When Starbird launched in the Bay Area in 2016, it didn’t use the label “fast casual,” despite touchpoints like a high-quality menu, tech-forward experience, and modern-yet-comfortable dining rooms. No, the brand’s leaders preferred the term “super-premium fast food,” a nod to the fact that Starbird was still slinging quick-serve favorites like chicken sandwiches, chicken tenders, and tacos—just very, very good versions of those staples.
Starbird’s universal appeal paired with its commitment to quality is doing the heavy lifting in getting it through the coronavirus pandemic. In fact, the brand isn’t just scraping by. CEO Aaron Noveshen says year-over-year comps are up 25 percent, even though the Bay Area—where all six Starbird units are located—has been under stay-at-home orders longer than anywhere else in America, and even though about 30–40 percent of its pre-COVID sales were from catering and dining in.
Noveshen, who is also founder and CEO of innovation agency The Culinary Edge, which developed Starbird, says the chicken brand has remained flexible through the pandemic to adapt to customer needs and trends.
“Right now, the definition of a restaurant has really changed, and we don’t want to assume that one approach is better than the other,” he says.
Here are five lessons Noveshen and Starbird have learned through the first three months of the COVID-19 outbreak.
Lead with positivity and empathy
The first action Starbird took as it watched the coronavirus paralyze China and then make its way to the U.S. was to lay out its guiding principles—core filters, Noveshen says, through which it would make every business decision. He adds that Starbird has always stood for positivity—its tagline is “Positively delicious chicken”—which has resonated with its customers, and the guiding principles were each rooted in that positivity.
The first guiding principle was people.
“We said, ‘We’ve got a business that will likely be positioned well [through the pandemic], so let’s take a risk on ourselves. Let’s invest in our people, invest in their safety; let’s invest in their wellbeing,’” Noveshen says.
Starbird rolled out safety precautions for its employees before they became commonplace, including positioning POS systems at the doors and menuboards to be outward facing so that they could limit capacity prior to mandated dining-room closures. The company also gave all of its employees raises and allowed an extra free meal for them to take home to their families.
The second guiding principle was community. Like many businesses, Starbird wanted to support frontline professionals and medical workers, but it also wanted to give customers an easy way to support them, too. The brand teamed up with hospitals in the Bay Area and donated food to them by matching customer purchases and allowing guests to donate toward the cause.
The initiative has built a strong relationship with the local medical community, Noveshen says.
“We’ve now been receiving catering orders from medical offices and from businesses because of how we’ve supported the medical community and frontline staff,” he says. “We’re really hoping that’s a long-term relationship.”
Starbird’s third guiding principle was business health: “How do we think about making strategic decisions every day that are clear and focused, and what’s really been working for Starbird?” Noveshen says. That principle led to myriad ways the brand adapted to guest wants and needs (more on those in a bit).
These guiding principles helped Starbird remain positive both in sales and spirit. And that positivity helped the team be more empathetic toward their customers—a connectivity that Noveshen thinks is critical for getting through the pandemic unscathed.
“We insisted, for example, to our general managers that we actually get a second phone line in every single restaurant that has roll over, because there is this sense of people needing to connect more,” he says. “They need to feel safe. … We kind of doubled down because there are a bunch of new people who want to pick up the phone and call us.”
Meet customers in their need states
Noveshen says the flexibility of Starbird’s platform has allowed the brand to serve customers in the variety of ways they choose to experience it. He points to the fact that Starbird has seven ways to order delivery: through its native app, through a web ordering platform, and via five different third-party services. That way, no matter which digital marketplace the customer is shopping in, they’ll be able to easily order from Starbird.
That flexibility extended to Starbird’s on-premises experience, too. The brand adapted its order-ahead pickup process so that customers wouldn’t have to come into the building to get their food. Instead, there’s a pickup window with hand sanitizer through which guests grab their food when it’s ready. The original strategy was to employ a digital board announcing when orders were ready, but Starbird has moved toward a text opt-in system that does the job.
“Now a lot more people are opting into that because they get that it’s the safest way—they don’t have to stand around,” Noveshen says. “They could sit in their car now and wait for a text to come to get up and go to the window to pick up their food.”
Noveshen believes a drive-in method powered by a great digital ordering platform is better than drive thru because it doesn’t have the same kinds of bottlenecks and wait times. He points to In-N-Out as an example of a quick serve where it can take several minutes to get through the drive thru during a rush.
“It’s kind of fun, it’s an outing, but for many people, that’s not really convenience,” he says. “There’s plenty of parking spaces now, for better or for worse, in all of our restaurants, so you can order ahead, pull into a spot, walk up, and in literally less than 60 seconds, have the food in your hand.”
Invest in virtual brands
Several restaurant companies have discovered through the COVID-19 crisis that virtual brands can be a great way to utilize a kitchen and crew and expand sales with very little extra cost. And while Starbird was working on virtual concepts before the crisis began, it’s accelerated that investment in the last few months. That’s primarily through two virtual brands: Starbird Wings and Starbird Salads.
Noveshen says these new concepts, which primarily sell existing Starbird items that are positioned a little differently, help the brand expand its digital real estate.
“So if you are going to a third-party delivery business like DoorDash or Uber Eats and you type in the word salads, you want a salad. The algorithm pushes Starbird Salads to the front,” he says. “When you want wings, you could just type in wings. Or if you type in Starbird, you could see all of our brands. So this digital real estate has been really powerful for us in getting the Starbird word out.”
One consideration for brands in developing virtual concepts is whether to attach their name or branding to them. Some believe it’s necessary to keep the branding separate so that customers don’t question the business’s motives, while others think it’s important to connect the dots for the customers so that they know what they’re getting.
Noveshen falls in the latter camp, noting that the Starbird branding is something that resonates with customers and is something to continue to invest in. “What we found is that there’s a lot of trust with Starbird, and we didn’t want to create something that wasn’t true to us,” he says. “We found [value in] building the Starbird brand up in this space, especially with a completely new product and reason to visit it. We didn’t need to go away from the brand.”
Noveshen says Starbird has plans for more virtual concepts, and he believes the cloud-kitchen strategy could be what the brand leads with as it expands to other cities. While he previously thought Starbird needed a brick-and-mortar presence in a new city to make virtual brands work, the rapid evolution of off-premises in the last few months has made him reconsider whether that’s true.
Change the restaurant footprint
While Noveshen and his teams at Starbird and The Culinary Edge are responding in real time to the variety of challenges presented by the coronavirus, they also have one eye on the future and the ways in which this crisis will alter the direction of the foodservice industry.
Noveshen thinks dining in will return as soon as it can because people will miss socialization. But it will be different now that off-premises has taken such root in consumers’ lives.
“People are going to continue to have that desire and need to connect, but when all is said and done, maybe it’s at an 80 percent level of what it was because … people dining at home has increased in the last five years—in a non-COVID environment, that was already starting to happen. So dining-room sizes will need to be right-sized.”
Starbird was already downsizing its footprint in new locations, he adds, because off-premises had gone from being about 50 percent of business when the brand first launched to 70 percent of business just before the pandemic. He points to Starbird’s latest location in Campbell, California, which is about 1,700 square feet and yet going to do about $3 million in sales on the year. And the brand’s Foster City, California, location did about $65,000 in sales in a recent week out of only a kitchen, two windows, and a parking lot.
In addition, Noveshen predicts a shift toward more outdoor dining, particularly as more cities loosen up regulations about dining and drinking outdoors.
“Going outside now and spending more time outdoors, this appreciation for being outside and outdoors, is going to be a little bit longer lasting,” he says. “Dining outside and sitting outside and being on patios, I think that will be a huge, huge growth thing.”
Prepare for a health boom—next year
Prior to the coronavirus outbreak, health continued to be a major factor in consumers’ dining decisions, and plant-based meat alternatives had become one of the biggest trends influencing restaurants.
Noveshen thinks those will continue to be important considerations post-COVID. But he reminds that any prolonged recession that we’re likely entering will also affect consumer dining decisions.
“What that creates is … this demand for cheap calories,” he says, pointing to the fact that 40 million Americans had filed for unemployment since the pandemic began. “But that’s a large [chunk] of the population. So there will be in the QSR world a lot of inexpensive calories needed to be sold.”
Noveshen’s prediction is that health demands come roaring back in January and that next year will see even more momentum toward healthy eating. Not only is that a traditionally popular time for healthy eating because of New Year’s resolutions, but also, Noveshen thinks many people will be ready for a fresh start.
“There is going to be such a need and desire for 2020 to be over with,” he says. “I think health will be massive. Everyone who’s been putting on the COVID 15 is going to need to do something about it. And so my prediction would be that 2021, beginning of the year, is going to really be a time of health and to be thinking about it more show than even in the past.”
For more on Starbird and Noveshen’s thoughts on the restaurant industry post-pandemic, stream the podcast at the top of the page.