Wendy's International Inc. named a new chief executive Monday for its Baja Fresh Mexican Grill chain, which has been trying to boost its lackluster sales.
Brion Grube, a 15-year-veteran of Wendy's, replaces Bill Moreton, a food industry veteran who was brought in just a year ago to run the Thousand Oaks-based chain of nearly 300 fast-casual eateries.
Wendy's said Moreton was leaving to spend more time with his family and so he could move to his hometown of Chicago. He couldn't be reached for comment.
"Brion is an excellent operator and has a stellar track record of building sales and profits in several important leadership roles," Jack Schuessler, Wendy's chairman and CEO, said in a statement.
But Wall Street analysts said the CEO change would mean further delays in initiatives designed to improve operations at the once fast-growing Baja Fresh, such as simplifying the menu and speeding up customer service.
"It's disappointing," said Dean Haskell, an analyst with JMP Securities in San Francisco. "It puts them a year behind where they need to be."
Once the nation's leading fast-casual Mexican restaurant, Baja Fresh has been overtaken by Denver-based Chipotle Mexican Grill, a subsidiary of McDonald's Corp. that has 400 eateries, according to 2003 industry data from Technomic, a Chicago-based research firm.
Fast-casual restaurants occupy a niche just above fast-food eateries. The idea is to offer higher-quality food in more comfortable surroundings -- and charge higher prices than the typical burger joint.
In February, Wendy's reported a $135.7-million fourth-quarter loss, which it blamed on writing down the value of Baja Fresh. Just months earlier, Wendy's said it planned to shutter about 20 Baja Fresh eateries outside of California as sales at the chain failed to meet expectations. Wendy's, based in suburban Columbus, Ohio, bought Baja Fresh for $275 million in 2002.
Since becoming CEO on April 5, 2004, Moreton had moved to simplify Baja Fresh's menu, add a new line of salads and improve efficiency, all initiatives that Grube will continue, spokesman David Poplar said.
Grube was most recently CEO of Wendy's Cafe Express, a fast-casual restaurant chain. The management change was announced after the market closed.
In regular New York Stock Exchange trading Monday, Wendy's shares gained 25 cents to $39.56.