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    The Differentiators

  • In these days of stiff competition, limited-service brands must stand out from the crowd. Here are six innovative brands doing just that.

    &pizza’s K Street location

    Run some numbers

    The term big data has bounced around the industry for a few years now, a sort of catchall term that has so far, at least in retail, been more futuristic idea than tangible operation.

    Now, however, at least one fast-casual chain is taking a bold step into the future by hiring a chief data scientist to lasso the potential that big data provides. Nine-unit Cava Grill hired Josh Patchus in March to help it create an infrastructure for data so it can better prepare for future growth. The D.C.-based Mediterranean concept plans to use data both for consumer-facing purposes—nutritional information, for example—and operational efficiency.

    “You can mine it, extract relevant information, and make the experience better,” Patchus says. “People want to know what their consumers are struggling with, and what their consumers need improvement on. … For us, we have different metrics that we’re trying to figure out, like what our consumers get frustrated with, and really make that an easier process for them, and for our managers and employees, too.”

    When Cava Grill recently opened a location near an existing Cava unit, Patchus says, data was able to help the team drill down exactly how the close proximity might affect traffic patterns in each store. And while some might see data as a tool to flag weaknesses, he adds, Cava Grill hopes to use data more for opportunity.

    “When you bring in data, especially in certain industries, it becomes a finger-pointing tool, and we don’t use it like that at all,” he says. “If the data shows that we need to change, then we’re going to change, and we’re going to help [team members] be a part of that.”

    Don’t take yourself too seriously

    There’s no science to the viral video. Companies are lucky to get hundreds of thousands of views for their ad spots on YouTube; in the rare case, big quick-service brands like McDonald’s and Wendy’s have touched seven figures. But that’s typically a level enjoyed only by the national chains, companies with ad agencies and millions in their marketing budgets.

    Earlier this year, Dog Haus partnered with Millennial-forward news site Buzzfeed on a video showcasing creative sausage recipes. The video, starring Dog Haus culinary director Michael Brown and head sausage maker Adam Gertler, has racked up more than 2 million YouTube views since its March premiere.

    The Buzzfeed video was part of a broader strategy from the “craft-casual” chain, one in which Dog Haus forgoes traditional radio and TV spots in favor of social media marketing and online videos that communicate the brand’s fun, irreverent personality.

    “I think video is what people want to watch. I don’t think people want to read anymore; I think they want to be entertained,” says Dog Haus cofounder André Vener. “So we try to make sure that our videos are the same tongue in cheek as when you walk into a Dog Haus, and we make them kind of funny, let them know that we’re funny, let them know that this place is fun.”

    Vener says social media is Dog Haus’s bread and butter, as evidenced by the number of customers who come into the store and take pictures of their food before chowing down. The company hired a team of young people to direct Dog Haus’s social media efforts, which include engaging with nearly every person who mentions the brand and developing creative content.

    “I think you have to mirror your staff, the team that you hire, to the customers that come in there,” he says. “We’re seeing this younger generation … come in. It’s a hip scene, and times are changing, and different social media platforms are changing. We surrounded ourselves with a bunch of 20-year-olds who live in it, who grew up with it.”

    Dog Haus also has a full-time video department—even the training videos for franchisees are done creatively, with fun and humor in mind—and it intentionally leverages Gertler, a Food Network personality, for offbeat YouTube videos.

    “I guess it’s weird to have a video department and actors on your staff before you hire other people, like a COO or CFO,” Vener says with a laugh.

    Shake up your drink menu

    When cofounders Josh Spiegelman and Lynn Gorfinkle opened Roam Artisan Burgers in San Francisco in 2010, their intent was to create an upscale fast-casual burger joint that used high-quality, high-integrity ingredients.

    That mission extended even to the beverage menu, and today, Roam boasts a diverse drink menu that goes far beyond most other limited-service restaurants. It includes wine and kombucha (fermented tea) on tap, bottled local beers, house-made artisan sodas, and a line of milkshakes produced in-house, made with local ice cream and milks.

    Not in the restaurants? A soda fountain. Spiegelman says that while he and Gorfinkle are well aware of the high margins on traditional sodas, they don’t fit with Roam Burgers’ mission. “We’re not making as much of a margin,” he says. “But we’re OK with that, because everything we do is about our brand and using ingredients with integrity.”

    The innovative beverages are also labor-intensive, which Spiegelman thinks will prevent many other brands from investing in such a program. But while kombucha might not be such a sure thing outside San Francisco—“As we expand into other markets, there’s a bit more education required,” he says—Spiegelman thinks customers nationwide are ready for some new ideas in the beverage department. “People like it here, but I don’t think there’s any reason they wouldn’t like it all over the place.”