In a session at the Restaurant Franchising and Innovation Summit hosted by Networld Media Group, Zach Oates, founder and CEO of Ovation, C.J. Ramirez, EVP and marketing director of Dog Haus and Sam Stanovich, SVP of development and alliances at Big Chicken, discuss how convenience, consistency and connection can make a restaurant brand a standout.
Consumers have always had expectations when it comes to dining experiences. Everything has changed in the last five years, however, and restaurants need to level up to meet the changing consumer experience.
That was the topic of a breakout session at the Restaurant Franchising and Innovation Summit in Miami, Florida, March 20-22, 2023. The event was hosted by Networld Media Group and sponsored by platinum sponsors AT&T Business, evocalize, schoox, TASK and TikTok. Networld Media Group will host several other food-service summits this year, including the Pizza Leadership Virtual Summit July 26, 2023, the Fast Casual Executive Summit Oct. 8-10, 2023, and #QSRNext Nov. 9, 2023.
During a breakout session titled “What is Your Guest Experience Missing?” Zach Oates, founder and CEO of session sponsor Ovation, said 97% of consumers have recently backed out of a purchase decision because it was too inconvenient.
Oates mentioned that it’s reasonable to assume that McDonald’s relies most on convenience rather than guest expectations, so when a consumer stops for a soda, he or she could pick up a burger as well. On the other side is dining experience The French Laundry, where customers have much higher expectations, which in turn reduce the convenience factor.
At restaurant brand Dog Haus, employees are responsible for making sure menus are online and accurate, that every ordering kiosk is active and up-to-date with the day’s offerings, that every location offers Wi-Fi to collect user information and that QR codes are offered for guest feedback.
C.J. Ramirez, EVP and marketing director for Dog Haus, said “the entire team is responsible for all of those activities on a daily basis … they bring the data to our weekly meetings where the leadership gets together to talk about how we are performing at every single location. And then we bring the results of those three meetings to the weekly meetings which is an ‘all-hands’ meeting where we cross-pollinate between operations and marketing and the culinary team to identify anything that we see that needs extra attention to make sure that we’re offering an excellent experience for our customers.”
How does Dog Haus handle wait times when it doesn’t answer its phones during busy times? Ramirez said wait times begin with the fast-casual industry. When food is made to order, it takes extra time. “That’s why Dog Haus moved away from ‘fast casual’ and went to ‘craft casual’,” he said. “We really think that when you make things by hand and with love, and attention to the detail of what someone is asking for, that it’s going to take a little bit longer. So, we have the front of house set the expectation of how long something’s going to take, and we’re working that into our digital applications as well. You have to maintain that transparency.”
Sam Stanovich, SVP of development and alliances for chicken brand Big Chicken, said his concept is all about building a brand built around fun and excitement for the guests. The company offers big chicken indeed — a five-ounce chicken breast — which takes a little longer to cook.
“With that, we have to create the fun element, and once we get you into the restaurant we’re doing things different in the fast-casual world, since 50% of our customers want to dine-in because they’re excited to be there,” Stanovich said.
The key, he said, is creating a frictionless experience. Looking at the technologies that are coming, how do the customers want to order? When do they want to order, and then how do they want to pay for it? Once those are figured out, it comes down to serving it hot, fresh and ready to go, Stanovich said.
Next, the speakers looked at consistency in-house. Consistency affects guests’ trust in a brand. “Without that trust, there’s no loyalty,” Oates said.
At Dog Haus, the brand takes a continual approach to consistency. “We have to focus on that at all times,” Ramirez said. “We all know how much time and energy we put into getting that first time customer, but it’s really super important to convert them into a repeat guest. We need to make sure that the entire organization, quite frankly, is doing what they can to ensure that that customer comes back for their next visit.”
It can begin with greeting someone when they walk in and educating them about a brand’s menu. The key to consistency, Ramirez said, is consistently working at getting better every day.
At Big Chicken, Stanovich said his brand is owned in part by Shaquille O’ Neal and as a champion, he expects Big Chicken to rise to the occasion every time. “Because we are rolled out non-traditionally, we have to always be looking at continuous improvement,” he added, which is monitored through feedback.
“We want to know what our guest experience is everywhere,” Stanovich said, “that everyone is getting that same high-quality champion, better-for-you product in every location in which it’s served.”
They don’t rely on online feedback from sources like Yelp where a customer can have one bad experience and brand themselves a hero for posting about it online. Instead, Big Chicken wants consistent feedback from its customers. It wants consumers to reach out to the brand to build not only a repeat customer but also a loyal customer. “That’s the Holy Grail of this business,” he said.
Finally, building a connection with consumers is paramount for creating loyalty. “At the end of the day, you get people to feel connected because they know that you care about them,” Oates said. “That’s how you build connection.”
Ramirez said Dog Haus puts a lot of effort into connecting with its guests. It stems from the brand’s leadership, but also the industry it is in – hospitality.
“You’ve got to connect with your customers authentically,” he said. “You’ve got to not only know them by name but you need to know what they did last week or what their children are doing. If you can get into the details, it really, really goes a long way.”
Oates said people go out of their way to leave feedback about employees. “They leave their reviews because of the people,” he said. “That’s what drives the connection. People like food. People love people.”
At Big Chicken, Stanovich said his brand builds connections by doing fun things in-house, like celebrating Shaquille O’Neal’s birthday by giving away free ice cream cones. Some stores gave away up to 1,200 ice cream cones.
“Now, you may think to yourself, ‘Wow, you just gave away a lot of free product!’ That restaurant’s week-over-week sales went up 140% and our connection traffic via social media went ablaze,” Stanovich added. “What a great way to introduce as we continue to grow into a market with an offering that we’re making something authentic and a tradition within Big Chicken. So, we do these little things because it creates that feeling of connection.”
Mandy Wolf Detwiler is the managing editor at Networld Media Group and the site editor for PizzaMarketplace.com and QSRweb.com. She has more than 20 years’ experience covering food, people and places.
An award-winning print journalist, Mandy brings more than 20 years’ experience to Networld Media Group. She has spent nearly two decades covering the pizza industry, from independent pizzerias to multi-unit chains and every size business in between. Mandy has been featured on the Food Network and has won numerous awards for her coverage of the restaurant industry. She has an insatiable appetite for learning, and can tell you where to find the best slices in the country after spending 15 years traveling and eating pizza for a living.