While heading to RestaurantSpaces to moderate a discussion on “Piloting and Testing New Formats,” I was reading through the global activity being done in this area. Suffice it to say, there was a lot of material.
Trying to get one’s head around all the testing in the restaurant space is nearly impossible. There are so many ideas currently in the market, and more are conjured up every day. Keeping up is a complex, daily endeavor.
Piloting and testing new formats and ideas have massively accelerated. Such initiatives are more transformational than iterative and must be done at lightning-fast speeds to stay in sync with guest expectations.
Moreover, multiple ideas are tested simultaneously to keep up with the pace of change. This makes it even harder to discern which are the gems and which need more refining since the variables are not discrete.
What’s working and what’s next?
But nothing unites like a common struggle. So as I went around the table to introduce the 17 people representing brands ranging from chicken to steak to Mexican — sandwiches and pizza to Greek — there were commonalities on what is working, what is a quick fix for the pandemic and what is coming next.
All brand representatives were transparent with the challenges they faced, as well as with suggestions and success stories for what has worked and what didn’t.
As for commonalities for all, more guests than not will never touch the door handle to go inside a QSR yet will still eat the food. Orders now start from phones, not at counters. The majority of cars that enter the parking lot never park but drive through or pick up at curbside. Increasingly, food is delivered by a third party, and not someone in a branded uniform. Ghost kitchens mean food is prepared off-site in another kitchen, possibly along with competitors.
Maintaining brand narratives
We discussed ideas around maintaining brand narratives with alternate delivery and with all forms of pick-up. Some brands were using enhanced branded packaging, inserting return purchase discounts in delivery orders and using clear sealed bags to assuage safety and tampering concerns.
A few brands were also testing their own delivery system to reduce dependency and lost revenue to third-party apps. Some were seeing positive results, while others had concerns about keeping up with order volume and maintaining food quality in transit. The third-party delivery networks have had a significant head start in solving some of the initial issues with starting delivery.
Drive-thru, curbside and walk-up
A concept that inspired a lot of discussion focused on drive-thru, curbside and walk-up scenarios, which complicated both customer flow in-store and traffic flow in the parking lot.
The immediate fix was to use thoughtful and clear parking lot signage and street paint telling each type of guest where to go. Longer-term ideas were, of course, more drive-thrus, designated lanes, multiple pick-up windows and parking spaces just for quick pick-ups.
There was also a lot of discussion about using apps to help guests know how to get their orders fast once they got on property, as well as tying into GPS to alert the store as to which food order is closest to being picked up. While this addressed food integrity as far as warmth and fresh prep, it adds operational complexity.
Fostering experiences and brand loyalty
Departing from the more tactical test and pilot ideas, we all heard from the Founder and Director of Meow Wolf, Vince Kadlubek. It was a rousing reminder that guests want their food but are also looking for experiences and connection to a brand, not just a transaction of something to eat exchanged for money.
It’s easier for him to speak on the topic, as experience/discovery are critical objectives for Meow Wolf, according to his multisensory experience centers in Santa Fe, Las Vegas and Denver. He drove home the point about experience often trumping most any other draw and supported his position by quoting sales of real products, noting his store in Las Vegas outsold the same products at a nearby Walgreens.
Ghost kitchens and the metaverse
After the panel, discussions continued around ghost kitchens and even dipped into the metaverse.
A Development Executive from a top pizza empire offered a succinct and clear picture of how their brand uses ghost kitchens to handle the high volume in urban areas. They saved money without sacrificing guest needs by having a smaller store footprint to reduce real estate costs. They then handle the order volume by leveraging nearby ghost kitchens in much less expensive areas.
As for the metaverse, brands like McDonald’s, Chipotle and Panera are already filing trademarks (which takes 9 months on average) for virtual products, restaurant operation, NFTs and delivery activity, so that those in the virtual world can place orders while there and food appears at their door in the real world.
This dive into fully realized digital worlds supported the biggest unified takeaway.
When we’re all experimenting with ideas to address order volume or brand narrative or operational efficiency and even food integrity, we should lift our eyes up from the food bag or tray or plate or wrapper and remember the hearts and minds of the consumer and their experience of your brand, whatever way they choose to interact with it.
Track that and it will guide decisions around the right pilots and tests for the most success.