The 90th assembly of National Restaurant Association Restaurant, Hotel-Motel Show seemed to be an industry litmus test this year, with one ad exec describing it as a gathering of the fittest—as in those who were fit enough to survive the recession.

QSR had the chance to sit down with Souper Salad CEO Tim Taft, a man who’s determined to survive this Darwinian challenge, and talk about the changes he and his team have made at the company and are convinced will improve their shot at survival.

San Antonio-based Souper Salad is a brand that’s trying to climb its way out of the economic hole. Before Taft joined the company in July 2008, emphasis had been put on creating an impressive in-store experience. That meant the tiles in the dining rooms were marble, the counters were top-of-the-line, and the art on the walls was practically commissioned for the individual restaurants.

The result: A weak bottom line that relied on menu increases to fund the improvements. And when the fifth and final increase went into effect it unfortunately coincided with the October meltdown and subsequent bailout of the U.S. financial sector. Needless to say, the menu hikes weren’t received well and customers thanked the chain with double-digit sales decreases.

Taft is trying to turn that around and is proud the chain is climbing its way back out and dealing with only single-digit decreases these days.

There’s also a new team onboard from Pizza Inn that’s set on putting money to better use—where the customer wants it.

One of the easiest changes the company made was the installment of a feedback hotline. According to Taft, about 300 of the 700 monthly comments are positive. Even though a majority of the messages are complaints, Taft says creating a dialogue with the customer is essential to improving the brand.

Before the new initiative, the company got about five comments a month.

Taft says customers comment on everything from the food to the location sites. But what he hasn’t heard much about is concerns over sodium levels.

In fact, Taft says he hasn’t heard many demands for menu labeling from consumers and isn’t convinced posting nutritional information would change people’s eating patterns either.

What he does know for sure is that every restaurant operator has just one job and it’s especially true during this economy.

“Every operator is responsible for the ROI,” he says.

–Blair Chancey

Finance, News