THIS RESTAURATEUR IS A SHARP STUDENT OF SUPERMARKETS

Restaurants have nothing to learn from supermarkets.That statement seems like conventional wisdom in the grocery business, where executives talk about the need to emulate restaurant innovation, but rarely assume restaurants can learn from them.Pat Klinger has a different point of view. He is director of future initiatives for Vancouver, Wash.-based The Holland Inc., parent company of Northwest U.S.

Restaurants have nothing to learn from supermarkets.

That statement seems like conventional wisdom in the grocery business, where executives talk about the need to emulate restaurant innovation, but rarely assume restaurants can learn from them.

Pat Klinger has a different point of view. He is director of future initiatives for Vancouver, Wash.-based The Holland Inc., parent company of Northwest U.S. restaurant chains Burgerville USA, noodlin' and Beaches.

As a panelist at a recent industry convention, he remarked that he learns a lot from supermarkets (SN, Nov. 8, 2004, Page 16). Yet he did not go into great detail. So I made sure to follow up with him later.

It turns out Pat is a student of supermarkets. He regularly walks the aisles to study food trends. He tracks the amount of space given to each category. He notes that in recent years, more freezer space has been given to breakfast foods, a fact he believes may be useful to his business at some point. Pat studies the kinds of impulse items at the point of purchase to see if he can adapt that type of merchandising to his operation.

He also monitors supermarket packaged foods, especially the trend to incorporate all components of a meal that can be quickly cooked.

"That tells me restaurants need to be thinking the same way," he said. "At Burgerville, we don't necessarily do as good a job as we should in offering all components of a meal. Our menu is a la carte. We need to be smart enough to put more value into the meal, maybe by including a side or salad in the price, while staying away from value pricing."

There are some things Pat doesn't learn from supermarkets. He doesn't usually find ideas related to food service or merchandising. He feels the grocery industry can improve in those sectors, although he probably doesn't want to see too much improvement because supermarkets do compete with him to some extent.

Pat isn't averse, however, to offering a few ideas to supermarkets. He observes that supermarkets can do a better job with local marketing, which is the basis of 39-unit Burgerville, operating in Oregon and Washington.

The restaurant chain is built around seasonal menu items made with Northwest-grown ingredients, such as Walla Walla onion rings, chocolate hazelnut milk shakes, and halibut fish and chips. The highly popular onion rings, for example, are only available for a limited time each year starting in mid-June, but people begin asking for them in February.

Pat has a nonfoods idea to spark innovation for supermarkets, or any other type of company. "Executives should make best friends with five-year-olds," he remarks.

That's exactly what Pat and others in his company have been doing for about 15 years. They adopt a kindergarten class each year in a school near their corporate office, and volunteers make weekly visits to help the kids with gross motor skills, such as bouncing and jumping. Pat explains that the same parts of the brain used for gross motor skills are also needed for reading and retention. So, presumably, this volunteer work will help jump-start the kids' reading skills.

What does Pat learn from these kids? "I pay attention to how they think," he said. "They believe you can do anything you want to do. It helps us step back from our day-to-day business and ask, 'Is there a better way? What if there were no rules?"'