Transcript of Food & Restaurant Podcast – Amazing Culture with Kaffee Hopkins of Sterling Hospitality

Transcript of Food & Restaurant Marketing Podcast – Episode: Amazing Culture with Kaffee Hopkins of Sterling Hospitality

[00:03:35] Adam Pierno: All right, well welcome back to another episode of food and restaurant marketing. We have another special guest as part of our season two here. We are joined today by Kaffy Hopkins. Kaffy, that’s right, with the two F’s not TH, who’s joining us from Sterling Hospitality and it’s a brand– part of that is a brand called Marlow’s Tavern that I’m very familiar with and love. And so welcome Kaffy to the show.

[00:04:14] Kaffy Hopkins: Thank you very much for having me, Adam.

[00:04:16] Adam: No worries. I’m really glad we could make this happen. I know we tried a few times get it on the calendar. Can you give the audience a little bit of a background of your career and where you’ve been what you’ve done?

[00:04:29] Kaffy: Sure. So I got my start in restaurants, I hate to say, nearly 30 years ago this fall. I went to work for the Applebee’s franchise in Kansas City. They had six Applebee’s. They bought the company from WR Grace who owned Applebee’s corporate at that time and they became the franchisor. We had 50 Applebee’s then, great fun. It was at the very beginning. Nobody really knew who Applebee’s was. We kind of flew under the radar. I stayed there for four years, helped him grow the marketing and then the advertising agency was here in Atlanta.
It was a company called Babbitt and Reiman and our AE went on a maternity leave and didn’t come back and they were bellyaching about how they couldn’t find anybody to help so I said I can do that job and the chairman of the company, Joel Babbitt, called me the next day and said, “I’ll send somebody to pack you up and move you to Atlanta.” One of my three sisters actually lived here then, still lives here, and I said okay so I moved from Kansas City to Atlanta, 26 years ago, right about this time. And that’s how I got into restaurants.

[00:05:39] Adam: You know what made me sad? You sounded like you were sad to say you’ve been doing this for 30 years and I hate that. I love that you have this experience and when I talk to people that have great experience, I think there’s just so much more to learn and you’ve seen it all, you’ve been there, you’ve done that. Be proud of your 30 years, not a lot of people survive that long in this business.

[00:06:00] Kaffy: Thank you. It’s just fun business. Nothing is as much fun as this. I love the business and you either love it or you don’t and it’s okay if you don’t but you should go do something else because you’re never going to.

[00:06:13] Adam: Right, that’s right. I agree. In the conversations that you and I have had leading up to this, I can tell that you really have a passion for the business and for the topic of today which is restaurant culture and how to live restaurant culture, which I really love. In another recent episode, we talked about authenticity with Zac Painter of Fatz Cafe.
He talked about how they turned around and got back to the roots and the authentic meaning of the brand but because of your great experience and all the brands you’ve been in, Applebee’s and some of these really, really established brands, your perspective is going to be great here today on this topic. Do you want to talk a little bit about what culture means to you because you had a lot of passion about this when we when we talked a couple weeks ago?

[00:07:00] Kaffy: Culture to me is something that you have to live and breathe and not just talk about. It’s how you say things. It’s your tone of voice. It’s how you treat people. It’s what you look at and what you do when you walk into one of our taverns or a cafe, it’s the respect I give the dishwasher if you’re the CEO who’s in the office next door to me and our co-founder. But it’s not just the way you live your life at work, it’s the way you live your life. If the culture of where you work doesn’t align with your own personal culture and your own values and how you already live, then you’re never going to be a hit. That’s why I find Marlow’s so refreshing because I feel like I’ve worked —
For me, it was the last 27 years to have this one job. I feel like this is– And I don’t hope to have another job ever again. I align so well with the culture and we talk about our culture a lot. We have what’s called a Marlow’s Magic Book. It’s right here in my hand. It’s got my first day that I started, which was February 26, 2014. It’s gotten notes in it. It’s got our mission. It’s got an introduction to Marlow’s, employee attributes or seven values, our guiding principles, our promises. I carry it with me all the time.

[00:08:26] Adam: You get that on your first day but then you don’t just put it in a drawer?

[00:08:30] Kaffy: No.

[00:08:31] Adam: That’s amazing. Go ahead.

[00:08:34] Kaffy: For example, we have monthly leadership face-to-face meetings on the cafe side and on the Marlow side. The cafes are 20 plus cafes and office buildings, B&I, Business and Industries is what it’s called. Anywhere from a building of 400 population to 4,000 population. It’s how we range. We will get in a meeting and John Metz, who’s our co-founder and CEO will say, going to go around the room, “Which value are you feeling this period? This month? And why?” or another meeting he’ll say, “Have you seen somebody, a co-worker or somebody in the Tavern, a manager, somebody who is really living one of these values and had it? How did you see that come to life?”

[00:09:21] Adam: That’s fantastic.

[00:09:23] Kaffy: They’re always top of mind.

[00:09:24] Adam: Full disclosure for the audience, Kaffy and I met because I’m an alumnus, I consulted on the Marlow’s brand a few years back and maybe Kaffy, it’d be helpful to give the audience who maybe are in the West and don’t know the Marlow’s brand yet just a quick elevator speech on what the Marlow’s brand is.

[00:09:45] Kaffy: Absolutely. We are Marlow’s Tavern. We call ourselves taverns, never restaurants. We want you to eat in our bar and drink in the dining room. They’re together, we serve– Everything is made from scratch. Our CEO went to the Culinary Institute of America so we’re all about the food. We don’t have a microwave. We have a very small freezer. We have cloth napkins. Every marinade, every stuff, everything is made from scratch. In our taverns, we have an open kitchen so you can see what’s going on. We have a chef de cuisine. Our lowest priced item is 4.50 for our parmesan fries and our highest priced item is $20 for filet medallions, great steak-frites that we just put on the menu and green beans. We’ve got terrific, we sell a lot of burgers. We have some great shrimp and grits and some specialty items, Mongolian bowl.

[00:10:40] Adam: The shrimp and grits. When I lived in Atlanta, I lived on the shrimp and grits and Parmesan fries, for sure.

[00:10:45] Kaffy: Yes, shrimp and grits is definitely one of our most popular items. We don’t talk about how many we have. We don’t want anybody to know. We want you to think your Marlow’s is your neighborhood Marlow’s. We don’t think people drive a long way to get to a Marlow’s and that’s not really who we are. We want to be the corner bar, the one’s you’re going to come–

[00:11:03] Adam: That’s another interesting thing that I think relates back to culture. The neighborhood feel. If there’s no footprint, there’s no, “If I go to the town.” or, “If I go up to Alpharetta,” there are two different footprints. The feel is the same but distinctive to the neighborhood and it’s unique to the location that I am.

[00:11:27] Kaffy: In Midtown you might not ever see a child. In East Cobb, you go in and there are families and everybody knows everybody. It takes on the bars, the taverns take on the flavor of whatever neighborhood they’re in. We never call ourselves a chain. We don’t have customers, we have guests.

[00:11:45] Adam: I love that.

[00:11:46] Kaffy: And we’re about the hospitality for those guests, it’s what we are. That’s a little bit about Marlow’s Tavern. Does that help?

[00:11:53] Adam: Yes, that’s awesome. You talk a little bit about the internal culture with the Marlow’s Magic Book. How does that– I guess the mission is, we’re going to build this really strong internal culture and so John is going to give these inspirational talks and refer back to the values and really demonstrate to people that those values are important. How do you translate? What I think is interesting about the brands that do this right is that they’re able to get the guests to not just recognize that there’s a culture but the guest actually becomes a participant in it. And that’s definitely true for Marlow’s.

[00:12:32] Kaffy: I would say the first of our seven values is hospitality, and I think that our guests feel the hospitality. They don’t know exactly what it is we do that makes us different. They may not recognize it. For example, if you have an appetizer or a salad before your meal comes, you don’t get to keep your dirty fork. No, no, no. We take the fork and bring you a clean one. We serve our food with open-handed service, a server comes and never turns her back on you. They serve the food even if they have to switch hands. It feels different, the hospitality feels different. But our guests may not be able to put the finger on why they were treated differently at Marlow’s but they know that the experience was better.
I think that people feed off that hospitality, being recognized, knowing– We know that they’re a regular. It’s, “Welcome back,” and, “What did you have last time?” and, “Can I tempt you for something new this time?” One of our values is fun. I mean, which companies you know one of their values is fun? We are a fun place. It’s fun come to Marlow’s. Our servers have a good time–

[00:13:36] Adam: I thought it was fun working with people at headquarters too.

[00:13:40] Kaffy: Well, thank you. It’s a fun place to be. We don’t take ourselves too seriously. We want you to come sit at the bar, try new drinks. Say hello to the bartender. We have little bar cards that’s got the bartender’s name on the front so that you know who you’re talking to.

[00:13:55] Adam: How do you train for that? How do you train for open-handed service? Is it part of hiring? Or is it part of training? I’m sure it’s a combination of both but give me a little background.

[00:14:06] Kaffy: It’s both. We use the company called [unintelligible 00:14:10] and it is an online assessment that everybody who works at our company, from the server to me– I had to do the online assessment test. It was a different online assessment test and it took me an hour and a half to do it but, it tests the hospitality gene. If you don’t have that service minded attitude, then you’re not going to survive in our taverns. You can go work somewhere else where hospitality and service might not be this high up priority as they are with us and that’s okay go work there.
But you have to take this online assessment test and you have to get within our range that we’re looking for or we’re going to pass on you and go on to the next person. The first most important key is that you have a propensity to be hospitable and to serve. And then it comes down to the training. We are inspired by fine dining, the fine dining is kind of dead but it’s those things that they do in fine dining. Those points of service from the hello when they get there to goodbye when they leave. We serve our drinks on a little tray. We just don’t carry them out and plug them on the table. First, it’s making sure that you have that mentality and second, it’s the training.

[00:15:35] Adam: I think that’s fantastic. You mentioned in the Magic Book there’s a mission. You don’t have to tell me the mission but do you think about the mission every day? Is the staff in house, at each location, at each tavern, are they reminded of the mission? How do you bring that to life for them to make it work?

[00:15:58] Kaffy: Well you have to be because if we’re not giving great hospitality, then we’re not Marlow’s. If a server or bartender is not saying hello and we’re pointing to the bathroom, that’s not great hospitality. It’s not a good fit. But our mission, part of it is the hospitality, so they live it and breathe it every day. It is always alive and well and breathing in our taverns and cafes.

[00:16:29] Adam: Does that happen with the– operationally, is that trained into the management of each tavern to remind people every day? Or to call out great behavior? How does it work operationally?

[00:16:47] Kaffy: The managers do managers’ meetings weekly and they talk about the top three and the bottom three. The top three and how great they’re doing, and the bottom three and how we could help those. But just step back for a second, so everybody who works at a Marlow’s or a Sterling Spoon Cafe, everybody gets the orientation with the Magic Book. It’s not just for leadership or managers, everybody gets the Magic Book.

[00:17:12] Adam: Everybody’s responsible, everybody is exposed to it and then they know it, and they can either take it hard as they can. If they can’t, I suspect they don’t stay long.

[00:17:20] Kaffy: Correct, yes. [inaudible 00:17:24]

[00:17:25] Adam: Let’s talk about how most brands– I complimented you for your experience and I want to bring that to bear. You’ve worked at some big places. I know that through conferences and other things, you’ve been exposed to how other brands practice these techniques. How do the biggest, best brands do this? I think of branding where they wear a brand will try to communicate their culture outwardly and they’ll try to build the strong brand, do you think the branding plays a role in it? Or do you think the branding is based on what’s already really happening and it doesn’t work if it’s not real?

[00:18:03] Kaffy: I think it’s based on what’s already happening and it doesn’t work if it’s not real.

[00:18:08] Adam: If it’s a bluff because the consumers don’t buy it.

[00:18:11] Kaffy: Yes. And you know, we don’t talk about our mission statement or our branding. We didn’t do it. It’s like, you know Ritz-Carlton is ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen. They don’t say that, they just do it. They always say, I split my career on the ad agency side and the client side. I can recall having clients that they would, “Let’s say this.” Well, if you’re saying that in the advertising, your strategy is showing. We should just do it. You don’t have to tell people we’re doing it. I think there’s companies–

[00:18:42] Host: Do you think the culture– Sorry to cut you up. Do you think the culture is more important than the branding?

[00:18:49] Kaffy: I think you can’t live up your brand if you don’t have a strong culture. It is not believable.

[00:18:55] Adam: If they’re not aligned for sure.

[00:18:57] Kaffy: No. You can’t– I mean, you can for a little bit of time but people are going to come to you once and they’re never going to come back. That’s really where the difference is. You can get them to come the first time but you can’t get them to get back if you don’t live up to the brand. You just can’t.

[00:19:19] Adam: That’s it. There’s an old adage that I was taught early on in my career that your strategy cannot be and your brand cannot be service because service is going to fail at some point, but your culture can sure as hell be built on service. It sounds like you’ve translated service for hospitality. I don’t want to promise it but I learn as a guest that, “Oh wow, they really take care of me. These people have the light of life in their eyes. It’s not like some places where you’re going and the person could care less if I’m at the table or not.”

[00:19:54] Kaffy: And, hospitality is felt. Here’s good service, everybody gets the service. But it’s that next step and that removing the dirty utensils. I was at a really upscale restaurant here in Atlanta and I won’t name names, you’ll know it if I said it, and they said, “Hey, do you want to keep that fork?” [laughs]

[00:20:16] Adam: Don’t make it my choice, bring me a clean fork.

[00:20:19] Kaffy: I don’t want to keep my fork. And I was thinking, “Really?”

[00:20:23] Adam: Yes.

[00:20:24] Kaffy: It’s just those subtle things that make you want to come back to Marlow’s because it’s so comfortable and nice but it’s upscale enough that you feel you’re getting that fresh ground burger, the burger has never been frozen, you get it cooked to order and french fries that have been peeled in-house and parboiled so that when we fry them they stay really crisp but they’re great and hot on the inside.

[00:20:48] Host: Right.

[00:20:48] Kaffy: You know it’s all of that that works together.

[00:20:51] Adam: Yes I know, I think it’s really important. I always think of the small salt shakers that tell me there’s a real person back here, there’s a real chef who cares how this tastes and there’s a cue to me that salt is not my friend and I should try it before I just start pouring it on there.

[00:21:07] Kaffy: Yes, correct.

[00:21:09] Adam: So when brands do miss on culture, is it because it’s not aligned with who they really are, the branding isn’t, or is it they create a mission statement that it’s just a bunch of Powerpoint jargon?

[00:21:22] Kaffy: I don’t think they have the right people as they say on the bus and not everybody believes. You got to have believers, you got to have people who embrace it and want to be a part of that culture.

[00:21:35] Adam: So it’s the assessment that helps you bring people that are the right people to fit into the organization and get the culture and like it.

[00:21:42] Kaffy: I add and help us to make for telling [unintelligible 00:21:45] quit telling people that I had eight interviews and an hour and a half online assessment test, and I kept thinking, “Holy cow, just hire me, could you?”

[00:21:55] Adam: [laughs]

[00:21:57] Kaffy: Because I really wanted the job. I did not understand then why that. I understand now because you got to have the right [unintelligible 00:22:06] assessment. You know we’ve had that on occasion in a tavern that it’s not the right manager and didn’t fit our culture and it’s devastating to the team and to the operation.

[00:22:18] Adam: Yes, it slows everything down. And you know what Kaffy, it also helps as an applicant for you. It helps you say, “Oh no,” probably at this point of the interview, you get to decide, “Well, I don’t know, that sounds different than what I believe in and I don’t want to go back for interview number seven,” or hopefully this keeps getting better every time.
What I love when I’m talking to an organization is up and down the chain, everybody’s telling me the same story or some version of the same story. That’s a lot of love. I think in the bus, when you go to corporate and they have one vision and then maybe you go to a restaurant or somewhere else in corporate and they have, “Well, that’s what they say, but the real thing is we’re just trying to cut costs, we’re just trying to get by,” or “We just want to turn tables,” and then you say, “Oh no, okay,” so it all fell apart.

[00:23:07] Kaffy: Yes. Everybody really has to buy into it or it just doesn’t work, it’s just not believable and you really cannot fake it. You can’t fake hospitality.

[00:23:21] Adam: No, you can’t.

[00:23:21] Kaffy: It doesn’t come across as genuine and we are genuine, and that’s what the company was built on. It’s that and a really good suit and a really great drink.

[00:23:35] Adam: That’s at the restaurant level as a guest, and I do get to experience that, thinking, going back to the management level, what do they do differently than some of the management teams that you’ve worked with at other places or witnessed as an agency person or through the contacts that you have, what do you think it is that you’re doing different?

[00:23:57] Kaffy: I think that what we’re doing different is that our culture comes from the top and that our leadership and our senior management walk the walk and talk the talk, we’re not asking them to do anything we don’t already do and we don’t already believe in.

[00:24:17] Adam: They created the mission and the culture and they really believe that-

[00:24:19] Kaffy: Correct.

[00:24:19] Adam: -and so it cascades down.

[00:24:21] Kaffy: Correct, it does and I think we’re more about what somebody’s doing right than what somebody’s doing wrong.

[00:24:27] Adam: I like that. It’s a culture of praise versus culture of form.

[00:24:33] Kaffy: Correct. I was with a big franchise of a group and we would start every month with leadership meeting with how many days we had gone without a worker’s comp claim, by restaurant, and I’ve never heard–

[00:24:48] Adam: That told me everything I need to know.

[00:24:51] Kaffy: I mean I started thinking we never had any and somebody said, “Yes, we do but– We just do.” If I were going to start our meeting we didn’t talk about them in our leadership meeting so that makes sense to just a different focus. Anyone who go around the room we thought about the values, it’s not just about what you’re doing at work.
Last time it was what’s one word thereby stealing today, one word to describe how you’re feeling, and mine at the moment was balance and I said mine is balance between the cafe side and the Marlow’s side of what needs to be done today versus what needs to be done six months and a year from now so we put a strategy in our future and my husband just said soul-searching so I’m trying to balance. That’s where I am right now, just on that teeter-totter trying to balance. They’re not just all about work. We have lives and we all know that and we all respect that personal life because it mixes so much in with our professional life, because we work so much. But that’s [inaudible 00:25:56] I choose that.

[00:25:58] Adam: That’s very simple but very powerful. One word to tell me how you’re feeling in a leadership meeting-

[00:26:02] Kaffy: One word.

[00:26:03] Adam: -and that group, yes.

[00:26:04] Kaffy: One word.

[00:26:04] Adam: That’s very strong. One last question.

[00:26:06] Kaffy: You can hyphenate occasionally, if you have two words you can hyphenate, even though [inaudible 00:26:10]

[00:26:10] Adam: Is that permitted?

[00:26:11] Kaffy: [laughs] Yes.

[00:26:13] Adam: Very good. Okay one last question, I know we have to stop here but I want to get one more question.

[00:26:18] Kaffy: Sure.

[00:26:19] Adam: Knowing that this is working at Sterling Hospitality because it comes from the top and cascades down. What would you say to franchise X, and we won’t name any names, let’s just make up one that’s struggling and is on CEO number 10 from the founder who inherited the mission or hired a consulting firm to create a mission. What’s your advice to them if they have any hope of turning it around it, at least getting the culture right? I can’t guarantee that’s going to lead to sales but I don’t think it hurts. What’s your advice on them for how to get that culture right?

[00:27:00] Kaffy: I would say go back and look at day one, month one, year one. What were you all doing right then that got you off the ground because it’s hard to start a restaurant, it’s hard to start a restaurant and group, it’s hard to grow, but what did you do then that you’re not doing now. Because there was a culture then that got you started, and it got you to grow and got you really far, you wouldn’t have franchisees and be where you are today, but somewhere you lost your way to go all the way back to the beginning then see what it was then that you were doing, that you’re not doing well, not doing now and go back to doing that, it worked. It’ll probably work again, but you got to get back to it.

[00:27:40] Adam: Yes, I think that’s right. So go back and look at the founding fathers or mothers notes and what the whole company has actually built on and how they were practicing it and then figure out how you can do that.

[00:27:51] Kaffy: Yes. Who those people were, and what was different about those people and who they were versus who you have in there now. Because you might have just gotten the wrong people, and the wrong people will get you down the wrong path.

[00:28:04] Adam: Well I almost guarantee it. As organization scales, there’s just going to be more people that don’t fit as you just try to fill roles. We’re doing an upcoming episode on recruiting and hiring because as we’re talking a growing organization, it’s just so hard to get the right people in it. Sounds like you get to have a great system for it but I know it must take a long time to refill an empty role or if you’re opening a new tavern to staff it.

[00:28:45] Adam: You were saying go back to the beginning, look at who you have, and I agree with you because the people are so different especially as organization scales, it’s so hard to find the people that fit into the role if you’re opening a new location or if you’re opening into a new market and you’re opening four or five or something upscale, whew, it’s hard to get those people and it sounds like you guys have a fit or you have a fix for figuring out how to get the right people but I can only imagine how long it takes to fill roles when you’re staffing an entire tavern.

[00:29:16] Kaffy: Yes, and we talked a lot about– we’ve got to keep the culture, we have to be very very careful as we grow, very careful as we grow. Not to lose that, because if we lose that then we’re like everybody else and we’re not. We don’t want to be ordinary, we don’t think that we’re ordinary. Hiring the right people makes us not ordinary but you got to be careful and nowadays, because it’s so hard to find good people, becomes even more important.
[00:29:45] Host: Yes, I think that’s really an interesting thing and I’m interested to have the conversation we’ll be having on the next episode about that recruiting and hiring topic. It’s going to be illuminating and I have a feeling.

[00:29:58] Kaffy: Yes.

[00:29:58] Adam: Kaffy, this was a great conversation. Thank you so much for making time. I know we have to juggle from schedules to make this happen. I really appreciate you playing with me and figuring it out how to get on this phone together today.

[00:30:09] Kaffy: Adam, I was so happy too and I hope that you’ll be in Atlanta City and we can go to Marlow’s and have a cocktail and a bite to eat.

[00:30:16] Adam: Absolutely, I should be there in the next month or so actually so-

[00:30:19] Kaffy: Oh nice.

[00:30:20] Adam: -I will let you know when I’m coming in.

[00:30:23] Kaffy: Please do. Thank you.

[00:30:24] Adam: All right thanks so much Kaffy, I appreciate it.

[00:30:27] Kaffy: Bye.

[00:30:28] Adam: Everybody listening, I hope you enjoyed that conversation as much as I did. Please share this podcast if you liked it, you can always email us with questions or follow-up information at or find us on Twitter @FandRM but you can find this podcast on our site and it’s also on iTunes or Apple podcast and it’s also on Google Play Store. Please subscribe and tell your friends. Thanks very much.

Listen to the episode here.

Transcript of Food & Restaurant Marketing Podcast – Episode: Amazing Culture with Kaffee Hopkins of Sterling Hospitality

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.

Transcript of Food & Restaurant Marketing Podcast – Episode: The End is Nigh

Transcript of Food & Restaurant Marketing Podcast – Episode: The End is Nigh

[00:00:07] Adam Pierno: Okay. Welcome back to another episode of Food and Restaurant Marketing. With me as always is Mr. Dan Santy.

[00:00:16] Dan Santy: Hello.

[00:00:17] Adam: I’m Adam Pierno, your loyal host. Back and better than ever. We are talking about a subject today that’s a little more somber than usual. More important than I think a little more serious than some topics covered on the episodes we’ve shared so far. But this is a very important one, everybody who is listening and everybody in this business and beyond, probably. We are looking through the data. We’re starting to help a plan for 2017 for a lot of brands. We’re looking at the economic forecast. We’re seeing some statistics that tell us that there’s the headwinds that we’ve been dealing with may be something more than just strong headwinds. The question we’re asking on the top of this episode is, are we going into a restaurant possession?
[00:01:07] Dan: Good question mate. I’m going to share a few facts with you that I gathered here. About a month ago, maybe even a little longer. Six weeks ago, I was talking to more like friends and his financial planner. His prediction was at time, they were thinking that recession is going to hit latter part of seventeen. But just recently, my own personal financial planner who manages my nickel.
[00:01:39] Adam: [laughs] He’s going to get it up to six cents. This is the year.
[00:01:43] Dan: …actually, took me out of the market on several stocks which I thought was very interesting, very proactive thing on this part. This is the market at 18,000, it’s at its peak right now from its low. He was worried about a correction. Then you can’t deny the fact that we have the lowest interest rates in 60 years. That can’t last. Those interest rate, we know the interest rate is going to go up and is going to have an effect with the economy.
[00:22:15] Adam: Yes. And especially for brands like restaurants where there’s a lot of commerce, a lot of trades, a lot of products, and a lot of ingredients to be bought, a lot of staff to be trained and hired. We know that there’s a lot of money changing hands and those small chains of interest rates and small moves, micro moves in the economy make a huge huge difference.
[00:02:34] Dan: Yes. Because we are looking at — obviously the restaurant spend isn’t discretionary spend. The first thing that can be adjusted are for any family.
[00:02:46] Adam: Yes. If you look at some recent reports and recent information that’s come out, or seen that the census has estimated now that monthly sales for food service operations are down month over month again. September from August, and August was from July as well. That trend downward monthly sales just continues there. Black Box and their parent company showing a continued downtrend from most of the restaurant industry in the chain members. We see that just that, on its current pace and that may change. But today, we’re just seeing it dip and it’s looking somewhat similar to 2009 and I think we know what was happening back at that time period.
[00:03:33] Dan: Right. For us today, we wanted to do this podcast today because typically, our clients are talking about, “Oh my gosh. What are we going to do and become very reactive when the recession hits or if we’re in the middle of it?”
[00:03:52] Adam: Well, when they hear there is a recession, which you astutely pointed out, is when we’re already six months to a year into it. It’s usually when the media says, “Hey, we’re in this.”
[00:04:02] Dan: Exactly. Then all of a sudden there’s this reaction and the number one thing that I want to talk about for a minute Adam is, what do you do with your marketing expand at that moment in time? All too often we know the story. It’s you cut, because it’s instant savings. Right? It looks good to the private equity owner or whoever your ownership proof it it’s. But we also know that, statistically year over year, decade over decade for that matter, the brands that stay consistent and spend during recession, through the recession, actually survive it well and come out of it faster and better. That’s my message today. Let’s not wait to make the strategy decision about our stand when we’re in a recession. Let’s make a strategy decision today. I think that brands in need to be smart about this because once again as you know, I preach this all the time. Share up mine, which is awareness, equal shares of stomach. You are going to get my share of stomach if I’m aware of you and I’m hearing hearing about you. Because I can damn make a decision about your LTO, or I can make a decision about your brand, or whatever the product may be.
[00:05:25] Adam: Yes. Let’s talk about a number of factors here. Because you’re right. We see that the brands that cut. The easiest place that it seems to cut, or it’s not going to hurt food or operations is marketing. But we know that again, when awareness goes down, traffic goes down. We see the direct correlation. Consideration is a direct line to traffic, and therefore sales. We know we have to cut. Let’s talk through a little bit of how to do some belt tightening, without just jumping to a giant line item which unfortunately as what we’ve seen and witnessed going in to the last, the great recession where a lot of brands has never recovered the way they have gone in.
[00:06:06] Dan: I love this question Adam. Absolutely [unintelligible]. You know what? I’ve been working with some really really smart analysts here at Food and Restaurant marketing who are looking at the data of many of our clients and say, “What’s working?” And, go back to that test. We test and optimize, that is the approach that we take with spending. We have great intelligence about what is working today. We have intelligence about what’s worked within the side recessions. Let’s go retreat to those tactics, because we know that they work. And, guess what? We can use them when it’s time and we can continue the test and optimize. Does it hold water? Right? Is it performing as well as we’ve seen it perform in the past? At least you could know, but we mean that you’re using a tactic that has been successful in the past. Now you have to pay attention to it and to make sure it continuously successful for you. But use the intelligence you have. That’s my message.
[00:07:16] Adam: Yes. What’s key is having a plan? You can now be looking at your — We’re talking about this now, so you can be looking out six months. This is the time to be auditing your menu performance and your makes and say, “Okay look.” Based on sales today, based on traffic today these are the items that are bringing people in, and this is what cards are and if it’s driving traffic, if it shows up frequently at a good margin for us, we keep it on the menu and these other items that we’ve been holding onto, this might be the time to cut up. Right now going into 2017 we see that cheese is still going to stay low in price. We don’t have to look at cutting cheese, let’s find new ways to use cheese. We know we can get it cheap, you can go into this situation we’re in. As we are looking at commodities and we are looking at ingredient, let’s really be smart about how do we change the menu and start making those moves and do that. If we’re looking at economic trends, let’s also look at consumer trends, right? So we see that consumers right now if you’re talking about millennial specifically and I know everybody is sick hearing about millennials.
[00:08:23] Dan: God knows I am.
[00:08:25] Adam: Yes. But they drive trends north and south. Because they’re the primary group and because they are right now on the sweet spot of maturity and discretionary income, they drive trends for gen-X and bloomers because they are willing to try things and then tell people. The trends tell us they want bold flavors and they want diversified flavors. Okay. How can I look on my menu and take the existing items I have and add items without adding any new commodities, besides sauces maybe? Or just changing up sauces that I already have so, I already sell this sandwich that’s a killer. Okay well, let’s add Sriracha to it or even a non-licensed version of a bold pepper sauce. How can I do that and bring that flavor? Something just to combat, having it in my back pocket as an LTO that I can come back when prices start getting really serious, and competition gets really rough when this recession hits. If it hits like it looks like it will, I can pull this out of my pocket so this is going to be on trend. It cost me no more money than what I’m doing now and it’s going to drive few traffic.
[00:09:30] Dan: You hit on a note there that I’m a huge fan of and that’s the LTO, Limited Time Offer because — Especially when it comes to a menu item like that and it’s new, it’s unique, it’s different, it’s a point of differentiation without having to ship to all brand strategy. It’s a menu item that people will hear about, discover and say, “Wow, I want to try that” and becomes a reason to come in, or come in again. Or in recession environment, it’s the reason that I’m going to your brand which is another brand. That’s just the same old thing, and I’m not doing anything because I’m resting on the rules that I’m going to come in for what I typically come in for in the past. The LTO is a really smart strategy and by the way, real quick side bar note that Adam taught me this years ago, the LTO doesn’t necessarily need to be a discount. The limited time offer could be a bundle that is the same price as if you bought all three of those items separately, but the perception that it’s a good value, how you present it, consumer’s not going to care. They’re going to say, “Hey, that’s sounds like a good value to me,” and it helps you steal share from other brands.
[00:10:48] Adam: Yes, really in a recession environment, you’re just trying to keep traffic flat and start stealing one occasion here and there from competitors and figuring out ways to do that. Any news you can generate, will help you do that, it’s going to help you stay top of mind because we know from the last recession that people will start changing their habits. We refer to that one — I refer to it as the L-shaped change in dining. The Millennials never came back from that last recession, dining out as much as they did before and every year that we’ve asked them, since that we do research here, primary research, into Millennials and other cohorts, almost every single study we’ve done and every study we’ve seen the respondents for that say, “I plan on dining out as much or less next year as I do this year.” There is no group in this country that says, “No, no, next year’s the year I’m going hog-wild. I’ve got all this money to spend.” We’ve been all trained by the recession, the great recession, to just be a little bit more mindful about our money. Value is very involved. Being smart about our money, in style, and that’s a dangerous thing for restaurant brands where I just need you to come in and have a meal and just be open-minded about buying an add-on item or having an extra drink or doing — having dessert and not just come in with a coupon and try to get your $1.50’s worth.
[00:12:09] Dan: I am so glad you brought up a research variable because one thing that does not change, regardless of the economic environment is that people have cravings, and by the way, I’m convinced that cravings — so making your product craveable, may actually be the most powerful during a recession because I’ve actually cut back on some things. I’ve given up some things — a lot of things that I was doing before and splurging on and treating myself. I’m still going to be working by butt off, I’m not — as a consumer and I’m still going to want to reward myself. Those things don’t go away, you got to thing about that emotional reward of getting themselves very craveable and introducing the valued proposition for it, and again, steal share man, it’s your opportunity. Get aggressive, steal share, and you’re going to come out the opposite end, because we all now recessions end, and who comes out the winner and who comes out the loser has a lot to do with how you behave during the recession.
[00:13:22] Adam: Yes, right. You can earn a lot of credit, and I do think you’re right about craveability. Because you’re going to be making those cuts as a consumer, and you want to feel that you’re keeping some indulgences in your life and even the thing that today, pre-recession, I eat twice a week or three times a week. When it gets time, when I cut down to once a week, I want to make — I want to feel like, “Oh, this is something extra I”m doing. I’m getting this little extra thing off, taking my family to this place, and having this extra nice meal and this thing that my wife’s been craving.” You got to build that up and you can actually start that today that really when we speak to craving, it’s just — all it is is paying a little extra attention to your food photography, food video, the presentation of your food, plating, small details that you can do.
We know that food video can be exorbitant in price and we know that there are guys that are table-top shooters that are very expensive. You don’t have to do that, especially today in the digital environment. There’s ways to do it just by adding a little bit of lighting and a little attention to make the food seem extra craveable, and really figure out what is it. Talk to your customers, ask them, “Why do you love this item? What is the detail about it?” Then really hone in on that.
[00:14:36] Dan: Right. Speaking of messaging, the message you were talking about, in this case you’re talking about visual messaging, and you know me, I’m a huge advocate of television, I’ll probably go to the grave that way.
[00:14:48] Adam: On television.
[00:14:49] Dan: On television, yes.
[00:14:50] Adam: Yes, and have a funeral, a royalty or something.
[00:14:53] Dan: I hope so, but you can use the written word to create cravings. If it is a visual tool that you’re using, a video or something like that, and enhance the craveability, not only the visual but the words you use. But if you’re doing audio, so maybe you’re doing Spotify or even linear radio, make sure that you are describing that food in a way that people are just like, can visualize and go home and, “I need that,” whatever that may be.
[00:15:29] Adam: Yes. I think another thing to consider right now with costs, is going to be staffing. We know that nationally, there’s going to be pressure, tremendous pressure on staffing, on hours management, full-time employees and a different set of circumstances, State by State. We know that that pressure’s going to change, and now in light of the pressure you’re going to have in sales and traffic, how are you going to manage that? I suspect we’ll see some organizations cutting staff in front of house and server staff, how is that going to affect customers? You have to be very mindful about your operation and what the output is for the customer. Just cutting one shift of a server at a rush hour time, does that ruin their experience? Or does it just make it a little longer? What can you do to fill that time at the table and be mindful of that now knowing you may have to make those cuts?
[00:16:21] Dave: That’s a great point which leads you right to training. Take the recession variable, so everybody’s being affected, who, more than that casual dining server, right? Because so, occasions are down, sales might be down because we were still going out and spending less, so that means my tip – my tip wages are down. That’s when training, which is not terribly expensive, and training them how to up-sell, training them how to create a great experience, so actually there’s a repeat visit. And to your point about — if you are trimming staff and you’re cleaning out, make sure you’re filling that void with something. Whatever it is, surprised and delight moment of, “I know you’ve been waiting, I’m sorry. Here’s a-”
[00:17:14] Adam: Train those in.
[00:17:14] Dave: Train that right in. Absolutely, and you can use this environment as an opportunity actually and not just go, “Oh,” I’ll throw up my hands. You know what? You cut my staff and therefore, service standards suffered.”
[00:17:31] Adam: Yes. Unite with your other operators and figure out how to get that training built in and do it now, proactively. The next thing you might want to start thinking about is, if you don’t have a loyalty program, we’re not — it’s very funny, Dave and I are on the fence about loyalty. It goes concept by concept, whether it makes sense or not, how it’s executed makes all the difference, and it’s really part of the bones of the brand, whether it works or not. But this would be a good time to examine. If you don’t have a loyalty program, should you start one? Do it now and start testing now to figure out when money is tighter for consumers, how are you getting them to be loyal? Or if you have one, how are you testing it now? How is it performing? You want that thing to be absolutely humming at a Starbucks level to make sure that when the rubber meets the road and times get very tough, this thing is another tool that you can pull out to start adding in perks and adding in benefits to start driving some traffic. And again, we are not proponents, one way or the other of loyalty, it goes concept by concept.
[00:18:38] Dave: As a matter of fact, that sounds like a great podcast.
[00:18:41] Adam: Yes. That’s a future episode, I have a feeling. I have a feeling we’ll be doing that one.
[00:18:45] Dave: Absolutely. One other item I want to bring up today Adam, is targeting. You mentioned Millennials earlier –
[00:18:54] Adam: You talking about Media, Media Targeting?
[00:18:56] Dave: Yes, audience. What audience are you after? You really want to, again remember we’re talking about a recession environment. Who is less volatile in a recession environment? More than likely it’s going to be the Boomers. They’re at their highest earning or they’ve burned out or they’re living off a healthy package in their early retirement, whatever the case may be. I think the Boomers are — they’re just being ignored and I think it’s an audience that you should seriously look at. Ask yourself, are your media plans touching them? If they are, is it enough? What can you do to invest more dollars there without undermining your core audience? If it’s not Boomers, I’m not telling you to abandon your core or go to a Boomer, but you need to think about these things because these are the kind of details you dial in five, six, or seven of these items that we brought up today, you’re surviving. You are — you’re not surviving, in my opinion, you’ll be thriving.
[00:20:10] Adam: Right. If you just do a little bit of planning now. I think you’re dead on about the Boomers and if you get that upper-middle Boomer that has — whether the storm from the last Great Recession and maybe is now in retirement age and they’re off and running. They’re not going to feel the pinch of a couple of bucks at your restaurant. They’ll be okay and they’ll come in. Earlier, we spoke about shifting trends that make sure you’re hitting that Millennial. But again, the trends that are set by Millennials, the Boomers are on top of those things. They lag a little bit, but when they see it being consumed and done by their kids, they get on board and they want to try it, too. I think you can–
[00:20:50] Dan: Oh, my gosh. All day long, and it cuts across so many categories. I hear a good friend of mine, he’s 70 plus years old. I’m not that old, by the way.
[00:21:00] Dan: I just happen to have an old friend. He talks about bands today, which crack me up. I know darn well it’s because his daughter or son were saying they love this band.
[00:21:13] Adam: This is somewhat off-topic, but look at the Superbowl. The Superbowl has to get an act in there that appeals to, essentially, 250 out of 350 million Americans, and so they’ll bring in an act that is Millennial focused and then the Boomers catch on to it. They love, Bruno Mars, now. Before they probably were waiting for, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, they’re more aware of them and, now, they’ve caught on, “Oh, this guy’s in town. Okay, now we’re off and running with him”. Just as an example, you can take something that’s got broad appeal to Millennials, which is harder and harder to do as it’s getting more and more fragmented to reach any huge group, and you can take it and port it out to another demo.
[00:21:57] Dan: Yes. Agree. Agree.
[00:21:59] Adam: I think we’ve pretty much covered this topic. There’s so much more to dig into, but without getting into some really boring economic theory. That’s our sister podcast, Food and Economics Reality, which has almost no listeners except my mom.
[00:22:15] Dan: [laughs]
[00:22:16] Adam: If you have more thoughts on this, questions, if this made you spark any kind of ideas that you want to talk through or maybe another episode you’d love to hear, please, reach out to us: adam@foodandrestaurantmarketing or dan@foodandrestaurantmarketing and, please, hit us on Twitter: FandRM or get to the bottom, leave us a comment. We appreciate you listening.
[00:22:38] Dan: Eat well.

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