Automats: restaurants and food with the absence of service

Eatsa is a restaurant concept from San Fransisco that offers a new take on service. Healthy bowls served without interacting with another human. The food is described as surprisingly good. But behind the high tech facade of Eatsa, people do take the orders and prepare the meals.

This is part of a trend in food towards automats. Burritobox, 24/7 Pizza and a wave of other brands are vying to become the Redbox of food. Each brand cites the success of technology and delivery services which eschew the traditional service of a restaurant and have seen big success. It’s true, Seamless is a success with younger consumers. Casual Dining concepts like Chili’s and The Olive Garden have added table side tablets to reduce server interaction and friction from dining experiences. McDonald’s and Panera are following suit.

There is certainly a novelty factor involved for many of these automated restaurants. Having your quinoa bowl delivered at the pushing a button or sushi prepared by a machine is a curiosity.

When a customer has a bad experience at an automated restaurant, brands will have to hope that they take to their app or to social media to complain if only so they can try to make it up to them.

And there’s no doubt that convenience is as important as ever. Consumers comfortable with ordering from apps and spoiled with choices have indicated in research and with their wallets that they avoid restaurants that are overly complex for some meal occasions. Have people become so eager to avoid interaction with other humans that they would choose a box restaurant concept?

There is an optimal time and place for any successful food concept. Rubio’s and Chipotle don’t have to close for Burritobox to find its customer base. They’re be indirect competitors. Consumers will choose the option that is appropriate for the time and place. Have an hour? Stop at a casual dining concept. Have a half-hour? Stop at Qdoba. Getting on a train? Burritobox.

Fears of Commoditization

While there may be a time and place for everything, too much availability makes anything less special. Especially food from what appears to be a vending machine. There is a reason the original Automats disappeared. Burritobox emphasizes that it is supplied with hand-made food that is checked for freshness and quality every day.

Removing the service element puts a lot of focus on the remaining experiential elements. For Eatsa, that means the user experience of pushing buttons to order, which people seem to enjoy so far. Even grocery which has stepped up prepared food offerings have some level of service. But in an automat environment, there is no service, and that puts a lot of pressure on the meal itself.

Let’s not forget that consumers can get pizza almost anywhere, and pretty high quality instant gratification products at c-stores thanks to concepts like Hunt Brothers. A pizza from a vending machine will still have to be cooked or heated; customers will still have to like it enough to come back or recommend it to anyone. Brands will have to convince consumers that a slice from the box is more than the microwave pizza they make at home.

In the case of Burritobox, there is no shortage of options up and down the experience chain. From Taco Bell at the mass-QSR level all the way up to Casual Dining and a host of stand-alone concepts. Burritobox will have to work very hard to earn trial and must really deliver on food experience to earn a second visit.

Sometimes a mistake is made in a restaurant that can be made up for by service staff with a smile, or an apology. When a customer has a bad experience at an automated restaurant, brands will have to hope that they take to their app or to social media to complain if only so they can try to make it up to them.

Not just demand-side benefits

Looking more closely at the automation that has taken off so far though, it may not be these trends that will drive growth. In fact, it might have more to do with real estate cost and site selection. A look at the Eatsa footprint shows that they cut out a lot of expensive square footage along with the front-of-house service area and counter holding those cash registers. In San Fransisco and New York where the brand is opening first, that’s a huge savings.

24/7 Pizza looks for local pizza brands to make the inventory for their boxes and displays their name. This gives a pizza brand an opportunity to expand without opening new storefronts or even investing in a real estate search. Redbox, the physical DVD rental vending machines popped up everywhere (even as Netflix beat Blockbuster Video into closing location after location). Growing restaurants can look at that model and borrow ideas.

Brands can also use this outlet to put their best foot forward. Restaurants using automated tech to expand beyond their existing locations can test the output of boxes and offer only their top menu items that are best executed in that environment. This way a consumer not familiar with their brand will have higher odds of an experience they want to repeat.

Category conventions in restaurant design or Why do all BBQ joints look the same?

Ever noticed that 90% of the BBQ restaurants you’ve ever been in look like they used the same interior designer? Maybe the first ones to set the tone didn’t even use a designer, but now the trend is set and being strictly adhered to by each new entry in the category. These category conventions can become a trap.

Here’s a quote from restaurateur Tyson Ho on opening a BBQ restaurant in Brooklyn: “The most annoying part of designing a barbecue restaurant is how everyone tries to pigeonhole you into looking like a Cracker Barrel or Paula Deen’s hillbilly playland. “Let’s put sawdust on the ground!” says one person. “I got these great old license plates we can hang on the wall,” says another. Every day I get offers for old wagons, rusty farm equipment, and fake vintage gas station signs.”

On one hand, category conventions are healthy. They provide cues to guests about the experience they’re about to have. People are creatures of habit and are not always willing to dive in without some understanding of what they’re about to eat. So offering some familiarity is a positive.

But how does any concept stand out from the pack when every one from Franklin Barbecue to Famous Dave’s to Dickie’s BBQ Pit are all using the same set of design standards. They’re the same in that they all sell a version BBQ, but those are three totally different experiences. Yet, Vintage styled cartoons of pigs and calls for people to “EAT” grace all three. Along with mismatched type, antique tools and neon, rusted tin signs.

“I got these great old license plates we can hang on the wall,” says another. Every day I get offers for old wagons, rusty farm equipment, and fake vintage gas station signs.”

Think about your last casual dining experiences and the design of the menu and table tents. They all follow a similar convention. Probably a condensed sans serif type punctuated with thick straight script font on top. Photos of dishes that look like there may only be one photographer in the country, each retouched to be appropriately distressed and embedded into the menu to appear ‘crafted.’

Don’t even get me started on pizza restaurants and their images of tomatoes on the vine, Sinatra and murals of Venice. The honest answer is that new concepts borrow from what has worked for successful brands before them. If the best noodle bar in town is a 900′ step in bar with an open kitchen, you can bet that the next five noodle bars to open will be 700′ – 1100′ step in bars with open kitchens. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but more importantly using cues guests already recognize improve comfort and sales for new concepts. Unfortunately, using those same cues sets the expectations for guests that up and comers may not be able to meet.

But some have found ways to subvert category conventions and bend it to their advantage by playing with consumer expectations. The most successful concepts we’ve seen in the past few years in Fast Casual take the best ideas from QSR and Casual Dining to set expectations. In the case of a brand like Five Guys, they offer a convention similar to QSR Hamburger restaurants, but a simpler menu and more premium food product.

Unfortunately for concepts in the Fast Casual or QSR BBQ has to match the delicious food of Franklin BBQ or even Famous Dave’s; and not just their sense of design.

Growing an emerging brand: three key factors for success

watering can, new product, CPG

Growing an emerging brand in the CPG space takes a special focus and attention.

A growing consumer package goods company can efficiently and effectively create demand and generate trial with limited distribution and a limited budget. The way it’s done is by doing a few things well and with great precision.

It’s important to remember when setting a precise strategy, you must sacrifice some things you think you want to do. Staying focused on what’s working will prevent you from straying to random tactics and getting off message. There are three critical components to an effective marketing strategy for most emerging brands. They’re designed to focus your limited budget on the optimal tactics and messages through a test and optimize approach. More on that later. The three critical components are: geo-targeting, target audience, and optimal messaging.

1. Geo-targeting

Geo-target your promotional investment in your best markets. Examine your ACV in each market to ensure people will be able to find your product once you create an interest.

You need to understand who your best and most likely customer is.

Start by identifying your top five designated market areas (DMAs) based on where you have the best distribution. Your primary objective is to generate awareness so you can generate trial. Several great ways to generate that awareness include: paid search, paid social, and online video. All tactics can be implemented relatively inexpensively.

2. Target audience

Have a precise target audience for your product. Do not try to reach broad demographics like “Adults 25-54.” It’s not efficient. You want to understand who your best and most likely customer is. You’ll base this not only on gender and age, but also with a clear psychographic profile. Understanding who your raving fans are is important so you can use all the digital targeting tools available today to go find more people with the same profile. When setting your target there are several tools available, like social listening, Facebook Insights and Google Analytics.

3. Optimal messaging

Create optimal messaging that will resonate, engage and motivate your audience. Because you are implementing the test and optimize model, there is no need to limit your message options. Since you’re early in your marketing efforts you want to test a variety of approaches to determine which ones resonate with your audience and creates the best click through rates and conversions.

As you learn what advertising messages and types are generating click through and conversion, you optimize your advertising spend on the most effective ads.

Consumers are looking for new products all the time. They’re interested in new flavors, new options to replace old favorites or they’re just trying new products out of curiosity, and they use a variety of channels to seek them out. Whether it’s search, social channels or websites; emerging brands need to get their message out there so we can discover your great new product.