Fast-Food Candidate

Herman Cain has had a stellar career as a restaurant marketer. Will it play in D.C.?

Like other GOP candidates already on the stump for the 2012 elections, Herman Cain has the requisite equipment: a pro-business agenda, a catchy tagline (“Commonsense solutions for America”), and a closet full of expensive silk ties. Cain also happens to be polling well, just 2 percent behind Newt Gingrich at the close of May.

But unlike his baby-kissing cohorts, Cain has something rarely seen among Oval Office aspirants: genuine branding and marketing credentials. Not only did Cain spend nearly two decades building brands, but he also did it in the dog-eat-dog world of restaurants.

During his tenure with the Pillsbury Restaurant Group, Cain managed to return 400 underperforming Burger King restaurants to high-margin health. He also rescued the Godfather’s Pizza chain from bankruptcy in just 14 months and then led a buyout of the brand. Eventually, Cain took the helm of the National Restaurant Association, turning it into one of the most powerful lobbying forces in Washington. What’s more, “The Hermanator” (as he was known in those days) did not rule from the corner office; he knew how to scrape the grill.

There’s little doubt that Cain is aware of this differentiating value because the 66-year-old Atlanta native (who did not respond to interview requests) is promising to mend the country in much the same way he fixed his fast-food brands.

“When I became president and CEO of Godfather’s Pizza, it was supposed to go bankrupt,” Cain says on his YouTube campaign video. “But I didn’t get the memo. We turned it around with commonsense business principles. And we can turn this country around the same way.”

Which is to say, Cain would cut taxes and eliminate burdensome business regs—positions that make the African-American entrepreneur a darling of the right. “I view the former CEO of Godfather’s Pizza as the godfather of the Tea Party movement,” says political activist Lloyd Marcus, author of Confessions of a Black Conservative. That may also be why Cain’s business record has been lowballed. A May 21 AP story about Cain’s candidacy devoted exactly one sentence to his branding career, stating only that he rescued the floundering Godfather’s Pizza “by shuttering hundreds of units.” (Read: He fired lots of minimum-wage workers.)

To those who remember Cain from those years, such characterizations are misleading and unfair. “Anyone who’s turned around a restaurant understands that there are always bad locations you inherit,” says Rick Van Warner, a communications consultant who was a senior executive at Red Lobster parent Darden Restaurants before founding his own company, Parquet Public Affairs.

“He took the company from where it was to something better, and if shutting down a portion of it was a good strategy, it was probably one that Pillsbury should have employed,” observes Rick Berman, a former Pillsbury vp who now operates the high-powered Washington lobbying firm of Berman and Company. “Perhaps Herman had more vision than some people above his pay grade,” Berman adds.

In any case, the former branding visionary now has his sights set on the Oval Office, a place where Van Warner says he could do a great deal of good. “Anyone who has Herman’s financial discipline would be great for the country,” he says. “In all forms of government today, they’ve never made a payroll and don’t understand what it’s like to eke out a profit from a low-margin business.”

And what do the folks at Godfather’s Pizza think of Mr. Cain’s prospects? Apparently only the mafia knows. “Godfather’s Pizza takes no position on political candidates,” read the response from headquarters. “But we do make great pizza.”