As has been well charted, fast casual’s COVID evolution arrived in a hurry. At Focus Brands, the task was among the most nuanced in the business. Overseeing Moe’s Southwest Grill, McAlister’s Deli, Cinnabon, Auntie Anne’s, Carvel, Jamba, and Schlotzsky’s required a pandemic playbook that took on more chapters than any operator could reasonably count. From loyalty to contactless dine-in to meal kits, the company’s need to remain a step ahead has positioned it for even more growth on the other side.

Claiborne Irby, SVP of customer engagement and strategy at Focus Brands, chatted with QSR about the company’s pivots, data focus, and where this journey goes from here.

Take us back to the early days and the Focus response. How did the customer react?

As we pivoted, we saw an advancement with digital adoption, and we had to get there faster. In the end, I think that put us in a place where we feel we can measure and manage our business better than ever.

Focus is now in a place where we’re sitting on a treasure trove of data and we need to make sure that we’re driving our brands forward; that we’re putting that to use; that we’re using that data to make smart decisions and drive our brand’s performance and drive that customer engagement.

I think you’ve seen consumers lean into things like accessibility and customization, and the expectation that we’re meeting them where they are. And we will need to meet them where they want to be met. We have the assets and ability to do just that. I think one of the things that we’ve really taken away from this experience over the last two years is that it has validated where we are as an enterprise—the ability to build and activate platforms that are allowing us to serve those customers there.

How is loyalty and rewards factoring in?

Loyalty is certainty a strong part of that. A strong loyalty program will be the foundation of where we’re going as we build out more advanced offer engines and personalization. And we’re actively researching what we’re doing there. We continue to evolve our understanding on how to get a greater share of wallet with our consumers; how to engage them best and make sure that our loyalty programs are modern and well-positioned to attract the right consumers in the right way.

That’s going to be a very big focus as we go into 2022.

Speak to the trust factor in all of this.

I think what’s great is we have compelling brands with really great products that people enjoy and love. What we can now do is make that even more accessible. So we’re pushing that digital, loyalty, first-party delivery front. You saw Moe’s pivot with meal kits as business catering was absent for a while. That’s certainly something that the brand is going to stick with going forward.

We’re able to take those recognizable products, those the costumer has craved during the pandemic, and as we’ve gained a foothold into accessibility through curbside delivery and other digital efforts, we now have to be there. We want to be there. We’re collecting that information. We’re collecting that customer data. We’re looking at that data to further drive that. We want to make sure customers are enjoying that and getting the best experience possible using the information we’re seeing from people in loyalty and outside of loyalty to help our brands remain relevant, and really help push our brand’s commercial performance on driving that demand generation.

Curry Up Now Tandoori Fried Chicken Sandwich

What are some trends you’re seeing in play at this stage?

I think you see more experimentation than ever before, and Focus is certainly keeping a pulse on that. We’re watching trends and understanding what the different business dynamics are. Where the potential innovation can be. But we’re ultimately ensuring that we’re investing where there’s the greatest gain. And for us, it’s the one-to-one relationship.

Accessibility and customization—that’s absolutely a consumer expectation now, but making sure we’re doing so in a way that’s driving that one-to-one relationship is critical. McAlister’s is a great example with tableside ordering. That’s using the digital format inside of the physical store, where customers can sit down, they can skip the line, they can order exactly what they want through the app, and have that digital experience.

But at the same time, it’s paired with the great service (bringing the meal to the table) that McAlister’s is known for.

Are there growth opportunities with the stores themselves?

Our brands, and the footprints they have, absolutely have the opportunity to serve different use occasions, which is wonderful. We’re seeing a shift in consumer behavior, which will mean needing to be more accessible with delivery and other tech changes. We can’t give up that service standard now, however. That’s something that is unique to many of our concepts and we want to make sure that culture and customer experience comes to life.

I think that’s going to be one of the most important things for brands in the coming year—is maintaining that customer experience, owning that customer experience across the physical and digital.

We have seen dine-in return. We’ve also seen delivery and pickup stay. And so it’s been an interesting mix where it certainly hasn’t come full circle. I’m just not sure that we’re going to be in a place where that’s going to be true in the years to come. Consumers have found different ways to engage with restaurant brands. And our data showed that they’re enjoying that aspect of today’s operating world. Think of it as one more option that they have, whether or not I’m going to go sit down in this brand and enjoy it, for example, or whether or not I’m going to order it ahead, skip the line, and continue on my way.

I think being able to meet our customers at these various points of need will be really, really important for Focus’ performance going forward. And that’s where we’re really leaning into the data. We’re really working to understand which customers are engaging us in which channels and how are they appreciating and reacting to their different experiences. Then, using that data to make sure we’re driving that operational excellence and profitability for our franchisees. And, ultimately, customer satisfaction.

Inside An Empty Supermarket

What kind of changes have you noticed in the Focus customer?

We’ve seen about 50 percent of our customers use drive-thru and pickup, and they expect to use them as much if not more going forward. So we’re definitely planning for a world where consumers are getting the best of both; where they’re enjoying the options they have. They’re getting a taste of that branded experience, no matter how they choose to. They’re certainly taking their meals and dining in a convenient, timely way that’s fitting their patterns of life.

Drive-thru and pickup, like we just referenced, have gained relevance. But we’re also seeing that more than a third of people getting delivery are using it at least once a week. So that’s opening up new occasions, both for us to serve existing customers and to gain new ones. Also, to make sure that we’re driving share of wallet with them. We know from Moe’s that a large portion of customers have loved using the meal kits. That’s absolutely another way for us to serve guests. It was a kid-favorable meal to begin with, but now the ability to do that on a busy schedule coming home, on the way to or from somewhere, is a great place for that brand to be. We’re gaining access to customers and growing new-use occasions, all in places where they might not have been before.

Additionally, places they weren’t pre-COVID. Being able to keep family meals on the menu and satisfy more customers in more ways is exactly what we want to see our brands do going forward.

Speak more to the meal kit add.

The meal kits have been a great pivot, not just from a business standpoint to fill in some of the gaps in catering, but also, like we just talked about, the ability to have new and existing customers enjoy us. And in a new place. One of the big challenges that we’re adjusting to going forward is that consumers continue to find more and different varieties and everybody knows that their inbox and their phone today has more than enough promotional messages from industries of all kinds.

We need to make sure that we’re addressing the right customer with the right message. Make sure that we’re communicating with our guest in meaningful and relevant ways. That’s going to be really critical because we want to ensure we’re gaining that share of their wallet and driving brand relevancy in their mind. Restaurants at this stage are fighting to be relevant and appropriate to the occasion, and thanks to the data, we now understand who and what they are and how they engaged their brand. By using the data we’re collecting through these various digital channels, through loyalty, through email engagement, is going to be the best way for us to understand what is relevant for that consumer and how can we can increase and improve and better our relationship with them.

Where do we go from here?

I think there’s never been a more exciting time for the industry. Technology has never been more accessible to restaurants. Even a single store can get a website and an app and experiment with ghost kitchens through third-party delivery. But it’s never been harder to achieve scale. It’s never been more difficult to own your customer’s experience and turn that data into a competitive advantage. And what we’re building here at Focus are the platforms to do just that.

They’re the platforms to empower our brands to punch above their weight. You see that with things like McAlister’s and their growth trajectory. Supplying that energy to all of our brands is something we’re really excited about and will be exceptionally important as we continue to grow the portfolio of our brands.

I’m really excited where we’re going. Being data centric will be an enormous competitive advantage and that shift into digital that we’ve seen over the last year two years, not only is it impactful to consumers, but it’s requiring us to manage our business better. It’s equipping us with more data and we’ve got to use that to the betterment of our brand’s franchisees and to our customer relationships.

We’re making great strides getting there.

Business Advice, Customer Experience, Fast Casual, Restaurant Operations, Technology, Web Exclusives, FOCUS Brands, McAlister's Deli, Moe's Southwest Grill