Service isn’t a traffic driver, it’s an expectation

Reading through some recent research conducted for brands has produced a resounding ‘Meh’ on the topic of service. The research, which is confidential, was deployed to identify clear drivers for an expanding brand. Though respondents rated the service above average and added many positive notes in the open ends, it is obvious that they don’t come to this brand for the service. And that they had a certain expectation from the category.

In research conducted by F&RM, service quality ranked second to ‘past experience’ for selecting a restaurant. Curiously, ‘friendly wait staff’ was sixth. We determined at that time that accuracy and efficiency are more important than friendliness. We also determined that the contrary to understanding, friendly does not equal quality.

There is so much focus on service in training. And it is absolutely important. Training staff in the finer points of service and making sure guests have a great experience is critical. Especially since past experience is the number one criteria for selecting their next restaurant.

But where does service actually fit in the experience? This is the tricky part for training in service. And also for guests in assessing service. If the server is busy and forgets to bring the check, that might be bad service. Where is the line? If the kitchen sends an incorrect order, the guest interprets that as bad service too.

Even when the service is flawless, it still doesn’t drive traffic. Guests expect a level of service. That expected level shifts with the restaurant and with the category. But they still walk into each meal with some ideas of how they will be treated. They expect a clean table (that doesn’t wobble). They expect the person they communicate with to know the menu and understand what they are ordering. They have an expectation of the time the order will take to prepare and get to their table. A guest’s positive experience in one in which everything goes off without a hitch.

An extremely positive experience, ie. memorable, is one in which the restaurant over-delivers on that expectation.

Even for the best operators it is a challenge to meet the ever rising consumer standard. People are spoiled for experiences, and brands invest ever more in improving them. But if brands hope to consistently create memorable experiences, this is what they’re up against. Expectation.

So brands are caught in a trap. Because consumers believe that anything less than the expectation they have should be met. Just to get them in the door. And a million things out of the control of an operator can ruin that expectation. Anything short, and they’re not back. Overachieve, and set the bar higher for future visits.

The key for brands is in how they manage those cases in which something goes awry. Most operations training focuses on creating the positive, managing to the average. For brands with hopes of keeping up in the experience economy that we’re now living in, the focus should shift to managing for negative. As communications teams have a plan in place for crises, so operators should have a plan for the millions of little ways a visit can go wrong.

Since most of those incidents are not unique, there’s no reason that they can’t be accounted for in training. Equip servers and counter staff with the tools to react – or even plan for – errors in operation. As we all know, most guests are annoyed with the problem, but grow more frustrated with poor handling of the initial mistake. Training for this can help meet the expectation.

The viral hype is on menus, not memes.

Every day it seems that there is a new viral sensation sweeping your social media feed. No, not the latest OK Go video, DJ Khaled snap or Kardashian whatever they do. Think food. First it was the Pinterest-ready cupcakes rendered in beautiful pastels. The next big thing was macarons. Then the cronut became a standout solo hit. Giant pizza slices. Brisket burrito. It feels like these new items hit the internet daily. Because they pretty much do.

Each new item attracts visitors to the restaurant, along with Likes, shares and clicks. And most of these items are the creations of independent restaurants. But major brands don’t fire off crave-worthy novelties at the same pace. Sure KFC had the Double Down, and now sister brand Taco Bell has the Naked Chicken Chalupa (look familiar?). But by-and-large, these items are few and far between.

They usually play like novelties invented just for the press release. Gimmicks like the Panera Bread “secret menu” attempt, designed to ride the success pioneered authentically by some brands but ultimately falling short. Outback Steakhouse’s 3 Point Bloomin’ Onion (topped with cheese fries and steak) was clearly built to get media attention. It failed to gain visitors because it just doesn’t look that good to eat.

Many viral hits across media are remixes. Music, movies, even viral videos about remixes.

For the restaurants that create the Sushi donut, initial traffic crashes the place. Traffic is the goal of major brands as well. But independents, strapped for resources, fail to capitalize by moving those there to try the viral hit onto more mainstream menu items. Major QSR, Fast Casual and Casual Dining brands have the R+D departments but somehow fail to innovate.

So, what’s different?

The Double Down success was as much a product of its curiosity inducing form as it was the media buy that gave it visibility. It was never intended to be a mainstay on the menu at KFC. But it also failed to create serious levels of demand, unlike the buffalo chicken chimichanga. These are the items that younger guests seek because they’re not only looking for unique food experiences, but they’re looking for things to share on social media.

Taco Bell is well positioned to launch a string of viral food hits. They have the food oddity gene in their DNA by virtue of the co-opted nature of their Amexican cuisine and history of flavor combinations like the Doritos Locos tacos. Taco Bell also has the top viral audience coming in daily. And now for Waffle Tacos. So why aren’t sales continuing to rise?

The food that goes viral have something else in common. Like Taco Bell, they are remixes of popular items. Sushi and Donuts for example. Unlike Taco Bell, they tend to cross culinary lines that brands locked into a corporate flavor profile have trouble finding. The cronut, maybe the item that started the viral food trend, seems simple. But French pastry techniques and good old deep fried dough had never been cross pollinated, despite sitting next to each other on New York City bakery shelves for decades.

Many viral hits across media are remixes. Music, movies, even viral videos about remixes. Fragmentation has rendered mass attention harder than ever to earn. Artists and media seek to leverage known properties, or very, very familiar ideas to draw a bigger initial audience. The easier it is to explain, the bigger the audience opportunity.

In light of the change in culture, brands need to find their own Sushi Donut that will attract initial attention, drive trial and allow for menu exploration down the road. Mixing favorite flavors is one recipe for viral success. Creativity doesn’t have to be original to be successful.

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.