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R&IEditorial Archives2005October 1 — Business

Another Satisfied Customer
Operators court consumer loyalty through enhanced quality and personalized service.

Lightening décor colors and adding more space at the bar improved customer satisfaction at Razzoo’s Cajun Cafe units.

Showcasing fresh ingredients raises quality perceptions of Sweet Tomatoes.

At McAlister’s Deli, employees are trained to monitor portion sizes and food temperatures.

From cars to coffee, everything is customizable, and the experience that guests have come to expect in restaurants is no different. Millions of foodservice dollars are spent annually on training and operational improvements to give customers what they want, the way they want it—all at a reasonable price.

R&I research last year found that the attributes most important to consumers in designating a “favorite restaurant” are food quality, convenience, price, menu, service speed and value. Operators focus on those areas—and more—in continuous efforts to become guest favorites.

In its own research, Greenwood Village, Colo.-based Red Robin Gourmet Burgers revealed that convenience, service from happy employees and food variety are the key customer drivers at its 255 restaurants. Such insight shapes in-store training programs to ensure that service is prompt but not rushed.

“We spend a lot of time communicating to team members that guests aren’t at our restaurants just to eat burgers,” says Dwayne Chambers, vice president of marketing. “The timed experience allows them to get in and out in 37 minutes for lunch, but we’re not delivering minutes, we’re delivering moments. Servers are trained to find out what moments guests are looking to get out of their experience.”

For Irvine, Calif.-based Taco Bell the key word is CHAMPS—an acronym for Cleanliness, Hospitality, Accuracy, Maintenance, Product quality and Speed of service—a program in place at its more than 6,500 U.S. units.

Additionally, a “consumer profit-and-loss” tracking system monitors daily delivery on the chain’s 36 guest attributes and compares its own customer-satisfaction levels with those of other quick-service chains.

Changes that have resulted from Taco Bell’s tracking include adding timers for drive-thru lanes (which account for approximately 70% of sales) and investing several million dollars to increase drive-thru lane size.

Small improvements also can have substantial impact. “We’ve focused less on upselling and more on hospitality at the drive-thru speaker,” says Tom Wagner, vice president of consumer insights at Taco Bell. “Greeting guests with ‘Thanks for coming’ or ‘How are you doing today?’ already is helping our hospitality scores.”

Order consistency and accuracy put customers at ease and improve sales. When Taco Bell in June introduced Crunchwrap Supreme (tostada shell, seasoned beef, cheese sauce, lettuce, tomatoes and sour cream wrapped in a tortilla, folded and grilled), Wagner says a substantial investment was made in training kitchen crews how to fold and grill the item to minimize leakage for those who eat and drive.

Taco Bell launched its Big Bell Value Menu in 2004 as a result of consumer desire for more price-sensitive options. The chain also is upgrading ingredients and doing things such as frying tortilla chips in each store to improve quality perceptions.

The Personnel Touch
Employee interaction with customers is a major contributor to the guest experience. “Individual unit locations require committed and competent people who have been there awhile and are proud of where they work,” says Jack Mackey, vice president at Service Management Group, a Kansas City, Mo.-based company that works with chains to build customer loyalty. “There’s a big difference between a crew that’s worked together for 18 months and an unhappy crew where the average tenure is 18 weeks.”

What’s needed is an environment that not only sells itself to customers but that invigorates workers and makes them feel respected, Mackey says.

Employee energy and interaction with guests keep people coming back, says Steve Hawter, director of training at 558-unit CiCi’s Pizza, based in Coppell, Texas.

    Percent of consumers who say that at least once in the past 12 months a bad foodservice experience led them to vow never to return. Among families with children, it is 60%.
    (R&I 2004 Tastes of America Survey)

“When we looked at why guests come to CiCi’s, one of the key determining factors was personal attention from the manager,” he says. “We decided that if we could increase that personal contact—by asking guests’ names when they order a pizza or telling jokes—then we would improve the guest experience.”

Maximizing perceived value also is important for CiCi’s, which features a $3.99 pizza, pasta, salad and dessert buffet. “We know that families are our bread and butter,” Hawter says. “CiCi’s is a place parents feel comfortable bringing their children.”

Employees at McAlister’s Deli, the Ridgeland, Miss.-based chain of 150 restaurants, are trained to focus on proper handling of ingredients for its sandwiches. Checkpoints as simple as proper portion sizes and temperatures keep guests coming back.

At Memphis, Tenn.-based Back Yard Burgers’ customer-satisfaction surveys found order accuracy in the drive-thru lacking at one store. “We got everyone in the restaurant focused on whether or not guests got everything they ordered, and we saw increased sales and traffic,” says Michael Myers, president and chief operating officer of the 166-unit chain.

To enhance value perceptions, some casual-dining operators adopt bundled item options similar to QSR value meals. The $12.99 Wild & Mild menu at Carrollton, Texas-based T.G.I. Friday’s offers a choice of selected appetizers and entrées plus Cinnabon Cheesecake for dessert.

Wally Butkus, principal at Restaurant Research, Redding, Conn., notes that QSRs, meanwhile, are moving in an opposite direction. “They recently have introduced higher-quality products such as McDonald’s Premium Chicken Sandwich line. The price points are higher but guests get something similar to a casual-dining experience. Consumers are willing to pay more for that.”

Concept Comfort
Razzoo’s Cajun Cafe, a 12-unit casual chain based in Addison, Texas, learned the hard way how much atmosphere affects brand perceptions and drives customer satisfaction. After installing dark floors, marble tables and leather chairs in its restaurants a few years ago, customer traffic dropped significantly, says President Jeff Powell.

Removing the leather and marble and reconfiguring its Lewisville, Texas, restaurant with more bar space and a more-comfortable dining area bumped sales 25%. Other locations are being remodeled accordingly.

Razzoo’s founder Mike Leatherwood says adding more space in the restaurant’s bar and putting backs on the stools has turned “one-to-two-beers bar seating into six-pack comfortable.”

Table layout and booth arrangements also changed to handle large parties and traditional diners more easily.

“We have five 10,000-square-foot restaurants and they feel great when they’re full, but they aren’t full all the time,” Leatherwood says. “On slow Monday or Tuesday nights we section off an area to appear busier. Breaking up the space changes how the customer feels.”

The remodeled Lewisville location not only increased guest counts and sales but also improved morale among staffers, who benefited from an increase in tips. “We told employees that if they delivered great service it would be worth the investment,” Powell says.

San Diego-based Garden Fresh Restaurant Corp., operator of Sweet Tomatoes and Souplantation, hopes its “farmers market experience” at new unit prototypes in Florida and California will have a similar effect.

“We wanted to communicate in overt and subliminal ways the freshness of our products,” says Joan Scharff, executive director of marketing. The company is appealing to first-time customers by increasing space between the entrance and the salad bar to give guests more time to become acclimated and by opening the kitchen to showcase fresh ingredients and made-from-scratch preparations.

“We also repositioned our serving bars so they are easier for guests to access,” Scharff says. “They used to be u-shaped, with soup, bakery and pasta in a continuous line. In the prototype, we broke off soup and beverage and created a dessert bar where guests could walk around all sides.”

Changing the ambience of its restaurants is not the only thing that makes Sweet Tomatoes popular with guests. Scharff says it also is working on service initiatives and expects employees to exceed expectations.

“Everything was created to make the store more user friendly and better communicate what we offer,” she says.

Sodexho Gets Students on Board
Launching a Circle of Customer Excellence program and inviting students into the boardroom are Sodexho USA’s answers to pleasing customers.

The circle program involves training managers, regional marketing directors and culinarians on hospitality, interaction points and suggestive selling. The initiative has resulted in a 25-cent jump in check average and front-line employee excitement, according to Vicki Dunn, senior director of marketing for customer-service initiatives.

“Customers as well as clients have said we have grown up. We’re taking a retail approach of fighting for every customer,” she says.

In October, the company plans to introduce mystery shoppers into its service program but it also gets feedback from its 22-manager think tank and 15-member student advisory board. Dan Dunne, culinaire and senior director of marketing of resident dining at Gaithersburg, Md.-based Sodexho, says students are helping change its traditional residential dining identity to a restaurant experience.

“We used the board of directors as a steering committee to determine what areas our customers would like us to work on first,” he says. “We had to learn what was important to them. There are values student consumers feel strongly about that we have to infuse into our program. We found it’s not just the food, but also about the experience and the environment.”

Having sturdier flatware and china plates as well as the right tables and chairs are more important to students than traffic patterns and back-of-the-house designs, Dunne adds.

Going forward, Sodexho’s SoCuisine resident dining brand concepts—including Global Marketplace, with an interactive “brain cafe bistro”; Diversions, a more eclectic offering in place at Rowan University (above), Glassboro, N.J., and other sites; and Casavida, a more traditional dining experience—will be available on several university campuses. Additionally, centralized and cycle-type menus will be replaced with an “ever-evolving annual” menu built by the unit chefs with local student involvement.

“Every campus will have a group of students who conduct and evaluate customer surveys online and in person to get students actively involved in the foodservice decision-making process rather than us operating in a void,” Dunne says. “We’re not just a commodity food provider. We listen and respond to local needs.”

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