Transcript of Food & Restaurant Podcast – Amazing Culture with Kaffee Hopkins of Sterling Hospitality

Transcript of Food & Restaurant Marketing Podcast – Episode: Amazing Culture with Kaffee Hopkins of Sterling Hospitality

[00:03:35] Adam Pierno: All right, well welcome back to another episode of food and restaurant marketing. We have another special guest as part of our season two here. We are joined today by Kaffy Hopkins. Kaffy, that’s right, with the two F’s not TH, who’s joining us from Sterling Hospitality and it’s a brand– part of that is a brand called Marlow’s Tavern that I’m very familiar with and love. And so welcome Kaffy to the show.

[00:04:14] Kaffy Hopkins: Thank you very much for having me, Adam.

[00:04:16] Adam: No worries. I’m really glad we could make this happen. I know we tried a few times get it on the calendar. Can you give the audience a little bit of a background of your career and where you’ve been what you’ve done?

[00:04:29] Kaffy: Sure. So I got my start in restaurants, I hate to say, nearly 30 years ago this fall. I went to work for the Applebee’s franchise in Kansas City. They had six Applebee’s. They bought the company from WR Grace who owned Applebee’s corporate at that time and they became the franchisor. We had 50 Applebee’s then, great fun. It was at the very beginning. Nobody really knew who Applebee’s was. We kind of flew under the radar. I stayed there for four years, helped him grow the marketing and then the advertising agency was here in Atlanta.
It was a company called Babbitt and Reiman and our AE went on a maternity leave and didn’t come back and they were bellyaching about how they couldn’t find anybody to help so I said I can do that job and the chairman of the company, Joel Babbitt, called me the next day and said, “I’ll send somebody to pack you up and move you to Atlanta.” One of my three sisters actually lived here then, still lives here, and I said okay so I moved from Kansas City to Atlanta, 26 years ago, right about this time. And that’s how I got into restaurants.

[00:05:39] Adam: You know what made me sad? You sounded like you were sad to say you’ve been doing this for 30 years and I hate that. I love that you have this experience and when I talk to people that have great experience, I think there’s just so much more to learn and you’ve seen it all, you’ve been there, you’ve done that. Be proud of your 30 years, not a lot of people survive that long in this business.

[00:06:00] Kaffy: Thank you. It’s just fun business. Nothing is as much fun as this. I love the business and you either love it or you don’t and it’s okay if you don’t but you should go do something else because you’re never going to.

[00:06:13] Adam: Right, that’s right. I agree. In the conversations that you and I have had leading up to this, I can tell that you really have a passion for the business and for the topic of today which is restaurant culture and how to live restaurant culture, which I really love. In another recent episode, we talked about authenticity with Zac Painter of Fatz Cafe.
He talked about how they turned around and got back to the roots and the authentic meaning of the brand but because of your great experience and all the brands you’ve been in, Applebee’s and some of these really, really established brands, your perspective is going to be great here today on this topic. Do you want to talk a little bit about what culture means to you because you had a lot of passion about this when we when we talked a couple weeks ago?

[00:07:00] Kaffy: Culture to me is something that you have to live and breathe and not just talk about. It’s how you say things. It’s your tone of voice. It’s how you treat people. It’s what you look at and what you do when you walk into one of our taverns or a cafe, it’s the respect I give the dishwasher if you’re the CEO who’s in the office next door to me and our co-founder. But it’s not just the way you live your life at work, it’s the way you live your life. If the culture of where you work doesn’t align with your own personal culture and your own values and how you already live, then you’re never going to be a hit. That’s why I find Marlow’s so refreshing because I feel like I’ve worked —
For me, it was the last 27 years to have this one job. I feel like this is– And I don’t hope to have another job ever again. I align so well with the culture and we talk about our culture a lot. We have what’s called a Marlow’s Magic Book. It’s right here in my hand. It’s got my first day that I started, which was February 26, 2014. It’s gotten notes in it. It’s got our mission. It’s got an introduction to Marlow’s, employee attributes or seven values, our guiding principles, our promises. I carry it with me all the time.

[00:08:26] Adam: You get that on your first day but then you don’t just put it in a drawer?

[00:08:30] Kaffy: No.

[00:08:31] Adam: That’s amazing. Go ahead.

[00:08:34] Kaffy: For example, we have monthly leadership face-to-face meetings on the cafe side and on the Marlow side. The cafes are 20 plus cafes and office buildings, B&I, Business and Industries is what it’s called. Anywhere from a building of 400 population to 4,000 population. It’s how we range. We will get in a meeting and John Metz, who’s our co-founder and CEO will say, going to go around the room, “Which value are you feeling this period? This month? And why?” or another meeting he’ll say, “Have you seen somebody, a co-worker or somebody in the Tavern, a manager, somebody who is really living one of these values and had it? How did you see that come to life?”

[00:09:21] Adam: That’s fantastic.

[00:09:23] Kaffy: They’re always top of mind.

[00:09:24] Adam: Full disclosure for the audience, Kaffy and I met because I’m an alumnus, I consulted on the Marlow’s brand a few years back and maybe Kaffy, it’d be helpful to give the audience who maybe are in the West and don’t know the Marlow’s brand yet just a quick elevator speech on what the Marlow’s brand is.

[00:09:45] Kaffy: Absolutely. We are Marlow’s Tavern. We call ourselves taverns, never restaurants. We want you to eat in our bar and drink in the dining room. They’re together, we serve– Everything is made from scratch. Our CEO went to the Culinary Institute of America so we’re all about the food. We don’t have a microwave. We have a very small freezer. We have cloth napkins. Every marinade, every stuff, everything is made from scratch. In our taverns, we have an open kitchen so you can see what’s going on. We have a chef de cuisine. Our lowest priced item is 4.50 for our parmesan fries and our highest priced item is $20 for filet medallions, great steak-frites that we just put on the menu and green beans. We’ve got terrific, we sell a lot of burgers. We have some great shrimp and grits and some specialty items, Mongolian bowl.

[00:10:40] Adam: The shrimp and grits. When I lived in Atlanta, I lived on the shrimp and grits and Parmesan fries, for sure.

[00:10:45] Kaffy: Yes, shrimp and grits is definitely one of our most popular items. We don’t talk about how many we have. We don’t want anybody to know. We want you to think your Marlow’s is your neighborhood Marlow’s. We don’t think people drive a long way to get to a Marlow’s and that’s not really who we are. We want to be the corner bar, the one’s you’re going to come–

[00:11:03] Adam: That’s another interesting thing that I think relates back to culture. The neighborhood feel. If there’s no footprint, there’s no, “If I go to the town.” or, “If I go up to Alpharetta,” there are two different footprints. The feel is the same but distinctive to the neighborhood and it’s unique to the location that I am.

[00:11:27] Kaffy: In Midtown you might not ever see a child. In East Cobb, you go in and there are families and everybody knows everybody. It takes on the bars, the taverns take on the flavor of whatever neighborhood they’re in. We never call ourselves a chain. We don’t have customers, we have guests.

[00:11:45] Adam: I love that.

[00:11:46] Kaffy: And we’re about the hospitality for those guests, it’s what we are. That’s a little bit about Marlow’s Tavern. Does that help?

[00:11:53] Adam: Yes, that’s awesome. You talk a little bit about the internal culture with the Marlow’s Magic Book. How does that– I guess the mission is, we’re going to build this really strong internal culture and so John is going to give these inspirational talks and refer back to the values and really demonstrate to people that those values are important. How do you translate? What I think is interesting about the brands that do this right is that they’re able to get the guests to not just recognize that there’s a culture but the guest actually becomes a participant in it. And that’s definitely true for Marlow’s.

[00:12:32] Kaffy: I would say the first of our seven values is hospitality, and I think that our guests feel the hospitality. They don’t know exactly what it is we do that makes us different. They may not recognize it. For example, if you have an appetizer or a salad before your meal comes, you don’t get to keep your dirty fork. No, no, no. We take the fork and bring you a clean one. We serve our food with open-handed service, a server comes and never turns her back on you. They serve the food even if they have to switch hands. It feels different, the hospitality feels different. But our guests may not be able to put the finger on why they were treated differently at Marlow’s but they know that the experience was better.
I think that people feed off that hospitality, being recognized, knowing– We know that they’re a regular. It’s, “Welcome back,” and, “What did you have last time?” and, “Can I tempt you for something new this time?” One of our values is fun. I mean, which companies you know one of their values is fun? We are a fun place. It’s fun come to Marlow’s. Our servers have a good time–

[00:13:36] Adam: I thought it was fun working with people at headquarters too.

[00:13:40] Kaffy: Well, thank you. It’s a fun place to be. We don’t take ourselves too seriously. We want you to come sit at the bar, try new drinks. Say hello to the bartender. We have little bar cards that’s got the bartender’s name on the front so that you know who you’re talking to.

[00:13:55] Adam: How do you train for that? How do you train for open-handed service? Is it part of hiring? Or is it part of training? I’m sure it’s a combination of both but give me a little background.

[00:14:06] Kaffy: It’s both. We use the company called [unintelligible 00:14:10] and it is an online assessment that everybody who works at our company, from the server to me– I had to do the online assessment test. It was a different online assessment test and it took me an hour and a half to do it but, it tests the hospitality gene. If you don’t have that service minded attitude, then you’re not going to survive in our taverns. You can go work somewhere else where hospitality and service might not be this high up priority as they are with us and that’s okay go work there.
But you have to take this online assessment test and you have to get within our range that we’re looking for or we’re going to pass on you and go on to the next person. The first most important key is that you have a propensity to be hospitable and to serve. And then it comes down to the training. We are inspired by fine dining, the fine dining is kind of dead but it’s those things that they do in fine dining. Those points of service from the hello when they get there to goodbye when they leave. We serve our drinks on a little tray. We just don’t carry them out and plug them on the table. First, it’s making sure that you have that mentality and second, it’s the training.

[00:15:35] Adam: I think that’s fantastic. You mentioned in the Magic Book there’s a mission. You don’t have to tell me the mission but do you think about the mission every day? Is the staff in house, at each location, at each tavern, are they reminded of the mission? How do you bring that to life for them to make it work?

[00:15:58] Kaffy: Well you have to be because if we’re not giving great hospitality, then we’re not Marlow’s. If a server or bartender is not saying hello and we’re pointing to the bathroom, that’s not great hospitality. It’s not a good fit. But our mission, part of it is the hospitality, so they live it and breathe it every day. It is always alive and well and breathing in our taverns and cafes.

[00:16:29] Adam: Does that happen with the– operationally, is that trained into the management of each tavern to remind people every day? Or to call out great behavior? How does it work operationally?

[00:16:47] Kaffy: The managers do managers’ meetings weekly and they talk about the top three and the bottom three. The top three and how great they’re doing, and the bottom three and how we could help those. But just step back for a second, so everybody who works at a Marlow’s or a Sterling Spoon Cafe, everybody gets the orientation with the Magic Book. It’s not just for leadership or managers, everybody gets the Magic Book.

[00:17:12] Adam: Everybody’s responsible, everybody is exposed to it and then they know it, and they can either take it hard as they can. If they can’t, I suspect they don’t stay long.

[00:17:20] Kaffy: Correct, yes. [inaudible 00:17:24]

[00:17:25] Adam: Let’s talk about how most brands– I complimented you for your experience and I want to bring that to bear. You’ve worked at some big places. I know that through conferences and other things, you’ve been exposed to how other brands practice these techniques. How do the biggest, best brands do this? I think of branding where they wear a brand will try to communicate their culture outwardly and they’ll try to build the strong brand, do you think the branding plays a role in it? Or do you think the branding is based on what’s already really happening and it doesn’t work if it’s not real?

[00:18:03] Kaffy: I think it’s based on what’s already happening and it doesn’t work if it’s not real.

[00:18:08] Adam: If it’s a bluff because the consumers don’t buy it.

[00:18:11] Kaffy: Yes. And you know, we don’t talk about our mission statement or our branding. We didn’t do it. It’s like, you know Ritz-Carlton is ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen. They don’t say that, they just do it. They always say, I split my career on the ad agency side and the client side. I can recall having clients that they would, “Let’s say this.” Well, if you’re saying that in the advertising, your strategy is showing. We should just do it. You don’t have to tell people we’re doing it. I think there’s companies–

[00:18:42] Host: Do you think the culture– Sorry to cut you up. Do you think the culture is more important than the branding?

[00:18:49] Kaffy: I think you can’t live up your brand if you don’t have a strong culture. It is not believable.

[00:18:55] Adam: If they’re not aligned for sure.

[00:18:57] Kaffy: No. You can’t– I mean, you can for a little bit of time but people are going to come to you once and they’re never going to come back. That’s really where the difference is. You can get them to come the first time but you can’t get them to get back if you don’t live up to the brand. You just can’t.

[00:19:19] Adam: That’s it. There’s an old adage that I was taught early on in my career that your strategy cannot be and your brand cannot be service because service is going to fail at some point, but your culture can sure as hell be built on service. It sounds like you’ve translated service for hospitality. I don’t want to promise it but I learn as a guest that, “Oh wow, they really take care of me. These people have the light of life in their eyes. It’s not like some places where you’re going and the person could care less if I’m at the table or not.”

[00:19:54] Kaffy: And, hospitality is felt. Here’s good service, everybody gets the service. But it’s that next step and that removing the dirty utensils. I was at a really upscale restaurant here in Atlanta and I won’t name names, you’ll know it if I said it, and they said, “Hey, do you want to keep that fork?” [laughs]

[00:20:16] Adam: Don’t make it my choice, bring me a clean fork.

[00:20:19] Kaffy: I don’t want to keep my fork. And I was thinking, “Really?”

[00:20:23] Adam: Yes.

[00:20:24] Kaffy: It’s just those subtle things that make you want to come back to Marlow’s because it’s so comfortable and nice but it’s upscale enough that you feel you’re getting that fresh ground burger, the burger has never been frozen, you get it cooked to order and french fries that have been peeled in-house and parboiled so that when we fry them they stay really crisp but they’re great and hot on the inside.

[00:20:48] Host: Right.

[00:20:48] Kaffy: You know it’s all of that that works together.

[00:20:51] Adam: Yes I know, I think it’s really important. I always think of the small salt shakers that tell me there’s a real person back here, there’s a real chef who cares how this tastes and there’s a cue to me that salt is not my friend and I should try it before I just start pouring it on there.

[00:21:07] Kaffy: Yes, correct.

[00:21:09] Adam: So when brands do miss on culture, is it because it’s not aligned with who they really are, the branding isn’t, or is it they create a mission statement that it’s just a bunch of Powerpoint jargon?

[00:21:22] Kaffy: I don’t think they have the right people as they say on the bus and not everybody believes. You got to have believers, you got to have people who embrace it and want to be a part of that culture.

[00:21:35] Adam: So it’s the assessment that helps you bring people that are the right people to fit into the organization and get the culture and like it.

[00:21:42] Kaffy: I add and help us to make for telling [unintelligible 00:21:45] quit telling people that I had eight interviews and an hour and a half online assessment test, and I kept thinking, “Holy cow, just hire me, could you?”

[00:21:55] Adam: [laughs]

[00:21:57] Kaffy: Because I really wanted the job. I did not understand then why that. I understand now because you got to have the right [unintelligible 00:22:06] assessment. You know we’ve had that on occasion in a tavern that it’s not the right manager and didn’t fit our culture and it’s devastating to the team and to the operation.

[00:22:18] Adam: Yes, it slows everything down. And you know what Kaffy, it also helps as an applicant for you. It helps you say, “Oh no,” probably at this point of the interview, you get to decide, “Well, I don’t know, that sounds different than what I believe in and I don’t want to go back for interview number seven,” or hopefully this keeps getting better every time.
What I love when I’m talking to an organization is up and down the chain, everybody’s telling me the same story or some version of the same story. That’s a lot of love. I think in the bus, when you go to corporate and they have one vision and then maybe you go to a restaurant or somewhere else in corporate and they have, “Well, that’s what they say, but the real thing is we’re just trying to cut costs, we’re just trying to get by,” or “We just want to turn tables,” and then you say, “Oh no, okay,” so it all fell apart.

[00:23:07] Kaffy: Yes. Everybody really has to buy into it or it just doesn’t work, it’s just not believable and you really cannot fake it. You can’t fake hospitality.

[00:23:21] Adam: No, you can’t.

[00:23:21] Kaffy: It doesn’t come across as genuine and we are genuine, and that’s what the company was built on. It’s that and a really good suit and a really great drink.

[00:23:35] Adam: That’s at the restaurant level as a guest, and I do get to experience that, thinking, going back to the management level, what do they do differently than some of the management teams that you’ve worked with at other places or witnessed as an agency person or through the contacts that you have, what do you think it is that you’re doing different?

[00:23:57] Kaffy: I think that what we’re doing different is that our culture comes from the top and that our leadership and our senior management walk the walk and talk the talk, we’re not asking them to do anything we don’t already do and we don’t already believe in.

[00:24:17] Adam: They created the mission and the culture and they really believe that-

[00:24:19] Kaffy: Correct.

[00:24:19] Adam: -and so it cascades down.

[00:24:21] Kaffy: Correct, it does and I think we’re more about what somebody’s doing right than what somebody’s doing wrong.

[00:24:27] Adam: I like that. It’s a culture of praise versus culture of form.

[00:24:33] Kaffy: Correct. I was with a big franchise of a group and we would start every month with leadership meeting with how many days we had gone without a worker’s comp claim, by restaurant, and I’ve never heard–

[00:24:48] Adam: That told me everything I need to know.

[00:24:51] Kaffy: I mean I started thinking we never had any and somebody said, “Yes, we do but– We just do.” If I were going to start our meeting we didn’t talk about them in our leadership meeting so that makes sense to just a different focus. Anyone who go around the room we thought about the values, it’s not just about what you’re doing at work.
Last time it was what’s one word thereby stealing today, one word to describe how you’re feeling, and mine at the moment was balance and I said mine is balance between the cafe side and the Marlow’s side of what needs to be done today versus what needs to be done six months and a year from now so we put a strategy in our future and my husband just said soul-searching so I’m trying to balance. That’s where I am right now, just on that teeter-totter trying to balance. They’re not just all about work. We have lives and we all know that and we all respect that personal life because it mixes so much in with our professional life, because we work so much. But that’s [inaudible 00:25:56] I choose that.

[00:25:58] Adam: That’s very simple but very powerful. One word to tell me how you’re feeling in a leadership meeting-

[00:26:02] Kaffy: One word.

[00:26:03] Adam: -and that group, yes.

[00:26:04] Kaffy: One word.

[00:26:04] Adam: That’s very strong. One last question.

[00:26:06] Kaffy: You can hyphenate occasionally, if you have two words you can hyphenate, even though [inaudible 00:26:10]

[00:26:10] Adam: Is that permitted?

[00:26:11] Kaffy: [laughs] Yes.

[00:26:13] Adam: Very good. Okay one last question, I know we have to stop here but I want to get one more question.

[00:26:18] Kaffy: Sure.

[00:26:19] Adam: Knowing that this is working at Sterling Hospitality because it comes from the top and cascades down. What would you say to franchise X, and we won’t name any names, let’s just make up one that’s struggling and is on CEO number 10 from the founder who inherited the mission or hired a consulting firm to create a mission. What’s your advice to them if they have any hope of turning it around it, at least getting the culture right? I can’t guarantee that’s going to lead to sales but I don’t think it hurts. What’s your advice on them for how to get that culture right?

[00:27:00] Kaffy: I would say go back and look at day one, month one, year one. What were you all doing right then that got you off the ground because it’s hard to start a restaurant, it’s hard to start a restaurant and group, it’s hard to grow, but what did you do then that you’re not doing now. Because there was a culture then that got you started, and it got you to grow and got you really far, you wouldn’t have franchisees and be where you are today, but somewhere you lost your way to go all the way back to the beginning then see what it was then that you were doing, that you’re not doing well, not doing now and go back to doing that, it worked. It’ll probably work again, but you got to get back to it.

[00:27:40] Adam: Yes, I think that’s right. So go back and look at the founding fathers or mothers notes and what the whole company has actually built on and how they were practicing it and then figure out how you can do that.

[00:27:51] Kaffy: Yes. Who those people were, and what was different about those people and who they were versus who you have in there now. Because you might have just gotten the wrong people, and the wrong people will get you down the wrong path.

[00:28:04] Adam: Well I almost guarantee it. As organization scales, there’s just going to be more people that don’t fit as you just try to fill roles. We’re doing an upcoming episode on recruiting and hiring because as we’re talking a growing organization, it’s just so hard to get the right people in it. Sounds like you get to have a great system for it but I know it must take a long time to refill an empty role or if you’re opening a new tavern to staff it.

[00:28:45] Adam: You were saying go back to the beginning, look at who you have, and I agree with you because the people are so different especially as organization scales, it’s so hard to find the people that fit into the role if you’re opening a new location or if you’re opening into a new market and you’re opening four or five or something upscale, whew, it’s hard to get those people and it sounds like you guys have a fit or you have a fix for figuring out how to get the right people but I can only imagine how long it takes to fill roles when you’re staffing an entire tavern.

[00:29:16] Kaffy: Yes, and we talked a lot about– we’ve got to keep the culture, we have to be very very careful as we grow, very careful as we grow. Not to lose that, because if we lose that then we’re like everybody else and we’re not. We don’t want to be ordinary, we don’t think that we’re ordinary. Hiring the right people makes us not ordinary but you got to be careful and nowadays, because it’s so hard to find good people, becomes even more important.
[00:29:45] Host: Yes, I think that’s really an interesting thing and I’m interested to have the conversation we’ll be having on the next episode about that recruiting and hiring topic. It’s going to be illuminating and I have a feeling.

[00:29:58] Kaffy: Yes.

[00:29:58] Adam: Kaffy, this was a great conversation. Thank you so much for making time. I know we have to juggle from schedules to make this happen. I really appreciate you playing with me and figuring it out how to get on this phone together today.

[00:30:09] Kaffy: Adam, I was so happy too and I hope that you’ll be in Atlanta City and we can go to Marlow’s and have a cocktail and a bite to eat.

[00:30:16] Adam: Absolutely, I should be there in the next month or so actually so-

[00:30:19] Kaffy: Oh nice.

[00:30:20] Adam: -I will let you know when I’m coming in.

[00:30:23] Kaffy: Please do. Thank you.

[00:30:24] Adam: All right thanks so much Kaffy, I appreciate it.

[00:30:27] Kaffy: Bye.

[00:30:28] Adam: Everybody listening, I hope you enjoyed that conversation as much as I did. Please share this podcast if you liked it, you can always email us with questions or follow-up information at adam@foodandrestaurantmarketing.com or find us on Twitter @FandRM but you can find this podcast on our site and it’s also on iTunes or Apple podcast and it’s also on Google Play Store. Please subscribe and tell your friends. Thanks very much.

Listen to the episode here.

Transcript of Food & Restaurant Marketing Podcast – Episode: Amazing Culture with Kaffee Hopkins of Sterling Hospitality

Goodbye Ruby Tuesday?

To use a clichéd musical-themed pun, we could soon be saying goodbye to Ruby Tuesday. The Tennessee-based bar and grill restaurant chain announced this past March that they would be putting themselves up for sale or a potential merger. The unsurprising announcement comes after years of declining sales and location closures for the brand that thrived in the 1990s and early 2000s. Ruby Tuesday has not seen a year of growth since 2011 and approximately 100 locations closed in 2016 alone. The chain had also recently taken to selling certain locations to investors in sale-leaseback deals, foreshadowing the brand’s desperate move to come. More than anything, the sale of Ruby Tuesday signals an end to the reign of the casual dining category of the food industry.

Ruby Tuesday can’t seem to resurrect itself.

Unfortunately for Ruby Tuesday’s executives, the announcement also comes after years of attempts at menu innovation and risky marketing decisions. In 2016, Ruby Tuesday gained a new CMO and re-focused their advertising efforts on targeting families, especially millennial moms; in previous years, the brand had tried to do away with their focus on the family and move to a more adults-only aesthetic, even going as far as to remove diaper-changing stations from restaurant bathrooms. This attempt at brand revitalization resulted in removing advertising dollars from television completely, choosing instead to focus on paid social advertising and online video with Hulu and YouTube.

The nontraditional move was risky but allowed the struggling restaurant chain to geo-target their advertising to areas surrounding their locations, specifically reach their chosen audience and tell more emotional visual stories than a mere 30-second television spot could ever allow. 2016 also saw Ruby Tuesday honing in on their Garden Bar, a self-service salad bar, in advertising. There was an introduction of new, fresh Garden Bar ingredients, better to serve the moms the brand desperately wanted to appease. For all of their risk, it seems that the brand’s moves did not result in much reward.

Ruby Tuesday’s attempt to reinvent themselves is a great example of marketing trial and error, but it also signals trouble for the casual dining industry as a whole. Similar restaurant chains like Olive Garden and Applebee’s are struggling as well, though those brands have not made such brazen attempts at menu and marketing changes like Ruby Tuesday. Both still favor a heavily TV-focused media rotation, insisting that inundating consumers’ screens will work in their favor, and rely on limited time offers and slashed prices in order to attempt to make a splash in a dining landscape that currently favors fast casual restaurants and healthy food trends.

You wouldn’t exactly go to Olive Garden and eat their bottomless breadsticks if you were looking for a healthy place to eat out with your family, but a “two entrees for the price of one” deal can only do so much to convince you otherwise.

How casual dining can survive a changing industry.

So, were Ruby Tuesday’s last-ditch attempts to make a profit worthwhile? Yes and no. The re-focus on family dining and adding new ingredients to the Garden Bar menu prove that the brand wasn’t willing to go down without a fight.

The move away from traditional advertising and increased efforts in paid social advertising were innovative and forward-thinking, particularly because TV commercials are a familiar and effective way for brands to reach a wider audience and straying from that tried-and-true model will always be perilous. However, those risks might also have contributed to the chain’s demise. Other casual dining restaurant chains have stayed the course, choosing to put the majority of their ad dollars in television and not make drastic changes to their menus.

Those chains are still open for business, though they might soon follow in Ruby Tuesday’s worn footsteps. In February 2017, Applebee’s posted their sixth straight negative sales quarter and in March their CEO was ousted. Bloomin’ Brands, which owns casual dining chains Outback Steakhouse and Carrabba’s Grill, recently announced plans to close 43 locations after a rough 2016. Though brand reinvention wasn’t to be for Ruby Tuesday, perhaps other troubled chains could take a few notes from their demise and, at the very least, go down swinging

The paradox of choice and missed opportunity

Watch new guests walk into your restaurant and stare at the menu. Do they scan quickly and nod or do they drift across the options, mouth dropping open?

In 2004, Barry Schwartz wrote Paradox of Choice, in which he proves that more options can actually reduce the quality of the customer experience (which was not yet a buzzword). This theory explains the growth of fast casual restaurants. The concepts are simple to understand, the menu is void of the clutter that QSR and casual dining brands have added over the years to keep up.

While choices are necessary to fight the veto, too much choice confuses guests and weakens their understanding of the concept. As Zac Painter, VP of Marketing at Fatz Cafe told F&RM, during the great recession the brand had added a Chinese chicken salad to its menu of home cooked southern classics. The item has since been removed from the menu.

Options like these create confusion for the guest. It’s why Chick Fil A and In-N-Out Burger continue to succeed. Customers know what they come in for, and the brand doesn’t make them search to hard for it.

choice, veto, menu
Four food items, three of which are hamburgers. How’s that for choice?

That’s not to say that every brand should restrict choice to less than ten items. But a key point here is that brands like these offer streamlined menus, and execute on every item. Can you even imagine the wait at In-N-Out if they added more items?

Look at the top growth brands and you’ll see that they all have simple menus in common. Chicken brands like Zaxby’s and Raising Cane’s keep the menu options tight and reap the benefit. Guests crave chicken, they go to a place that executes what they have on their mind.

When guests order from a busy menu they aren’t thinking very logically about making the optimal selection. That’s just not how we’re wired. Instead, in an environment scattered with choice, they simply try to meet the requirement of the task – choose something.

Being overwhelmed by choice can leave people feeling lonely and even depressed, according to Barry Schwartz. Not exactly the aim of hospitality. People are looking to choose but don’t know how to make the choice.

But this harried execution of selection leads to a state that Schwartz calls ‘missed opportunity.’ This happens when they realize they chose something they didn’t really want, or later find a selection they believe would have been more satisfying. This also creates a bad brand experience because they feel that they ‘ordered the wrong thing.’

Of course brands like The Cheesecake Factory deliver on a menu as thick as a phone book every day. There will always be exceptions to any rule. For whatever reason, that brand has driven loyalty by offering tons of choice – even on the dessert menu. This is because, like Chick Fil A and Raising Cane’s, they execute every time.

It is hard to make the wrong choice. But most restaurants are not The Cheesecake Factory. To simplify on execution, simplify the menu. As a brand, there shouldn’t be a wrong thing to be ordered. There shouldn’t be that Chinese chicken salad.