Industry News | September 27, 2010

One-on-One with New McAlister’s CEO

After its CEO of more than a decade stepped down in July, McAlister’s Deli, a fast-casual concept with 295 locations in 22 states, named Frank Paci its new chief on Sept. 9.

Before accepting the role of CEO, Paci was executive vice president, CFO, and corporate secretary at The Pantry Inc., a publicly traded convenience-store chain. In his 25 years in retail and foodservice, he has held senior roles at Blockbuster, Burger King, and Pizza Hut.

Today Paci takes the helm of the Ridgeland, Mississippi–based company after McAlister’s experienced a roughly 50 percent decrease in franchise openings in 2009 even as its sales grew 2.5 percent year over year. QSR got the chance to speak to him last week just before he assumed the role of CEO for the fast-casual brand.

What appealed to you about being the CEO of McAlister’s Deli?

McAlister’s is a great concept and a great brand with an incredible amount of potential. It has been successful in the past, and I believe it will continue to be successful.

If you look at the products that we have, they’re great quality. Our [Famous Sweet Tea] is a great product. Our customers are loyal. And I think we are right on target in terms of the trend of eating fresh food. [McAlister’s has no fried food.]

What experience do you have in the foodservice industry?

I worked in the finance group at Burger King and was ultimately head of corporate strategy and planning. From there I went to running franchise development for the United States, Canada, and Latin America, and ultimately I became head of franchise development worldwide in the mid-90s.

From there I went to Pizza Hut to run its school-delivery program. I worked with Aramark, Host Marriott, institutional franchisees, and a lot of nontraditional venues from convenience stores to airports to college campuses. As part of that assignment, I was involved in the very first co-branding of putting a Pizza Hut inside of a Taco Bell.

At a time when the economy is sluggish and consumers are pinching pennies when it comes to dining out, what do you think is the appeal of McAlister’s?

People are always interested in getting value. You know, “Am I getting what I’m paying for?” Certainly with the [slow] economy you have some trading-down going on, and I think McAlister’s in that fast-casual niche is a great place to go for quality food. It is not as expensive as a casual-dining restaurant, and it is a step up in quality from the quick-service segment.

What initiatives do you plan to implement as CEO?

It’s a little bit early. I know McAlister’s more as a customer at this point. My first goal is to learn what has worked for us, what’s been successful, and to see where there are opportunities [for growth] in the business. Running a business, in my mind, is really about knowing where to put your resources and where to put your investment. For me, it will be about getting up to speed.

With a business that has been successful like McAlister’s, obviously you want to learn from [the company’s] experience. I’ve had multiple experiences when I worked at Burger King and at Pizza Hut where there were things that worked well and things that didn’t. So the combination of my prior experience and McAlister’s historical experience will help guide me in finding the right places to drive the business forward.

How long do you think it will take you to get comfortable running a new company?

I expect I’ll be comfortable right away. My objective is to meet the staff, do some training in restaurants, meet the franchisees, and meet the group here [at the corporate offices] so that we can refine where we want to take the business.

Your predecessor, Phil Friedman, ran the company for a long time. How do you make the transition a smooth one?

You have to respect the fact that Phil was here for 11 years and ran a very successful business. To me that deserves a lot of respect. That doesn’t mean you don’t change anything. Part of the learning process is understanding why we were successful so we can be more successful in the future.

By Jordan Melnick

Online Exclusives Reporter