Thursday, October 6, 2016

TPG Growth is destroying my passion for Taco Bueno

It's been about ten months since TPG Growth (a division of TPG) acquired Taco Bueno from Palladium Equity Partners, and it's been the worst ten months since CKE Restaurants owed the Texas-based TexMex Quick Service Restaurant.  As an avid lover of Bueno, and a former employee, I know the standards with which the food was made, and I know how the food is being prepared now.  And it's not just me, it's everyone I know who is making the same comments.

Just prior to the sale to TPG Growth, Taco Bueno was voted the Best Mexican Restaurant in America.  And that brings the biggest rub.  You see, TPG Growth owns or has stake in a few other QSRs (Quick Service Restaurants); Burger King and Papa John's Pizza.  These two fast food chains are not known for their quality of food, but for their speed in getting "food" delivered to you.

If TPG Growth leads Taco Bueno down similar paths of Burger King and Papa John's, the implication is that Taco Bueno might grow very quickly, but all of the made-fresh-in-store food will be replaced with pre-cooked, microwaved junk.

Original Red is available on Taco Bueno's Fresh Salsa Bar.
You can already see it starting with their Original Red Salsa.  This salsa has been made daily in store since the beginning of time.  (well, maybe since 1964 when Taco Bueno started.)  The salsa is pretty basic and should be consistent.  Within weeks of TPG Growth taking over, the Original Red began to change.  After several months it has seemed to settle in to a standard flavor, but it isn't the Original Red I grew up with.  It's very spicy now, which is turning a lot of people off.

And it's not just the Salsa.  The chips, which I think are still fried in stores, have changed.  They have become thicker and less crispy.  I think Taco Bueno has changed cheese vendors four or five times since the acquisition.  I'm sure this is just the beginning, and I expect that there are other things that have already changed that I just don't know about.

The previous leadership of Taco Bueno really cared about what the customers wanted.  In fact, there was at least once when I was invited to the annual manager's meeting to talk along side a few other Buenoheads to the managers.  The then CEO, Ed Lambert, really wanted to invest in his customers and his product.  (I have a lot of respect for Ed, as he took a lot of time to listen and lead his teams.  His employees also had a good deal of respect for him.)

It seems now that TPG Growth just wants to turn the once great Taco Bueno into a mass production facility.  As Bueno changes, I find myself eating at Qdoba and Taco Bell a lot more.  TPG Growth, get back to the basics.  Revive the passion of your Buenoheads.

But, hey, I'm just some guy who likes to look at airplanes, so what do I know?

It is worth noting that TPG Growth does have some stake in Azul Airlines as well.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

A New United Brand.

The new spirit of United is upon us, and with it, I believe that United may release a new Brand Identity.  I know there are a lot of nay sayers out there, so let's start with the "Why?".

Why change now?
Right after the merger (and really ever since) there have been two camps; "Bring Back The Tulip!" and "Continental Was Better!".  The United brand got a strong face lift as the new website and app came around, but people still equate the current brand with Jeff Smisek and the "terrible" merger.  The current logo and livery reflect two distinct brands being crammed together without care about the parities associated with each brand.

Let's look at two different mergers. American Airlines rebranded hours before their merger announcement with US Airways.  The rebranding allowed for a whole new airline, that almost lost its new tail.  On the flip side is the Alaska Airlines / Virgin America merger where we all expect the two different brands to remain.

Oscar Munoz is too late to do either of those preemptive moves, and now needs to separate the New Spirit of United from Jeff's United.

The New Spirit of United is bringing with it the updated United Clubs, a rebranding of United BusinessFirst to United Polaris First, updated (sort of) Crew Uniforms, and new (short term) ways for MileagePlus members to earn miles and status.  What's missing? has already seen a number of updates, as well as the apps and most MileagePlus print materials.  Hemispheres has a new, cleaner look.  Terminals are getting updated.  But the planes are still living in the early 1990s.

Oscar can bring United into the 21st century and put a face to the New Spirit of United with one, not-so-easy, move.

But, Mike...
I know that a lot you have your guns loaded and are ready to make comments.  So let's talk about them.  The first thing I expect to hear is that United has invested too much in the current brand.  I totally agree, but I don't expect things like type face to change.  Further down I'll talk about what it will look like.

Next you will most likely come up with "But it's too expensive".  Yes.  This would be quite the investment.  But so is changing out the BusinessFirst seats, redoing the United Clubs, serving food and wifi on regional aircraft, and retrofitting the domestic United First cabins.  Oscar is spending money to make United Flyer Friendly again.  The livery has been a point of a lot of contention.  I know a lot of Global Services and Premier 1Ks who have left United because of the way Jeff ran things, and Oscar needs to do everything he can to set himself apart.

It's important to note that United is currently hiring brand designers as well.  (Click here to see the full ad.)

What would it look like?
I'm not a super designer, but I feel like there are a few key things that the brand needs as well as some hints that are slowly being dropped.  A key thing, in my mind, is that the Globe has to change.  Because of its design we often see the globe shoved into a square.  It lacks the ability to be use in special ways.  Take the new American logo.  It can be manipulated in a number of graphic elements.

The color scheme will also need to change.  United has stuck to a clear set of colors within their mobile and web platforms.  Those were picked much sooner after the merger.  They are bright and vivid.  However, we're seeing a much more cold set of colors arrive in the new architecture of the terminals, clubs, and cabins.  Either way, none of them match the 25 year-old livery that the fleet currently wears.  One of the key colors I expect to see go is the gold.  The gold has transitioned into a yellow that is found in some key places, Global Services, the walls at Ohare, and legal information.  It is a strong accent color that the gold can't hold up with.  Even the gold trim in the escalator areas of the Terminalink (or whatever it is called now) at Houston was repainted black a while ago.  I fully expect a strong set of blues that help United stand out in a world of bright liveries.

I know that many of you will have strong opinions on this matter, and I don't want this to turn into some wild "bring back the tulip" party, because I don't see that happening.  Remember, these are just my thoughts.

But, hey, I'm just some guy who likes to look at airplanes, so what do I know?

Oh, and I'll just leave this here:

Monday, May 23, 2016

Flight Review: United Airlines SFO to OGG on a B737-800SFP

I've been traveling to Hawaii for many years, but recently I took my very first flight to the islands on a United Airlines sCO (a former Continental plane using Continental crew) Boeing 737-800SFP (Short Field Performance).

Our plane taking off from SFO.  View more of my photos on my Instagram.
The flight used N76514 -- equipped with split scimitar winglets.  The flight time was 4 hours and 50 minutes.  It was a windy day in San Francisco and we took off with a high angle of attack to get over the clouds quickly.  That departure provided a really awesome view on our way out of the city.  And it wasn't long before we said aloha of the main land.

United's Upgraded Meals
One of my favorite parts of the flight was experiencing United's new approach to food.  In years past when I would be on a 757 from DEN to LIH, we would get the equivalent of a gas station burrito.  But now we got to experience an amazing three course meal.  Let's start with the salad:

Now, I'm not a true foodie, but I love food, so here it goes... The salad was a Kale base with some noodles.  The flavors were very rich, and I didn't even use the salad dressing.  One of the things I loved about the salad was its presentation.  The little details go a long way.  Also, note the AMAZING pretzel roll.

Next was the main course:

If you notice the chuck missing, I got too excited to eat this before taking the picture.  The flavor of this roast was so vivid in my mouth.  The dirty rice rivaled that of my favorite restaurant (Jazmo'z Bourbon Street Cafe).  And the veggies weren't a frozen, watered-down mess.  This was the kind of meal I would expect in New York City.

Dessert was the best part:

I Love the Ice-Cream Sundae cart on long flights, but this sorbet was to die for!  The bitterness of the lemon-lime was a wonderful pairing with the sweetness of the roast.

The one negative thing
One of the big cons to the trip was being on a sCO aircraft that has Thales InFlyt product (formally LiveTV owned by JetBlue).  This service currently only works over the contiguous 48 states, so there's no DirectTV or wifi on the five-hour flight.  I know that United is working on getting that corrected for the wifi (eventually DirectTV will be replaced with Personal Device Entertainment on all UA fleet).  I would have preferred to be connected to the interwebs the whole flight, but it allowed me to get caught up on some movies on my iPad (if you fly a 737 to the Islands, be sure to bring your own entertainment).

United's Flyer Friendly Service
The crew was amazing. The Flight Service Coordinator, Dan, went above and beyond to make sure the flight was everything I wanted it to be.  As Oscar talks about the new spirit of United, I believe that spirit has been there in a lot of people for a long time.  The spirit was just being squished from the top.

Overall, this was a wonderful trip and there's nothing better than seeing this:

But, hey, I'm just some guy who likes to look at airplanes, so what do I know?

Friday, February 19, 2016

Why United Airlines should hub Orlando - Untapped Potential

United Airlines Route Map
United's Route Map - February 2016
I hate the word potential. The way I see it, it’s defined as, “hey, you could do this… but you you’re not good enough.” I believe that Orlando’s MCO airport has a lot of untapped potential. The airport is about to add an entire new South Terminal. One that makes more sense, with bigger halls, taller ceilings, and, I’m sure, just as much Mickey. The airport is opening up to new International routes, and expanding its broad spectrum of airlines. People love Orlando. (To be clear, I have no idea why. It’s hot, the traffic is bad, I hate I-4 and International Drive, and I did live there, so I can say that.)

I hate the word potential. But I love the word opportunity. Opportunity implies that I have the ability, I just have to seize the moment. United has opportunity. Look at route structures of the Big 4 (UA, AA, DL, WN), three of the four have great coverage of the southeast. United has Houston. But don’t forget, AA and WN also have a large presence in Texas as well.

I travel to Florida far too often. Once I’m here I’m stuck on the beautifully quiet (snark) SAAB 340B+. Now, I don’t mind the 340, nor do I mind Silver Airways. But picture this; you’re in Jacksonville. You want a weekend away on the beautiful island of Key West (it’s an island, right?). You hop on an E175 operated by Mesa Airlines. It’s a 20 minute hop to MCO. You enjoy a quick snack at the new Orlando airport, and then hop on another E175. You enjoy your first class flight with wifi all the way to Paradise.

Sounds nice, doesn’t it? Just wait, it gets better. Your boss calls you on Saturday and tells you that he needs you to help close the big deal in London on Monday. You’ve got dress clothes, and with a quick call to United, you’ve got a flight from Key West to Orlando on Sunday night and a second leg from Orlando to LHR on a 787. Pretty sweet gig, isn’t it?

The reality is that United’s route structure is great with the exception of the southeast (one could argue that the northwest struggles as well with the removal of the base at SEA, but that’s for a later post). I believe that a big part of the reason that UA and CO didn’t care about the southeast was US Airways. Codeshare flights out of CLT covered a lot of the southeast. And since the merger, there’s been no hope for the region.

The second issue came when Silver stopped being a United Express carrier and is now its own cute little airline (one with a lot of big dreams, but looks more and more like Spirit every day… I mean, have you seen their Twitter feed?).

Silver isn't a bad airline, in fact, I enjoy flying them, but I lost benefits like TSA Precheck, free bags, and the ability to earn PQS and PQM (United passengers who book on United with a valid 016 ticket can still earn PDQ).

An MCO hub would also help strengthen the relationship with Azul as Azul continues to bring more flights to Florida.

All in all, I believe that United should really consider a hub in Orlando.

But, hey, I'm just some guy who likes to look at airplanes, so what do I know?