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    Restaurants Redefined

  • In search of innovation, some restaurant brands are turning to a model that mixes limited service and full service.

    As the old saw goes, “Necessity is the mother of invention,” and to put it mildly, the Great Recession bred a lot of necessity.

    For the quick-service sector, the deprivation cut several ways. There was the “trading down” phenomenon, where some cash-strapped consumers chose fast-casual establishments instead of the full-service experience they might have opted for in better times. But more consumers overall were eating at home as their disposable income dwindled and their anxiety rose, and all segments of the restaurant industry took a hit.

    As the commercial real estate market took a nosedive, there also was suddenly an opportunity for franchisors to negotiate better deals on better locations in markets that had previously proved tough to penetrate. This might have been a consolation of the economic calamity, except that credit streams had frozen so solid you could skate on them. In this climate, those in the industry who wanted to expand went begging at one bank after another.

    These are sink-or-swim conditions. So it is not surprising that in the last two years, restaurants have been innovating at a pace that is unusual for a historically slow-moving industry. From the food trucks rolling through more neighborhoods to the industry’s late but enthusiastic adoption of social media marketing, restaurants have shown an impressive capacity to adapt in hard times.

    Another strategy that has picked up steam during the recession is the mixed-service model, where restaurant brands offer their customers both full-service and quick-service experiences, sometimes under one roof. While this is not an entirely new phenomenon, it is becoming more common as consumer preferences become less monolithic.

    “A mixed-service format is probably on the horizon for a number of restaurants,” says Darren Tristano, executive vice president of Chicago-based food consultancy Technomic. “Mixing limited and full service together is a great combination.”

    One company that already employs the strategy successfully, Tristano says, is Minneapolis-based Buffalo Wild Wings, which offers fast-casual and full-service options throughout the day. Other brands, like Le Grande Orange Café in Santa Monica, California, a Lettuce Entertain You restaurant, offer limited service during breakfast and lunch and then switch over to a full-service model in the evening.

    “It’s kind of the best of both worlds,” Tristano says. “As you move away from that fast-casual need, the full-service picks up and all of sudden it’s like you’re running two completely different restaurants.”

    Of course, time was when few operators would have wanted to run two different restaurants under one roof. The goal is brand consistency, after all. Tristano says the trick is maintaining brand identity while adapting to new consumer preferences.

    “There’s always that risk of confusing the consumer,” he says. “But this mixed-service model tracks better with consumer schedules.”

    People are far more “time crunched” in the morning and during lunch, Tristano says. But in the evening they have time to enjoy a slower meal, and they are willing to pay more for it.

    The potential for high ticket averages is what convinced Randy Murphy, president and CEO of Mama Fu’s, a chain of “Asian houses” based in Austin, Texas, to start implementing what he calls “flex casual” service in 2006. Before he took over, Murphy was Mama Fu’s biggest franchisee. He liked how well the fast-casual model did during lunch, but he wanted to find a remedy for the sales drop-off come evening.

    So after taking the reins, he decided to turn select Mama Fu’s locations into full-service establishments by night. Now with more than 10 flex-casual locations, Mama Fu’s is “predominantly a dinner-driven concept,” Murphy says.

    “We firmly believe that for lunch people do want to get in and get out,” he says. “But at night, whether they are on a date or out with the family, people typically want a higher level of service, and they have a little more time to dine.”

    Transitioning to a completely different format of service between lunch and dinner isn’t as laborious as it sound, Murphy says.

    “The only thing that changes is the ambience,” he says.

    But running a full-service restaurant does entail more than just lowering the lights and switching up the music. For one, it requires having more staff on hand. While paying waiters may make some quick serves give up on the idea of a flex model, particularly in a down economy, Murphy says he pays less for labor during dinner because the servers get tip wage, which is typically about a third to a quarter of hourly wage.

    “You do need more bodies, but it does not add up to the amount of pure labor wage you had before,” he says.

    Further offsetting the costs of switching to full service are the extras that diners tend to indulge in during a sit-down meal.

    “What you’re not going to get in fast casual or quick service is the add ons,” Murphy says. “You’re not going to get alcohol, you’re not going to get appetizers, you’re not going to get desserts, or any of those things that accompany a full dining experience.”

    All told, Mama Fu’s ticket average goes up by $4 during dinner. Still, Murphy says he has “no intention of going full service during the day.”

    “It’s all about finding the right mix,” he says. “Some places are understandably [one service model] all the time. But I think you’re going to see changes in service models, in terms of flexibility and mobility, simply because you have to differentiate and give customers what they want.”