How Fast Casual Restaurants Can Stay Competitive in the Foodie Age

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Much has been said, both positive and negative, about the U.S.’s burgeoning “foodie” culture. Google searches for the term, a common measure of interest, have increased steadily for the last decade.

While there may still be some ambivalence around the concept for us as a culture, what’s safe to say is that people are taking food a lot more seriously than they used to. So what does that mean for fast casual restaurants, who may not have the culinary star power or flexibility to change their menus constantly? How can you keep up?

Well, foodie culture doesn’t mean you need to completely change the way you source, cook and serve food. But it does mean that you need to think about it differently and look for opportunities to cater to the culture without losing your own essence.

Here are three ways that fast casual restaurants, whether mom-and-pop shops or large chains, can remain competitive in the Era of the Foodie:

1. Know Your Customers

As this Hartman Group newsletter explains, not all foodies are created alike. And of course, your restaurant may not have a huge contingent of self-identified foodies as patrons at all.

Regardless, it’s important to take the time to really understand who the people who visit your restaurant are and why they are coming. Is it primarily families who see your restaurant as an alternative to cooking? Or is it mostly young professionals grabbing a bite between work and social time? Or perhaps millennials getting their first taste of independence and unable to afford fancier food?

To get to know your customers better, there are a few avenues you can take. One is to commission research. This can be expensive and time-consuming, but for restaurants of a certain size it can offer a valuable glimpse into the mind of your customers.

Another option is to ask customers to take a survey, online or in-person (or with a tablet at the table), which can give them the opportunity to share feedback with you in a non-threatening way.

Additionally, you should pay attention to the unsolicited feedback that you receive, via Yelp, social media and other sources. While it’s not necessarily a good idea to change the way you do things based on a single review, if you do pick up on patterns—for example, people praising a certain dish or disparaging another—that’s valuable information that you can act on to better meet the interests and preferences of your customer base.

2. Go Local

It’s become commonplace enough that there are even parodies of the locavore movement, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less real or that it won’t affect your restaurant. While it may not be realistic for all fast casual restaurants to switch to entirely local produce and meats, it’s not a bad idea to look for opportunities to bring local products to the table.

One way to start incorporating this into your menu without a complete overhaul is to use the daily or weekly specials to showcase local ingredients. This way you can test out new concepts, and if the dish is particularly well-received and the supplier seems to be reliable, you can look at making it a regular part of your menu.

Another area to consider local sources with is your alcohol menu, if you have one. While finding local sources for food can be complex, most areas now have nearby breweries, distilleries or wineries. These products hold up well, so you can purchase a supply and see how well it sells without worrying about it going to waste.

And of course, don’t be afraid to promote those local ingredients that you do use. You’ll be amazed to see how well people respond to it, and it can be a big help with word of mouth.

3. Use Technology To Your Advantage

Catering to the foodie culture may feel a bit overwhelming at first, especially if it’s not naturally in your restaurant’s DNA. But technology can be a huge help in getting over the major up-front hurdles.

For example, if you start trying out local ingredients in special dishes, using a tablet-based checklist like Squadle’s can help you ensure that you are ordering the correct amount of these ingredients and not keeping a dish on your menu after the supplies have run out. With your checklists stored in the cloud, district managers can also check in on these things from home, avoiding the need to visit each restaurant location to confirm inventory levels.

You can also look into point of sale solutions that carefully track the most popular dishes so that you can begin to identify which new menu items are performing well, or even figure out which staples that you’ve been offering for a long time might benefit from a “foodie” upgrade, like a local, organic ingredient or a fresh, spicy sauce.

Another option to look into is a digital menu board or tablet ordering system, both of which can make it easier for you to test out new menu items without having to continually replace your menus.

Finally, don’t underestimate the value of staying up-to-date on food trends via news sites, social media and even industry forums, where you can learn from your peers about how to interpret the foodie trend in a way that makes sense for your business.

How are you catering to foodie culture today?