Joanna Fantozzi, senior editor of Nation’s Restaurant News, led a lively and well-attended session at NRF 2023: Retail’s Big Show called “Restaurant brands that don’t play by the rules.” Joining her for the discussion were Christopher Thomas-Moore, senior vice president, customer and store experience, Domino’s; Travis Freeman, senior vice president, demand generation, Inspire Brands; and Jamie Richardson, vice president, restaurant marketing and PR, White Castle Systems.
The restaurant business has been challenged over the past few years, both by the pandemic and the change in customer needs. “But we’re here to talk about the future, not the past,” Fantozzi said, “how restaurants are innovating and quickly evolving in terms of technology and customer experience. How do you think the customer has changed, and what are you doing about it?”
“Our customers are hungrier than ever for two things,” Richardson said. “One is connection: People want to be heard. The other is experience. We’re trying to be authentic. We’re a family-owned business that’s been around for 102 years. For us, that means staying relevant.”
“It’s an interesting time for us,” Freeman said. Inspire has a lot of brands — the company’s portfolio includes some 32,000 Arby's, Baskin-Robbins, Buffalo Wild Wings, Dunkin', Jimmy John's and Sonic Drive-In locations — and is well positioned to learn what’s working well and what isn’t. “We’re putting data and technology across everything, using both algorithms and real-time analytics to how customers want to intersect with us.”
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That requires customer data, which Inspire is segmenting to better understand its customers. “A lot of restaurants think ‘everyone needs to eat,’ and so they try to be talking to everyone,” said Freeman, noting that he came to the restaurant business from tech — he earlier worked for Uber and Twitter. “But there’s a lot of variety in adults 18 to 54. We try to break the data down and anticipate their needs.”
Their needs, and their wants, which can be anything and everything. When Fantozzi asked the panel if the on-demand culture had shifted customer expectations, the answer was a resounding yes. “Guests expect everything,” Freeman said. “Before, it was a question of what we needed and expected. That’s now completely reversed itself. We have to focus on them, and we can’t assume. We have to know.”
Focusing on the customer today, of course, means focusing across multiple channels. “It’s all about setting proper expectations for customers,” Thomas-Moore said. “We use the digital channel for a lot of that. We call it the anywhere solution — you can order a pizza through a smart watch or on Twitter, or with a text message, or even on Slack. Then you set the right expectation about how long it’s going to take.”
"It’s a question of creating the proper culture, whether in launching a new technology or in the store."Christopher Thomas-Moore, Domino’s
The group also discussed the perpetual restaurant issue of staffing, and how dealing with it has changed. “You have to empower everybody,” Richardson said, “especially the leaders.” Thomas-Moore seconded this, adding, “It’s a question of creating the proper culture, whether in launching a new technology or in the store. What you want to do is take the suck out of the job.”
Fantozzi closed by asking the panel their thoughts on the future of the restaurant industry. Freeman’s view was that it will be predictive: Businesses know what the guests want before they do. Thomas-Moore saw it as offering even more choice to customers. He likened it to the hotel industry, which has been changed a great deal by sheer aggregation, as fewer companies have more hotels.
“And, it will be crave-a-licious,” Richardson said. “It will be about hot, tasty, affordable food. In the long haul, the question of food quality will determine the leader.”