Documentary hopes to inspire restaurant industry to get 'Back to basics'

One minute, MonkeyMedia CEO Erle Dardick was posting to his blog.

The next thing he knew, he had both feet in a documentary film project.

"Back to Basics," a call-to-action film inspired by Dardick's essay "The Ghost in the Wall," has gone through its start-up and pre-production phases and is ready to enter production.

Through the eyes of a formerly at-risk youth who now works at a Dallas Panera Bread store, the film aims to depict the restaurant industry's impact on the nation, economically and culturally, while urging a return to its roots where the proverbial fry cook could (and did) make it to the board room.

Coincidentally, the idea for the film was born after Panera Bread co-CEO Ron Shaich read Dardick's essay and phoned him to say he'd hit on the issue of their times: Given current trends, could the restaurant industry sustain itself 20 years into the future?

Dardick brought in Marla Topliff, president of Chicago-based Rosati Pizza, and Leadagers CEO Chase LeBlanc. Topliff began posting pinboards to Pinterest, and after the trio had a "great deal of conversation that went back and forth, early and late hours," according to LeBlanc, their main story emerged.

Dardick wrote "Ghost in the Wall" in 2011, shortly after visiting a large, unnamed restaurant company. He realized a downward spiral was under way not only there but across the industry: The poor economy had prompted stiff cost cutting, which had engendered a paralyzing fear in those who remained.

MBA-enamored companies, drunk on rapid overseas growth and overly fixated on quarterly stock prices, were no longer filling their managerial ranks from within.

And they were ignoring the hard lessons of their forebears, which are often summarized in mission statements and other collateral materials that still hang inside corporate offices.

Hence the allusion to ghosts and walls, and the emphasis on getting "back to basics."

Dardick received enthusiastic responses when he began discussing the film with others, and several prominent industry names — people like former Ray Kroc sideman Ed Rensi, Dunkin' and Arby's brands chairman Jon Luther and Firehouse Subs CEO Don Fox — did Skype interviews.

"This is a community-based effort," he said. "I asked the community, will you be in the film, and they responded resoundingly."

The team thought the "guerrilla" production approach would be the end product, LeBlanc said, but "Back to Basics" is now envisioned as a Hollywood-style feature documentary along the lines of "Super Size Me" or "Food, Inc.," two successful culinary-themed documentaries that painted decidedly less flattering portraits of the restaurant industry than the new film will.

The "Back to Basics" team is currently working to raise the $1 million they need to start shooting, Dardick said, and high-level talks are ongoing with a known director and a celebrity chef who would narrate the film, though he declined to name them.

He said Hollywood insiders tell him they're excited about the project because it would provide the sort of access they find hard to come by. That surprised him.

The team has a three-month window to begin shooting, which would allow them to meet their goal of screening the film at the National Restaurant Association's 2014 annual meeting. They'd also like to see it get a theatrical release.

After the trio hammered out their main idea, Dardick said, the story crystallized when he visited a Panera store in Dallas to work on a corporate video project and met Lorenzo Torres, a young employee who'd had a tumultuous upbringing.

He was instantly taken with Torres' leadership qualities and saw him as a perfect protagonist for the film. He's presented as an everyman trying to navigate the corporate minefield in pursuit of the American dream. The film will begin with his story of moving from the streets to his job at Panera, and end with him donning a suit and tie for a meeting with Shaich.

"He blew me away," Dardick said. "For a 21-year-old manager, he was an old soul. I got to know him and realized he needs help. He doesn't know what to do next. He's tired of where he is, he wants and needs advancement. There needs to be a program where he can commit to the industry."

The team also hopes many of the industry leaders who did the earlier interviews will appear in the finished production. Dardick said that will depend on scheduling and availability.

The storytellers will share the ups and downs of the industry, Dardick said, which is an important message about thinking long-term.

It will also show how industry leaders who came of age in the 1980s, when capital was readily available, are ready to pass the baton.

Where some films have been rough on the industry, "Back to Basics" will be upbeat and forward-looking. LeBlanc said they hope to evoke the feeling of documentary films such as "Hoop Dreams," "When We Were Kings" or the recent "Searching for Sugar Man."

Dardick has plenty of criticisms of the industry he loves, but "Back to Basics" is out not to slam it but to help it. Net revenue from the film will go to the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation.

"We have a great story to tell -- $632 billion in sales in 2012 -- 13 million people employed," he said. "We've always mirrored the best of what America has to offer. You can start at the bottom and work your way up. If you are looking for a first job or a second chance, if you're willing to work hard, there have been opportunities. We have to get back to our roots."

Adds Topliff: "We have such an impact on the American economy. There's a need for people to understand that when they go out to eat, an entire industry worked years to put that meal on their table. There's education, training and hours of work involved. It doesn't just happen."

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