McAlister’s loyalty relaunch can’t be understated, either. Guith says it was among the biggest internal issues operators asked him to fix when he assumed the president role in April 2018. He previously served as brand president of Cinnabon.
Before, McAlister’s platform was more of a surprise-and-delight one that actually turned off in 2019. The company decided to keep it dark until the new digital suite was ready to go.
Basically, a customer would get a reward based on if they came often, and spent enough. The “delight” would be whatever McAlister’s decided. “So a lack of transparency,” Guith says. “A lack of choice. Honestly, day one when I landed with the brand, I realized that was an opportunity.”
The program today mirrors more of what you see from top-tier quick-service brands, like Starbucks. A points-based setup where consumers hit certain tiers and can access specific parts of the menu when it comes to rewards redemption. McAlister’s didn’t need to reinvent the wheel with loyalty, Guith says. Just spinning it at the same pace was a major step forward.
And today, participation rates in McAlister’s loyalty program are tracking in excess of six times what they were pre-COVID.
In fact, the company’s app was ranked only behind Starbucks, Panera, and McDonald’s in Incisiv’s 2020 Limited Service Restaurant Digital Maturity Benchmark report. McAlister’s was fifth in customer engagement and service (Starbucks, McDonald’s, Dunkin’, and Chick-fil-A were in front).
The ranking put McAlister’s ahead of technology front-runners like Pizza Hut, Domino’s, and Chipotle.
It all connects, Guith says. McAlister’s digital transactions represented maybe a 10th of sales before COVID. Now, it’s close to 40 percent. The brand got out of “tablet hell” in 2019 and integrated third-party delivery into its point-of-sale.
“I can’t imagine what that would have looked like in 2020 had we not done that,” Guith says. “You literally would have had to have a person standing at the tablets all day punching in orders.”
Guith says he’s been pleasantly surprised by McAlister’s catering of late, too. The chain pivoted offerings, from addressing smaller occasions with deli kits and family meal deals, which are more B2C catering (not something McAlister’s focused on previously) to creating Choose 2 Box Lunches—a new option for the brand that starts as low as $8.49.
McAlister’s moved away from things like bulk salads and sandwich trays. The family meals and deli kits, targeted toward at-home group occasions, arrived in the spring. The box lunches are a more recent innovation, but one that’s picking up momentum, Guith says.
“Between that and even dine-in, I’ve been surprised. What’s great is we built now this much larger piece of digital business for ourselves,” Guith says.
The return of dine-in, as strange as this would have sounded before COVID, has been incremental for McAlister’s. It’s not cannibalizing the chain’s other digital pivots. And Guith believes mid- to late next year, the industry will see some level of return to normal when it comes to dining out. Given some recent openings have even set day one records, Guith is bullish about life after coronavirus.
"We have weathered the storm incredibly well," he says. "We’ve had positive net unit growth in 2020. And we have a very robust pipeline lined up for 2021. I’m excited about what the future is and we built very strong foundational elements. We’ve also come closer to our franchise community."