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.

What restaurants can borrow from Meal Kit Delivery services

Services like Blue Apron, Chef’d, Plated have been a part of the rising tide of companies delivering the pre-set meal kit to customers since 2012. Market Research firm Packaged Facts predicted the meal kit industry would generate around $1.5 Billion in 2016. These companies have attracted the attention of investors, CPG brands, grocers and restaurants alike; each for their own obvious reasons.

Restaurants look on warily, fearing another category competitor carving away much needed traffic and revenue. We at Food and Restaurant Marketing have examined the most successful of the hundreds of meal kit brands to identify a few lessons restaurant chains could apply to their own business. It all starts with understanding why meal kits have been successful.

It is convenient

Well, sort of convenient. It’s delivered to the door of the customer, and is prepared on their schedule. But it does have to be prepared. And cleaned up. While there is convenience, it comes with a limitation that is understood by customers.

Restaurants have both of these same elements. Dining at a restaurant, getting takeout or delivery can be more convenient than grocery shopping and cooking. But waiting and other factors can diminish the value exchange of paying for the overall convenience of not cooking. Restaurants need to continue to look for ways to remove friction from their ordering experience when consumers are looking for that convenience. They don’t necessarily need to cut out all the stops for dine-in guests.

Takeaway: Focus on friction.

Restaurants can take advantage of this trend of adventurous eating by being bold.

Foodies love it

Meal kits have a tendency to feature unique or unexpected ingredients. This gives customers a chance to ‘experiment’ with a new flavor in a safe way. It also lets them explore many profiles of spice, protein and vegetable combinations than they might be able to shop for at their grocery store without guidance. The chefs at Blue Apron have already tested the flavor and assembled the kit.

Restaurants can take advantage of this trend of adventurous eating by being bold. Even if it means offering variations on successful menu items, brands can add spicier profiles and unique proteins where it makes sense. The rise in turmeric and other spices is a trend that has hit meal kits and CPG but not yet mainstream chains. This despite Technomic and others (see previous paragraph) calling for it.

Takeaway: Bring the flavor.

Balanced meals

Remember this concept? Meal kits do a great job of making sure customers get a square meal. Their meals come set with complementary fruit, vegetables and side dishes that all work together. And we’re not talking about the frozen peas and carrots that we know from TV dinners. As above, this is part of a trend of playing to foodie culture that has flourished with gourmet cooking content and celebrity chefs rising to prominence.

QSR and Fast Casual (and many, many Casual concepts) under-emphasize or else flat-out ignore meal balance. For a long time, guests looked past it and just had a meal with fries and a soda. We’re all more educated, even if the lesson is the same one taught in elementary school using the outdated food pyramid. How can your restaurant add vegetables or sides to the mix that make sense to your concept and will be embrace by your guest.

Takeaway: Side dishes can be the star.

There’s also something to be learned in where they fall short:

You can’t predict a craving.

It is great when you’ve pre-ordered that pork cutlet with green chiles, and it shows up three days later and you are still in the mood for it. Yes. However, when customers suffer multiple lapses in orders; when they pass on a meal that’s been delivered, we’ll begin to see attrition.

What most restaurants have going for them is the very thing that you cannot control. Making food that people crave. Know your guests, and continue catering to their tastes. They’ll come when they crave it.

Takeaway: Find ways to drive craving.

These along with other factors such as accurate portion size are reasons that meal kit services have blossomed in the US. But through careful study of their customers, restaurants can find keys to improving their offering, guest loyalty and new customer acquisition.

Ten Stamps Later and Your Customers Still Aren’t Loyal

What makes you come back for more? Really think about what makes you loyal for a second, because it’s something you never really question.

For brands relying on frequency like restaurants, the loyalty club has become standard practice. Buy 10, get the 11th free. Some can prove that those clubs drive increased frequency, maybe by .5 visits per month. That kind of increase is certainly valuable. But does it drive true loyalty?

The brands I know with successful loyalty programs are also successful in a bunch of other metrics as well. Funny how that works, isn’t it. Zoe’s Kitchen boasts a great performance from its loyalty club and app. But they do pretty well in store traffic and sales per unit across the board. Maybe it’s because they offer a unique menu mix not found at many other places at a reasonable price and executed well, operationally. They serve the food in a cool environment. Their employees are bright and friendly.

Which of those factors brings people back for that extra .5 of a visit? The free panini in five months or good meals and friendly people while you’re earning it?

Humanity Over Apps

I don’t belong to many loyalty clubs. I don’t like treating meals like a contract with Columbia House. I do use the Starbucks app because it provides more than just loyalty rewards. It offers a fast store finder, ordering tools, and nice payment functionality. The loyalty rewards themselves are on the silly side; access to apps and songs and refills.

A funny thing happened at my local store. I ordered a cup in a hurry, and they had just run out of my roast. The barista recommended a different drink I had never tried, and I accepted because of my helpless caffeine addiction. As she handed it to me, she said “On the house, thanks for trying this.” Super good experience.

Later that week, the Starbucks app crapped out on me and wouldn’t let me pay. I pulled out a credit card and haven’t used the app since. What I learned is that I wasn’t going for the gamification. Or the potential for a free 50th cup of coffee. I was going for the rare spark I get when there is an exchange of humanity.

As slick as I think the app is, (it is one of the best) it deleted part of the brand experience when the customer had to fidget with their phone to pay instead of interacting with the barista. Is that the kind of experience we want customers to be loyal to?

Experience Over Everything

Any store can offer your 11th thing free. It’s easy. Not every store can sell you something you want to have 11 times, in a way that makes you happy to do so. Experience is a huge driver for future visits. Most of that made up of elements that aren’t on the menu or with a UPC.

Are loyalty programs worthless? No. Can they alone drive traffic to a mediocre experience? No. If you are examining a loyalty program, make sure to put the same level of effort into the customer experience you expect customers to be loyal to.