Executive Profile: Carin Stutz, CEO of Cosi Inc.

Her intent is to clean up chain's image, one location at a time

Cosi CEO Carin Stutz is no apologist for the 135 restaurants, where she believes waits are too long, the menu is too complicated and operations need improvement. She’s trimming the menu, simplifying the ordering process and looking for a new chef to make the menu more innovative. (Beth Rooney, Photo for the Chicago Tribune / May 29, 2012)

On a morning visit to Cosi at Grand Avenue and Rush Street, CEO Carin Stutz checked out the prep area where salads and sandwiches are made, practiced her Spanish with the baker rolling out dough for afternoon flatbreads, and told the general manager to keep an eye on the amount of espresso coming out of the machines.

Stutz, who joined the company in January, also stepped from behind the counter to greet incoming patrons — and boast a little about the floor.

"I remember walking in here one time and thinking these floors were filthy — and now look at 'em, they're spotless," she said. "You've got to scrub floors."

To underscore the point, Stutz, 55, flips through her iPhone for photographs of the floor at another Cosi before and after her scrubbing mandate.

"You can just see the difference in cleanliness in the restaurants," she said.

As Stutz attempts a dramatic turnaround at the troubled Deerfield-based fast-casual chain known for its Signature Salad and Tuscan Pesto Chicken flatbread, the Aurora native is thinking large and small. After logging 34 years in the restaurant industry, she began her first CEO job in January and started examining her stores one by one.

On the broader level, Stutz is also wrestling with a perilously low stock price. On Friday, Cosi stock closed at 85 cents, and the company said it had received its third delisting notice in as many years. The chain has until Nov. 21 to get its stock price above $1 for 10 consecutive business days or be dropped from the Nasdaq.

Cosi's 2002 initial public offering was priced at $7.

Under Stutz, company stock rose above $1 in March, only to drop in April after news of her plan to raise $15 million from shareholders to update restaurants and get the chain growing again. Analysts have complained the move would dilute shareholder value too much.

It has been a tumultuous year for Cosi, a 135-unit chain that went from hot commodity to has-been in less than a decade. In August, the last time Cosi was threatened with a Nasdaq delisting, CEO James Hyatt quickly resigned, and activist investor Brad Blum began lobbying for the job, offering a cash investment and promising to work for a $1 salary.

Stutz is no apologist for the restaurants, where she believes waits are too long, the menu is too complicated and operations need improvement. She's trimming the menu, simplifying the ordering process and looking for a new chef to make the menu more innovative.

"A lot of times, somebody sits in this office and creates things for the restaurant and they don't think about the implication that it has," she said. "That's why, when I got here, the first thing I did was, I came in, I met the team and I said I'll see you in five weeks — because I wanted to go learn the business." Read More

Posted on June 7, 2012 and filed under Fast Casual.