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Gauging Consumers' Tastes : Firm Conducts Surveys to Track Diners' Changing Habits


BREA — Numbers roll off Bob Sandelman's tongue faster than he can flip through his latest stack of statistics on what Americans think of fast-food and pizza places.

About 96% of those living in metropolitan areas go to such eateries at least once a month, he says. Altogether, they average 12 trips a month for breakfast, lunch, dinner or snacks. That means that nearly everybody, he says, is getting food from McDonald's or Domino's or some other chain every two or three days.

"People have no time for something so basic as eating," Sandelman said. "With dual-income households, people are going out to purchase ready-to-eat meals, and the need for speed and convenience is paramount."

Operating out of his Brea home, Sandelman has built a growing business that helps the chains, as well as sit-down family and casual restaurants, monitor and cater to the ever-changing tastes of their customers.

Sandelman & Associates tracks consumers' opinions of more than 120 national and regional fast-food chains in 49 metropolitan markets nationwide, finding out how aware patrons are of a chain and its products and how often they stop at each chain.

The company's consumer research is highly valued, clients say, because it targets specific metropolitan areas, polls a large sample of customers and costs less than other, less-focused surveys.

In the process, Sandelman has become somewhat of a guru, opining for the national media on what people eat, where they go and with whom. Just 10 days ago, for instance, he was quoted by USA Today about the pending merger of the Arby's roast beef chain and Long John Silver's seafood.

He also studies related issues that affect the fast-food and pizza business. Last spring, for instance, he found through an extensive survey that 60% of the nation's fast-food patrons favored a no-smoking policy at fast-food restaurants, while only 22% opposed such a ban. The rest of the 6,230 people polled in 31 major U.S. markets had no opinion.

In a smaller poll involving casual-dining chains in the Los Angeles, San Francisco and Sacramento markets, even more patrons--73%--favored a no-smoking policy in the dining area, and a surprising 45% wanted a ban on smoking in the bar areas as well.

Those surveys came at a time when a few fast-food chains, notably McDonald's and Taco Bell, said they would institute smoking bans in company-owned stores.

"His research gives you a pulse on what's happening locally," said Tom Amberger, marketing director for Wienerschnitzel Corp. in Newport Beach. "It gives some top-flight information quickly, and we appreciate that."

Earlier this year, Wienerschnitzel hired Sandelman to do a private survey for the company, which wanted to gauge the effectiveness of its new advertising campaign.

The nation's biggest hot dog chain poked fun at itself with self-mocking ads, even referring to itself as "Chez Weenie." Billboards across Southern California showed jumbo chili dogs next to such headlines as "The culinary equivalent of mud wrestling" and "It's cheap. It's messy. Hey, you are what you eat."

Sandelman polled consumers both before the campaign was launched and after it was over. The results, Amberger said, showed that the ads made consumers more aware of Wienerschnitzel and that awareness translated into higher sales for the privately held company.

"People say they watch their health and they exercise," Sandelman said. "But when they eat out, they consider it a treat. They eat salads at home and then go have fatty burgers at a Wendy's or McDonald's."

With a master's degree in business administration, the 49-year-old Sandelman has worked at such nationally known companies as conglomerate Procter & Gamble and advertising agency Ogilvy & Mather. But the demise of another ad agency left him without work in 1988.

"Jobs in senior management then were not easy to find," he said. While looking for work, he also took stock of his abilities and his desire to strike out on his own in an area that would be fun. He liked the food industry, and he figured he was good with details and computers.

"The food industry is so competitive," he said. "There are new ad campaigns every few months, new menus. It's always changing. I found that exciting." The constant changes also meant that fast-food chains, especially, needed a continuing stream of information about consumer reaction.

The chains had lost their only inexpensive research tool when a company that had been selling local survey results gave up that line of work. In 1988, Sandelman stepped in and, with advice from Bob Wisely, then a marketing executive for hamburger chain Carl's Jr., launched his fast-track study of consumer awareness, usage and attitudes regarding fast-food restaurants.

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