What do we make of these new brands in Fast Casual?

Sit down at Holler and Dash in Tuscaloosa, Alabama and take in the scenery around you; you’ll notice the smell of fresh baked biscuits, mason jars full of cold brewed coffee and an interior boasting bare brick walls and concrete floors. What you’re experiencing has been carefully concocted to attract a specific crowd – a millennial-centric crowd.

You might think that this is a hot new restaurant concept from an up and coming southern chef – you’d be wrong. Holler and Dash is the creation of well loved family brand Cracker Barrel. That’s right – the one and only. An invention out of necessity, Holler and Dash comes after Cracker Barrel exec’s discovered that the beloved Cracker Barrel brand was missing the mark with younger generations. Holler and Dash still features those homemade classics but with updates like a Red Eye Aioli and Tomato Jam topping their signature biscuits. You can tell that they’re catering to a different crowd! New brands like these aim for a crowd more focused on modern design and hip ingredients.

Cracker Barrel is not alone in this endeavor. Many aging restaurant concepts are developing new brands to capture an audience that their core offering is missing. Tony Roma’s opened TR’s Fire Grill to booming success in late 2015 and has been serving up locally sourced smoked meat, craft cocktails and an ambiance that attracts the ideal crowd. Don’t remember Tony Roma’s? (Hint: It’s the place for ribs.) You aren’t alone – not many people recall this once well loved establishment that started in the 70’s and that’s okay with them. “Most people don’t know,” says Tony Roma’s CMO Jim Rogers. And while Rogers is adamant that “We are comfortable with it being known that this is a concept developed by Tony Roma’s,” he stresses that “it’s a completely different concept,” and “we want it to live on its own.”

Why are so many aging brands opening new millennial-centric concepts? With the initial rise in Fast Casual, aging legacy brands like Cracker Barrel, Tony Roma’s, Texas Roadhouse and even Denny’s are looking for a way to redefine their portfolio and keep up with the shift in trends. In addition, the creation of new Fast Casual dining concepts with updated menu’s and modern executions allow legacy brands to try something new without having to interfere with their core business offerings.

Is this the fix for all legacy brands? No way. We have known for years that new offerings drive traffic. What we can understand from this kind of step into the creation of new restaurants by legacy brands is that the restaurant industry is always changing and that we will continue to see brands trying to find ways to stay relevant or expand their offerings. New brands can create buzz if executed correctly. If a restaurant concept like Texas Roadhouse can replicate their hospitality in a fast casual environment slinging burgers instead of steaks like they have with their concept called Jaggers, why wouldn’t they take the leap?

As a millennial who dines at legacy brand restaurants, these new offerings from restaurant chains I already know and love are not only exciting to me from a foodie perspective, but also give me a glimpse into what the future of restaurants could look like and how brands will stay relevant to their guests. I think the outlook is pretty great!

Here more about this approach on the F&RM Podcast.

Keep guests in your vision statement

Read the vision statement of some of the top dining brands and you’ll notice something quite odd. It’s focused solely on the success of the brand, and not at all on the people the brand exists to serve.

For example, Chili’s vision statement is “Chili’s love by 2020.” What on earth does that mean? To guests, absolutely nothing. Applebee’s is a list of corporate values. More of an appeal for shareholders than guests. Chipotle? “Change the way people think about and eat fast food.” It involves guests, but isn’t clearly about improving things for them. Panera Bread says “A loaf of bread under every arm.” Technically guests have arms, so we’re getting warmer.

The ideal vision statement is about the company and the specific thing it will do for customers to reach its big goal. Or at least a reference to what customers get from the brand that will help the brand get there. When the vision statement is solely inwardly focused, it’s telling. The Chili’s vision reads like the experience many guests have when they go to Chili’s; more about the brand moving customers than the guest’s visit. How do they hope to achieve Chili’s Love? Also, what?

If you are in the restaurant business, you exist to serve people.

McDonald’s vision is a very long and winding paragraph that includes references to the experience, their number one product and their guests. It feels very much like what you might believe McDonald’s is striving to achieve. Starbucks leaves out guests but puts a heavy focus on top-tier quality, integrity and corporate growth.

If you are in the restaurant business, you exist to serve people. If taking care of people or trying to give people a good time is not of interest to you, do something else. This is why it’s critical that any vision be centered around the guest. What will you provide your guest to grow your brand? That may sound difficult to define, but that’s the key. It’s the difference between independent restaurants and chains.

The sole proprietor or chef-led restaurant is still focused on guests. On delighting them. On pleasing them. On earning their next visit. Chains tend to lose this focus as they grow and expand into new markets. Corporations add words like integrity and supply chain to their visions to appeal to shareholders. Independent restaurants work for every visit and successful locations never lose site of the guests. To be fair, independent restaurants do not have a vision statement.

That’s part of the problem for large or growing brands. The vision statement is meant to direct the entire company towards a goal. A big goal. It’s interesting that many (most?) audacious futures don’t have customers. Chili’s Love by 2020. The vision statement should definitely include customers if only to identify the party that will fund this future state. But that’s a copout. A focus on the ‘love’ of the brand is not a destination that can ever be reached. It’s incredibly heady and vague. NPS and sentiment data are valuable tools, but neither is an effective way to measure the vision of the brand.

This post was inspired by and borrows from this fun and inappropriate episode of The Brand Hole podcast.

NPS scores don’t lie: nobody loves your brand.

Tucked in an innocuous Pollfish survey about consumer attitudes on Valentine’s Day was something a bit sinister. You’ll have to scroll a bit to find it. An NPS (Net Promoter Score) question about top casual dining brands added to the survey shows lukewarm reception to all of the options.

The top performing result was Red Lobster, receiving a just barely positive NPS score of 1. To be fair, the question was highly specific “How likely are you to recommend eating at this national chain restaurant for Valentine’s Day to a friend or colleague?” But for the most common and accessible (and highly branded) chains, scores this low are troubling.

Ok, this question is flawed, making true conclusion on NPS for these brands a stretch. For the purpose of argument, tell me if anyone is surprised that these brands scored so low. People don’t love these brands. People don’t love most brands. Brands exist to meet a customer need. But rare brands transcend that moment of need to become something uniquely desired or loved.

The NPS of a brand is a simple (albeit imperfect) way to measure this love. Low scores, even above average scores indicate some level of shame in using the brand. Low scores indicate a lack of willingness to tell others about a visited to the brand. This also indicates brands with declining traffic. Only top scores indicate the kind of love your advertising agency predicts their latest idea will generate: brand evangelism. But it won’t.

Here’s what does. Distinctive elements of service combined with unique food and drink – delivered in a way that indicates to a customer that your brand understands them. Fast casual brands quickly earned favorability by addressing an insight into casual dining customers. That is, faster but not worse. Cheaper, but not microwaved. They earned love (recommendation level love) by caring about customers. But not all fast casual brands achieved it. Only the best ones.

Most brands lack the brand awareness, favorability and resources of the brands included on the poll.

Arguably, the poll in question is a who’s who of the best in casual dining. Red Lobster, Olive Garden, Outback Steakhouse, The Cheesecake Factory, TGI Friday’s. Most surprising here is the poor NPS performance of The Cheesecake Factory, always a top performer in food quality and service. But have they or the others met changing expectations and demands of dining customers?

They’re mostly innovating inside what they consider their moat. They consider the table side experience and length of the meal to be a strength or at least a differentiator. To build on that, they’ve added offers like all-you-can-eat appetizers or even buy one, get one to go entrees. If the food is considered average, how will more of it make them above average? They’ve added kiosks or other touches to make their experience feel more digital.

They may have missed. The moat for casual dining is service. Making guests feel special, demonstrating appreciation for their business. All of the brands mentioned here have extensive recruiting and training programs, to be certain. But if the new wave of competition (fast casuals) is focused on speed and food innovation, casual dining can immediately differentiate with person-to-person interaction at the table. For casual dining brands, the space to win is hospitality. Technology can work only if it improves hospitality.

Most brands lack the brand awareness, favorability and resources of the brands included on the poll. With this collection scoring as it did, how would the rest of the casual dining field fare?