table with a brand strategist consulting company. Their goal was to construct a new tagline for Checkers that would connect it to its customers and, hopefully, generate sales.
Successful companies, Sirois notes, are those that have top-of-mind awareness with consumers. He points to the Kleenex name as being synonymous with tissues. "That's what branding is all about."
But effective branding goes one step further, creating an expectation that differentiates a company from its competitors. For Checkers, the secret ingredient was to become the "in" fast feeder amongst its target population -- males in the 18-24 age bracket.
"In general, people like to be associated with things that are winning, good, hip and trendy. When you develop your brand in a positive way, people want to be connected to that." For Checkers, a new call to action emerged: "You Gotta Eat."
With tagline in hand, Checkers set out to deliver on the message. The company developed a strategy that employed several tactics, including: borrowing brand-name equity from other successful organizations, accomplished via sports sponsorships; launching an aggressive media campaign; building employee buy-in; and revamping locations with technology solutions that could deliver on the tagline's call to action.
Checkers took its new tagline to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and lobbied hard to become the official burger of the football team. It wasn't easy at first, admits Sirois. Checkers worked to overcome prejudices against its name by aggressively fulfilling the sponsorship agreement. "We activated it to the full extent," says Sirois. "We joined together in community service activities. At every game day, we were handing out coins that offered free sandwiches, and we did charitable check giveaways.
"We drove them crazy, because we were constantly pushing to get more involved. We dedicated people to the initiative and went full speed ahead. They weren't accustomed to that kind of relationship, but they liked it."
During the period of Checkers' Buccaneers sponsorship, Tampa Bay won the Super Bowl. Checkers reached a national television audience as a team sponsor, along with major NFL sponsors Budweiser, Dodge and similar powerhouse names.
The relationship is what Sirois calls "borrowed equity," associating Checkers with established, successful names, while bringing to the relationship tremendous value in giveaways, charities and co-marketing. Checkers went on to initiate sponsorship agreements with the New Orleans Saints, the Atlanta Falcons, the Indianapolis Colts, the Miami Dolphins, and its current affiliation as the Official Burger and Drive-Thru Restaurant of NASCAR, a sponsorship now in its third season.
These affiliations, according to Sirois, "created brand strength with the consumer, but also improved our image and stature among employees and potential employees. Their buy-in is very important."
To further the success of the new branding effort, Checkers leveraged friends it already had -- its franchise partners -- to initiate an aggressive media campaign. Together, they launched co-op market advertising efforts, whereby corporate and franchised locations could pool funds together and approach broadcast media. Before the campaign, Checkers advertised in about one dozen markets and increased that number to more than 40 markets using the co-op approach.
Checkers made further use of existing resources by training employees to be the best they could be. Through its GO (Guest Obsessed) training program, Checkers focuses on areas of service delivery weakness and builds training programs to address those areas. Evaluated areas include speed of service, accuracy ratings, etc.
A rewards-based system helps motivate employees. Each year, the company takes its top 100 top general managers and their spouses on a five-day Caribbean cruise, and throughout the year offers automobile giveaways to franchisees based on sales growth.
"When we started to build these companies back to health, it really started with IT," recalls Sirois. In 2001, the company replaced its antiquated point of sale systems with NCR ( www.ncr.com ) units running Radiant ( www.radiant.com ) software to enhance the drive-thru systems' speed, accuracy and accountability. A customized interface has greatly improved the chain's ability to up-sell. Coupled with a frame relay timing system, the company can access real-time data on employee performance and offer incentives.
"It's enabled us to identify choke points and work through them with training or design. Coca-Cola now tells us that as a percentage of beverage sale incidents, we have the highest large beverage sales of any QSR chain," says Sirois.
Touch screen technology is used in all corporate stores, which Sirois says has been very worth while, especially given how easy it is to train new employees on the technology. The company also added a drive-thru timing system in all corporate and many franchise locations, as well as a digital video security system.
The company is currently testing order confirmation boards from Delphi Display Systems ( www.delphidisplaysystems.com ), which repeat customers' orders back to them as well as inform the customer of marketing efforts and special offers. Checkers is also considering using an off-site call center, whereby orders at the drive-thru are routed to a call center and then sent real-time to the kitchen. In the future, the company is looking at a using RFID (radio frequency identification) technology embedded into key fobs for a contactless payments system, though this initiative is in discussion stages only.
Besides having new leadership take the company into 2007 and beyond, Checkers is also working through fine-tuning its latest tag-line. A new agency was brought on about one year ago to replace the highly successful "You Gotta Eat" campaign. Checkers cast off the old tagline for "Right Side, Left Side." "We had 'You Gotta Eat' for five years," explains Sirois. "We could see it getting stale."
"Right Side, Left Side" plays up the restaurant's dual drive-thru design. "It highlights the fact that we have two drive-thru lanes," says Sirois. "We show the two sides competing, and are able to deliver the product message twice." The slogan also lets Checkers make claims that are usually impossible in the industry: the right side has the best double burger, for example, and the left side has the best fries. Though the comparison is made against the restaurant's own drive-thru lanes, consumers hear the crafty message loud and clear.
Although the humor-based campaign is intelligent in its marketing message, and ad recall amongst consumers is high, Sirois is concerned that there's still a disconnect. "I'm not real pleased with it," he admits. "I don't think anybody's real pleased with it so we'll continue to tweak it and see what's lacking."
Whether or not lightening strikes twice for Checkers, the resounding success of "You Gotta Eat" and the turnaround effort that followed was enough to revitalize the brand's name in the eyes of consumers, and will likely herald success well into the future.