Food trends and brand optimization

Spend some time looking through the time capsule of January’s food trends listicles and something interesting pops up quickly. Most of these food trends don’t apply to your brand. I can write that with confidence despite not knowing for sure which brand you’re from. The problem with endless choice and (endless content for that matter) is that people can chase down niche interests; and each niche interest can become a trend.

Items on your menu should be built to generate interest, for sure. But it’s also important that brands stay in their lane. If your brand is build on fresh, stir-fried flavors, a hamburger might be an awkward addition. Seems easy until burgers show up on a list of top food trends. When we see the burger place next store doing well, we want to add something to our menu to get in on the trend, avoid the veto and compete with the leaders.

What can happen over time is the endless addition of items that build to a trend, but stretch the brand beyond normal range. Especially for brands coming from lower sales, the temptation to add trendy items is huge. But a focus on the core is critical for brands hoping to turn it around.

Inside food trends

Instead of adding items from the latest pile of food trends, understand the reason that each trend is catching on and build an item to capitalize on the ‘why.’ Kombucha and brain stimulants aren’t right for most mass brands, but the trend is about consumers maximizing perceived benefits from their food. Find ways to highlight ingredients that have a positive effect. This might be as simple as Chick-Fil-A’s recent addition of kale salad in place of the higher calorie cole slaw.

Take what works from the trend and apply it to your core customer. Despite the press that a lot of food trends get, most are so niche that there isn’t an audience that will change traffic. But incorporating an element into your menu can earn credit with those aware of the trend.

Improve core items

Sticking with the craveable core items of your brand forces your team to work to make each item as great as it can be. Ever been to a diner? They have a menu 20 pages long and a two-star Yelp! review because they keep adding items but don’t do any of them particularly well. Spend the time to make your menu unique within your category. If the trend is charcuterie, that might be a signal to focus on the cuts of meat on the menu. Look at what Arby’s is doing with their menu.

The goal is to take what the brand is best at and optimize it. For every wild new item added, there is distraction added to the operations which can slow down the kitchen and lead to service lapses.

Just say no

Discipline is easy when things are going well. If it’s not clear how a trend fits with your concept, walk away. Allow the independent shop down the street experiment with fermentation. If your core customer isn’t begging for it, or leaving you to get it elsewhere, be brave enough to pass.

It’s easy to get caught up in the hype of food trends. They tend to get the short-term attention. The key is to ensure that your brand is incorporating the parts of the food trends that work for your brand – and your guests.

Why Does Restaurant Traffic Die? – Podcast

If 2016 has taught us anything, it is that no brand is invulnerable to restaurant traffic cutting off at some point in time. Every brand faces change in different ways. What makes an unstoppable brand lose the flow of customers? And more importantly, what can head off those changes?

Let’s discuss!

restaurants, customers, trends, restaurant traffic, brand
How do you prevent traffic from coming to a halt?

Prefer a transcript? Read along here.

Read the companion article here.

Transcriptions by Go Transcript.

If you enjoy the podcast, please review and share!

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.