Is your brand experience easy to understand?

I visit a lot of restaurant concepts to find new trends and innovations. I always note is how easy it is for a new customer to understand what they are supposed to do to enjoy their visit. Especially their first visit. Blow that one, and there may not be a second. In our research into Millennial dining habits, 58% told us they base dining decisions on past experience. It is important to get it right early and often.


This is an issue on two levels. First, choosing the menu items and names that let people understand what they are choosing from and what it will taste like. Some concepts go all in on naming conventions that don’t always set expectations. Krystal calls its regular burgers Krystals. Probably fine given the presentation of the menu and focus on that primary items. But also on the menu are variations of hotdogs called Pups and Corn Pups.

Does everything on the menu make sense together? If you’re an Asian wok-based concept like Pei Wei, adding sushi is not a far leap for the customer. Less so at a southern chicken concept. That’s pretty simple. What about new items Buffalo Wild Wings has added? The brand has done great with a straightforward menu and formula of wings, sports and beer. Do burgers make sense there, or is the brand grasping for innovation. They’ve also added a pulled pork sandwich to their menu, even further afield. Raising Cane’s has been disciplined in keeping the menu extremely tight. Time will tell if they feel the need to expand the menu when location growth slows.

Don’t underestimate the importance of menu design. QSR and fast casual brands have the burden of communicating the flavor and experience at distance and often without much conversation. At Culver’s, the menu is much more expansive than a new guest might expect, making the first visit potentially overwhelming. Is the menu organized as simply as it can be? Are there flavor cues where needed? Is the menu divided intelligently, so it can be scanned.


This is sometimes out of your control, but a restaurant layout needs to welcome people. In casual dining, it’s important to have an area near a host’s stand for guests to gather and wait. But also to hear the music and see the sights inside the restaurant. No one likes to wait, but at least give them a chance to absorb the atmosphere and get excited to get to their seats. Texas Roadhouse does a great job with this.

In fast casual and especially QSR, give them an entry that allows them to comfortably view the menu. Even if a restaurant is as simple as Five Guys or Firehouse Subs, the first visit takes some orientation. Give people space to stand back and observe; don’t force them directly into the queue. Watch people’s first visit to a Qdoba and witness the awkward pauses, the questions, the confusion. Don’t position the menu at awkward angles that make it hard for people to read. A common mistake is posting the menu boards on the wall along the queue at chest height; the spacing makes it impossible to read.

When designing a standard footprint we maximize seating, kitchen equipment, safety. Make sure customer experience is included. Especially for new guests. How much does the layout give the guest a chance to understand the brand? Guests need to look at some of the food on other guests tables, see how they’re eating it, and what they’re combining.


Does your staff know their stuff? Do they help people understand? Are they trained to explain the concept and guide people towards favorite menu items? In a perfect world, the answers to all of these are yes. But reality is far from perfection. Even with the best menus and a flawless layout, some guests just won’t read or get it. Some will want to talk to staff and test them.

Find out what the most common questions are from guests. Set up training programs to give staff the help they need to perform at this level. Secret shop to ensure a high standard is being upheld. Reward staff living up to that standard with spot bonuses or other perks.

Staff trained in explaining the experience are trained in hospitality. Executing that well turns a confusing experience into a great one.

Is the Ziosk digital experience killing your experience?

Ziosk is in every casual dining restaurant in America. On every table. Or at least that’s how it feels. Omni present. It creates a digital experience layer on top of the dining experience guests came in to receive. Intended to create magic moments and ease friction, two things we preach, the devices are a bit divisive. Literally. Concepts love them because they ease the load on servers and streamline orders and payment. But how do guests feel?

Because it’s on the table, it’s a constant presence. More than once I’ve watched people who were unsure if the Ziosk was meant to replace the menu or even the server. They stare at it for a while before scrolling through the slides. They pick up the menu and compare the items. They break down and ask the server what exactly the device is. I’ve heard some servers say “That’s my replacement,” creating an awkward moment for the guest. Are they correct? For one generation it will create confusion of when to use it versus server.

Because Ziosk is everywhere it is therefore not unique. It is not ownable by any particular concept or brand. Yes, the screen images are customizable, but the restaurant next door has a Ziosk too with a visual of its own entree and logo on the screen. Anything guests can do on the Ziosk at your table they can do at the restaurant next door. This is great for Ziosk; building familiarity with the product and user experience conventions. But is it great for your brand?

Is it authentic to your concept? For a concept like Olive Garden that strives to be presented as updated authentic Italian, the Kiosk on the table takes guests out of that mode. This is exacerbated by the fact that the Ziosk is also on the table at the traditional American burger joint (Red Robin) and the tex mex fun stop (Chili’s). It’s hard to reconcile this component common to all three of these restaurants. For better or worse, the Ziosk creates an element of each experience that is a unified convention of casual dining: using the Ziosk.

What is a memorable experience you’ve had at a restaurant? Stop reading and think about it. It is likely a great meal, a shared laugh, or a pleasant conversation with family. Some of these specific memories could have only happened around a table. There is something about a group of people, sitting facing each other and sharing food that relaxes us and deepens relationships. Isn’t this why most of us got into hospitality? The human side?

Now think about your most memorable experience playing a game on a mobile device. Or better yet, your most memorable experience of watching your kids play a game on a mobile device. Do you think meals where that behavior is taking place will make the memory banks of your guests? Certainly not.

You’re reducing your experience to commodity, like fast food did. Ziosk and technology are certainly seductive to casual dining. Brands believe they need to create new gimmicks to lure in guests and differentiate from fast casual. You are actually isolating your true advantage, the interaction between guests and servers.

True, servers are fallible. More so than a Ziosk. But a great server can make the meal. More so than a Ziosk. With fast casual and QSR brands adding kiosk ordering, this is actually going to end up with a convention the three categories share. Which sounds appealing to casual dining brands until average check is considered. Tipping the server is an added expense, sure. But an experience with a great, personable server and staff outweighs a good series of button pushes. And I can’t get that just anywhere.

The customers or the brand. Who comes first?

More often than not, the answer is the latter. The needs of the brand and the company behind it drive the decisions. Adding something to the menu because the price dropped. Opening a location in a market just to add to the map. Having a presence on a social media channel because our competitor is there. Customers are often treated as an afterthought.

We who work on the inside of restaurant brands are focused on our business. Everything we see we apply to improving our performance. We analyze tiny details of competitors or new concepts. We obsess over commodity costs and changes to supply chain.

Customers don’t think about these things much. People aren’t rational decision makers. They make most decisions with emotion. Then they use logic to rationalize. Any decision can be better sold by making it meaningful to the customer. It’s important for restaurant brands to design that meaning into everything it does. Bolting on a marketing oriented reason to believe just feels fake. Consumers crave authenticity and will always sniff that out.

Put the customers first. Easily said. Not so easily achieved on an organizational level. Here are some ways to start shifting the internal approach to ‘customer first.’

Walk in their shoes

Especially in larger organizations, it is very easy to get caught up in the company culture. Endless meetings and conversations can convince us that the outside world thinks about our brand or our competitor in the same ways we do. Are they as focused on the change in hot sauce? To us, it may be a simple change in vendors, saving money and offering similar flavor. To them, it may have changed something fundamental about the experience.

Make yourself a customer. Go to the restaurants. Not as a marketer or as a ‘secret shopper’ but as a guest. Bring friends or family. Observe the experience. Experience it first-hand. Feel like you’ve mastered your own brand (you likely have!) go shop competitors. Try your top competitor. Try new concepts outside your category. Learn what is changing on the experience curve and people are reacting to. That seems extremely simple, and it is. Sometimes the simplest exercises yield the biggest insights.

Be a solution

Being a guest will help you understand how your guests use your brand. Yes, they’re coming in for a good meal and hospitality. But do they come in for comfort food? Is it a family treat? An efficient business lunch? Think about ways to optimize each of those experiences for the customer. If someone is coming in for a quick meal, what can you offer to make it a step faster or more added on as a carryout item? When you define the problem you’re solving for your guests, new products will be designed around them. And more appealing.

Respect customers’ taste

Another simple approach is to identify simple things that can be improved, and taking action. Have a lot of customers ordering entree’s without the dressing? Add that option to your menu. If people are upset about the change in hot sauce, give them an option. The reason the Coke Freestyle machine was so popular wasn’t because of it’s cool design (although that helped). People loved it because they could have exactly the flavor they wanted with their meal. That might mean that at a burger concept like Five Guys, they go with Coke Classic with cherry and raspberry; but at a Mexican meal, they choose Vanilla Coke with a touch of orange.

In our research, we’ve found that experience with your brand has the largest impact on future visits. If hospitality is important to your organization, make sure you are finding ways to make each guest feel like you are creating experiences just for them. Satisfy their emotional reaction to the experience, and let them rationalize their decisions moving forward.