Why fast casual works

As fast casual restaurants continue to outperform other industry segments in sales and unit growth, the National Restaurant Association’s Fast Casual Industry Council explored the segment’s secrets to success.

In a standing-room only education session at the NRA Show in May, Darren Tristano of Technomic pointed out that the segment has been less affected by the recession. That’s because it attracts higher-income customers, as well as younger consumers, he said. It ranks highly with customers on food quality and cravability, as well as atmosphere. And it has a “health halo” around it, he said.

He said he expected the segment to grow and put pressure on other segments to improve in those areas and “drive more customers to go out to eat.”

Several fast casual operators offered specific reasons their brands have been successful:

• Define your organizational culture, said Ian Vaugh, chief operating officer, Raising Cane’s Chicken Fingers. His company had to redefine itself after Hurricane Katrina and flooding devastated many of its restaurants. As units reopened, many relied on temporary help. So Raising Cane’s evaluated its compensation philosophy, company expectations of managers and community brand perception.

• Establish yourself as part of the community. Raising Cane’s created billboards featuring pictures of its restaurant operators. “They are local celebrities in their communities,” he said.

• Attract and retain younger workers with a blended learning approach. The company is putting an iPad in every unit so employees can learn on the job, as they stand next to a trainer at their work stations. It also is considering iPhone training applications, he said.

• Consider adopting “working interviews.” When someone comes in for a job interview, ask them to spend two or three hours on the job, working at each station. Then evaluate how they interact with customers and other employees, Vaughn says.

• Explore online and mobile phone ordering, as well as self-service kiosks. Chicago’s Wow Bao offers kiosks, as well as traditional cashier stations. The kiosks offer convenience to guests: It takes an average of 53 seconds to pick up food after completing the order. If guests swipe their cards before ordering, the kiosk “remembers” their last four orders. And they upsell constantly, says Geoff Alexander, vice president, Wow Bao. Guests can reload money to gift cards or send someone food through text messaging or smart phone applications.

(Source: National Restaurant Association)

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