It’s no secret the way people are dining is changing. Everyone has heard of the apparent dreaded “Retail Apocalypse,” where department stores fail to adapt and connect more deeply and meaningfully with the consumer. But is the restaurant business next? Not if they are able to successfully evolve their brands around a few vital principles that are separating the struggling brands from the industry dominators.


The recent “create-your-own” trend is sweeping the nation with brands such as MOD Pizza, SaladWorks and Qdoba doing better than ever. What’s so special about this concept? Each and every meal can be personalized, just the way customers like it, right in front of their eyes. They can actually see and smell the ingredients, which appeals to the senses unlike anything the web can deliver. Customers can request more or less of anything they want and have exactly what their tastebuds crave. That also means more options. Vegetarian, vegan, gluten free, paleo, if a customer wants it, the restaurant can create it.


Panera Bread’s CEO Blaine Hurst recently spoke at the NRF 2018 Retail’s Big Show. He revealed that 10 percent of Panera’s sales are coming from its rapid pickup option. Pair the ease of ordering from a mobile app with Ipad Kiosks to help customers order quicker without a long line, and Panera is dominating the quick service restaurant industry’s technology advances to gain more sales and keep customers happy. Casual dining isn’t dead, but it’s becoming much harder for these brands to compete with the convenience that the quick service restaurants have to offer. In the busy lifestyles that people live these days, they are more and more interested in convenience and take out options than sitting down inside a restaurant and being served or even preparing something in their own home.


Retail brands are putting an emphasis on employee training as a differentiator and providing the best customer experience possible, and restaurants are no exception. Giving the customer the best experience they can starts with providing the employees with the training and skills to adapt and give customers what they want. Chick-Fil-A is one big example of how keeping both employees and customers happy makes for a successful brand beyond just the food product itself. The live human interaction adds irreplaceable value to the experience. Keeping employees happy is the first step to keeping customers happy. And, of course, high quality, tasty food always is critical to keep customers coming back for more.


In 2017, more than 35 brand acquisitions took place in a race to dominate the restaurant industry. Brands such as Burger King and Popeyes teamed to combine their successes in order to keep pushing forward. Arby’s acquired Buffalo Wild Wings and created Inspire Brands to help refocus the brand and keep both moving in the right direction. And earlier in the year, Panera was bought by JAB Holding Co. for an opposite reason—to bring in a powerhouse brand and strengthen its own brand model.


Earlier this month, Wendy’s aired a pretty bold commercial during the Super Bowl which called out the competition for freezing its beef, while Wendy’s claims that it only use fresh, never frozen beef on every hamburger. Customers want fresh ingredients, and the difference is in the taste. Blaze Pizza is a big proponent of “clean” ingredients, priding itself in the fact that ingredients are not artificial, have no additives and are chemical free, and as an added bonus, the packaging is recyclable, compostable, and/or made from post-consumer reclaimed materials. Cleaner = heathier = tastier = happy repeat customers.

Kara Demmien is a project designer with LDG’s national Retail Design Division and co-leads the firm’s Williamsport, PA office. The group serves clients with more than 450 stores nationwide. Contact her at


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