5 Tips for Localizing Your Restaurant

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A spread of food dishes at Cava fast casual restaurant.

Local pays off

A 2016 survey of data from millions of Bank of America debit and credit cards showed a shift away from large restaurant chains to smaller chains and independents. And in 2018, Yelp’s Local Economic Outlook reported that large quick-service chains on average lost 16 percent of their rating over the last five years—equaling about a third of a star—while independent quick serves enjoyed a 7 percent increase.

Large limited-service chains have the benefit of higher marketing budgets and strict standardization, which helps them provide a consistent experience more efficiently. But trends seem to suggest that consumers are looking for a more personalized, localized experience, which has led some savvy operators to “un-chain-ify” the look and feel of their locations to attract these diners.

For those who think they can throw photos of local landmarks on the walls and call it a day, though, think again. Instead, experts suggest everything from customizing your furniture to empowering your local workforce. By following these and other tips, small and big chain operators alike can benefit from blending more seamlessly into the local community.

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City Barbeque

Personalize your décor

While pinning up photos of local landmarks won’t cut it when it comes to localizing your restaurants, the idea behind it is a good one: customizing your restaurant’s look by changing up the furnishings, design, and décor to reflect the local flavor.

Dala Al-Fuwaires, principal of the restaurant design firm FJI, suggests avoiding off-the-shelf furniture in favor of customized design that can be tweaked for each location. The thought may make some slam their wallets shut in fear, but Al-Fuwaires points out that this is an attainable goal for quick serves. “There are great cost savings associated with standardizing a chair, table, or light fixture design and manufacturing it in bulk through a reliable source,” she says. “Standardization of design with two to three varieties in texture or color options, based on locality, is a great way to customize the interior.’”

Another idea is to create a feature wall that differs depending on the location. “Incorporating a graphic—such as maps, abstract art, or photography—in the form of a wall covering is an opportunity for the celebration of locality,” Al-Fuwaires says. “You can achieve a streamlined process by standardizing the artwork by state, city, or country. A single print shop can provide several predetermined options for the franchisee to select from, and scaling the image to fit the space is a relatively easy way around the variety of spatial footprints that franchisees have to deal with.” This is a flexible solution that, especially for global chains, is a nice compromise between customization and cost.

City Barbeque, a Columbus, Ohio–based chain with 41 locations, takes advantage of this concept with its “Backyard Hospitality” walls, the contents of which differ by unit.

“We want to celebrate each of those local communities in the ways that make them different,” says Samantha Shaffer, City Barbeque’s marketing manager. “At the same time, we want to celebrate our core values and our brand promises through that.” A wall might boast information on local people doing great things or the logo and mission statement of a nonprofit the restaurant is fundraising for.

One City Barbeque location is the meeting place for a group of parents of autistic kids. A local woodworker created a large wooden puzzle for the group, and the kids each painted one of the pieces. The completed puzzle now hangs on the Backyard Hospitality wall, along with a write-up about the group.

“Now the kids come in and run to the puzzle and point out their puzzle piece,” Shaffer says. “The parents love it.”

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Which Wich

Be active in the community

The Backyard Hospitality wall leads to another way to incorporate your restaurant into the community: supporting causes its citizens care about.

Which Wich, a sandwich chain headquartered in Dallas, does this with Project PB&J, a nonprofit initiative of its Which Wich Cares Foundation. For every peanut butter and jelly sandwich a customer buys, the franchisee donates one back to the community and the company banks one in what it calls its Global Fund. Which Wich then pulls from the fund to supply PB&Js in times of greater need, such as during a natural disaster. The sandwiches cost $3, and the guest is welcome to take the sandwich for themselves, but “a lot of times the customer says, ‘I just wanted to help’ [and not take a sandwich], or they’ll take it and they’ll pass it on to someone else,” says Hala Habal, vice president of corporate communications at Which Wich.

With 430 locations, Which Wich could have partnered with a national nonprofit, but the company wants to be impactful and meaningful in every one of its communities. Not only that, but the franchisees are also able to donate to whichever charities they want, because Which Wich has eliminated the red tape that can go into such decisions.

CAVA, an 80-unit chain based in Washington, D.C., combines fundraising with its store openings by partnering with a nonprofit, offering free meals the day before the opening and using the event as an opportunity to solicit donations. In D.C., for example, CAVA partners with City Blossoms, a nonprofit dedicated to fostering healthy communities by developing creative, kid-driven green spaces. It’s a perfect partnership, since part of City Blossoms’ mission is to foster healthy living habits by teaching kids where their food comes from and how to grow their own.

Then there’s Jersey Mike’s, the New Jersey–based chain with more than 1,500 U.S. locations that is known for its annual Month of Giving. The company collects donations from customers all month long for its 200-plus local charity partners, then selects one day that month to donate all proceeds from its sales. In March, Jersey Mike’s 2019 Month of Giving, the company raised more than $7 million.

The Month of Giving is a national effort, but the company strives to make it as local as possible. “We’ll get together with a franchise owner and select a charity partner to support,” says Caroline Jones, senior vice president of Jersey Mike’s. “Once they make that selection, the only thing that we do from the national level is help streamline public relations, get charity toolkits to the charities, and things of that nature. ... We just organize the back end of the event, but the franchisees are the ones meeting with the charity, getting them involved, and having them come to their store that day for the Day of Giving.”

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Remember that employees are local, too

Supporting local charities is a good way to become a valued part of the community, but what about supporting the people who work in your restaurants—who also live in the area?

“We see that as part of our connection to the local community,” says Ben Famous, CAVA’s head of strategic communication and brand marketing.

To start, CAVA makes it a point to pay above minimum wage; for example, the minimum wage in California is $11 per hour, and CAVA’s bottom wage is $13 per hour. The company also offers health benefits plus maternal and paternal leave, and is the first restaurant brand to offer two hours of paid leave on election day.

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City Barbeque

Give power to the teams

For larger chains, the best way to “un-chain-ify” may be to allow restaurant managers and franchisees to take the lead.

“Our vision is, if someone is visiting from out of town, you would want to take them to City Barbeque because you want them to see what the community is all about,” Shaffer says. “With that in mind, it’s up to the local managers and the local teams there to make that a reality.”

One example: The manager of the West Chester, Ohio, location is into sports, so he commissioned an artist to create team-related artwork for the walls—a double win that combines local sports and local craftspeople. Shaffer reports that when people enter the restaurant, they feel a vibe that’s very specific to that location and manager.

The community-based attitude can start as early as the franchisee onboarding process. “When someone is interested in becoming a part of the Jersey Mike’s family, it’s all about what they do in the community now,” Jones says. “That’s something that’s ingrained in our culture right away. Ultimately our franchisees take that mindset and come up with their own different ways to get involved in their communities.”

At national meetings, franchisees are inspired hearing one another talk about how they’re making an impact in their cities, she adds.

Through a top-down process, restaurant brands empower their franchisees and managers, and those people in turn empower their staffs to get involved—whether it’s through contributing ideas for a new feature wall or fundraising for a favorite charity—and give them the tools to do so.

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Which Wich

Commit to local

Integrating your restaurant into the community, and wiping out the “faceless chain” feel that has customers running to the local competitors, is all about commitment. “Throwing a team logo up on the wall is just table stakes,” Habal says. “I live in a suburb, and all the time you see businesses that have the volleyball team’s photo in the window. OK, but why not go a step further and help at the car wash at that volleyball team’s fundraiser?” To make an impact, efforts at localizing your business need to be sincere and authentic, she adds.

“There’s nothing worse than saying, ‘We’re local,’ and then buying a sign that says, ‘We’re local,’ from a national store—it doesn’t connect,” Shaffer says. “The key is, don’t just talk about it—be about it.”