Consumer Trends | July 2012 | By Denene Brox

Flex Casual: The Best of Both Worlds

More quick serves are entering the flex-casual market, attracting fast-casual customers by day and full-service diners by night.

Mama Fu's flex casual style combines quick and table service.
Mama Fu's flex casual style combines quick and table service.
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Consumers today have an abundance of restaurant choices, and to stay competitive, quick-service operators must develop innovative strategies to remain profitable.

Some operators have found that they can attract more customers by operating as flex-casual concepts, offering quick service by day and table service by night.

Austin, Texas–based Pan-Asian eatery Mama Fu’s is one of them. When Randy Murphy, president and CEO, joined the company six years ago, he noticed a drop in sales after lunch and wanted to find a way to close the gap in profits.

“I had the idea that if we changed over [to full service] at night, we’d get the best of both worlds. For people who have 30 minutes during the day for lunch, we give them fast casual so they can get in and out quickly,” Murphy says. “At night, people have more time and typically opt for full service, so we switch over to full service at night.

“When we started this [concept], the immediate feedback was very positive. It attracted more families at night and increased our ticket average from about $14 to $20.”

Mama Fu’s was one of the first to operate under the flex-casual model and eventually trademarked the term flex casual. The concept has evolved over the last six years.

“We found it makes sense to do a fast-casual lunch and full-service dinner Monday through Friday,” Murphy says. “But on Saturdays and Sundays, we do full service all day, simply because your customer during the week and at night is also your customer all day Saturday and Sunday.”

Rich LaVecchia, chairman and CEO of Charlotte, North Carolina–based American Roadside Burgers, says offering a higher level of service at night encourages customers to linger, leading to higher check averages.

While LaVecchia’s concept hasn’t adopted a complete full-service model for dinner, it has added a more service-oriented dining experience by putting more wait staff on the floor and offering bar service in the evenings.

“When you look at a fast-casual restaurant, it offers the upgraded menu quality, variety, and value pricing. Flex-casual restaurants add a third ingredient: a higher level of customer service,” LaVecchia says.

“That’s completing a three-legged stool. Our level of service is designed to encourage people to stay, and also makes it easy for them to spend money in the restaurant. When somebody comes in and orders something, it’s brought to their table and we’re circulating the wait staff during the evening hours to ask if they’d like refills on wine or any additional items.”

Murphy says changing concepts between lunch and dinner has been seamless for Mama Fu’s and hasn’t affected staff operations or menu offerings.

“There isn’t much conversion that happens at four o’clock each day going from fast casual to full service; it doesn’t affect our kitchen whatsoever,” Murphy says. “You just have a host that is driving the greeting and seating of the guests, versus someone at a counter. It’s not a big change with existing infrastructure and existing floor plans.”

Murphy says the daily switch has made positive staff changes by allowing further cross-training of employees who work across each part of the day. “When we started implementing this, we realized we needed to have more training centered around servers at night. So we’ve stepped up our game on the training side to give more confidence to our staff who are cashiering during the day and serving at night.”

Many operators find that customers naturally know what to do when they walk in, be it ordering at the counter or being seated by a host. But Murphy has slowly added communication about the model through social media and in-store POP.

“It’s something that we don’t want to base the entire campaign on yet, because we’re not big enough, so we’ve tried to use low-cost media to get that message across subtly,” he says. “We’ve branded on our menus and somewhat on our website. It’s something that we’re going to continue to have as the undercurrent of the culture of our brand.”

Operators who run flex-casual restaurants say there are many benefits to this type of operation.

“We’re seeing higher sales, especially in the evening hours,” LaVecchia says. “The key concept is that we want to create an atmosphere that invites people to stay and be comfortable.”

Murphy says one of the main benefits that he’s experienced is the opportunity to differentiate Mama Fu’s from other fast-casual restaurants.

“The higher level of service allows us to have a better interaction with the customer, allowing us to keep more loyal guests,” he says. “It does tend to attract more families. I’m a father with two young kids, and sometimes it’s difficult to go into a fast-casual restaurant for dinner with kids in tow and gather all of your drinks, silverware, and condiments, so there are definitely benefits from that side, too.”

Anthony Russo, CEO of Houston-based Russo’s New York
Pizzeria, operates on the flex-casual model and also finds it to be a more profitable concept. He says it’s more challenging to run a full-service operation full-time due to the costs associated with employing general managers to run the operation. He operates now with one general manager in the evening and focuses more efforts on catering and delivery sales.

“Counter service saves you money on labor and it also makes you more focused on customer service,” Russo says. “When you eliminate your wait staff, you have no service complaint and less employee turnover. There are many advantages to counter service—it’s easy to operate and simple to manage with less labor cost.”

Murphy says that in today’s market, anything quick-service operators can do to increase their customer service is going to help them stand out to consumers, but warns operators not to jump into the flex-casual concept too fast.

“Be careful doing flex casual unless you’re fully prepared to provide additional training and provide the additional support for your staff when you’re trying to execute it,” Murphy says. “When you increase the level of service, that’s fantastic and there’s a lot of opportunities. But the level of expectation for your customer goes up. We have to compete out there and whether the economy is getting better or not, it doesn’t matter. The guests have expectations and want value.”