Comparison shopping. Brands are tested against a wide array of experiences.

If you kept a dining journal you might be surprised at the varied names that appeared. People don’t have a loyalty to most restaurant brands. Never mind a single dining format. Know anyone that goes exclusively to fast casuals and never sits down at a casual dining establishment? Know anyone that truly avoids every type of QSR?
People have a wide array of options and a larger pool of comparison.

No, if you looked back at the location data stored in your phone, you would find something surprising. People choose restaurants of all shapes and sizes depending on a variety of factors. F & RM has examined this in our study. Beyond restaurants, people eat or purchase meals at convenience stores, gas stations, food courts, kiosks, family entertainment centers and theaters. How does your brand stand up to the comparison?

If you launch a restaurant brand today and hope to identify a tight group of competitors, think again. A concept like Studio Movie Grill is offering something no other casual dining place can; first run films. C-stores have upgraded their food offering. It’s on par with many QSRs and some even survive comparison to Fast Casual. Brands like Pizza Hut have softened the entry point on the pizza category through their entry in to QSR and drive-thru formats. Brands like Hunt Brothers and Quick Trip have a solid quick serve pizza offering. The middle ground is shrinking.

Each restaurant brand is used for a different range of purpose. It solves a different problem for the customer. We add more potential solutions for each situation or day part. The comparison between the solutions for each day part is natural. How does my quick morning pick up will go? Starbucks, Quick Trip, Dunkin’ Donuts, Panera Bread, the local deli. Which best meets the need?

But it doesn’t stop there. Food is sensory. Service is emotional. Both of these elements create lasting memories for customers. Those memories aren’t constrained by rationality. People do compare the pizza they got from a drive-thru to the great pizza they got at a family restaurant. They absolutely do. How do you suppose that comparison ends for Pizza Hut?

How about customers of places like Jimmy John’s or Capriotti’s? They like the brand, they understand the experience. They know how the prices of each align and how long each takes. Then they go to a convenience store and pick up a surprisingly good ready-to-eat sub on a road trip. That experience is marked in their mind the next time they go into one of those sub shops. The value and food quality are now subject to a new comparison. Is it better than the c-store sub? Is it two dollars better?

In this context, think about casual dining customers. Even a loyalist of Applebee’s will run a similar comparison to food quality when they have a good prepared meal from their grocery store. Again, they do the math on the cost and ask, “Is the service and a soda worth that?”

When we price in service on top of COGS we price against similar concepts. We look at the other brands that look just like us. So often, brands limit their competitive set to only ‘like’ concepts. It’s time to expand on that. Because that’s what customers are doing.

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.

Menu

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.

Footprint

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.

Training

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.