Loyalty helped fast casuals gain on aggregator platforms as well as top competitors, and to keep customers in the funnel through tactics other than deep discounting or coupons—avenues larger quick-serves will almost always win on. Chipotle today is using methods like predictive modeling to trigger purchasing journeys.
“We want to make sure customers are 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 push our brand’s commercial performance on driving that demand generation,” Irby says.
Accessibility and customization are consumer expectations now, he adds. So is driving a one-to-one relationship. McAlister’s, for instance, added tableside ordering to layer in a digital format inside of physical stores. Customers sit down, skip the line, order and customize how they want via the app, yet get the meal-to-the-table service McAlister’s is known for.
“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,” Irby says
“I think there’s never been a more exciting time for the industry,” he adds, “because technology has never been more accessible to restaurants. Even a single store can get a web 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 harder to own your customer’s experience and turn that data into a competitive advantage.”
Thirty-eight-unit Piada Italian Street Food started its push into digital in 2017, as Shake Shack did. Matthew Harding, senior vice president of culinary and menu innovation at the brand, says Piada rolled out online ordering and bought a generic app. The coming year, Piada brought that technology in-house and started to implement functionality to “punch over our weight.” The company’s apps launched November of last year and have seen about 10–15 percent growth per week. “When we realized that was going to be the savior, we really rushed in,” he says.
In its infancy, fast casual’s super power was the ability to blend experience with convenience at a price point consumers hadn’t seen before. Digital boom or not, CAVA’s Schulman says, the demise of in-restaurant dining was exaggerated. At Piada, in-store traffic gained 15 percent over the summer. Another case point—CAVA saw dinner business grow by 10 percent over pre-virus.
Here, fast casual has a chance to dig in against fast food, akin to the 90s. The idea fast casual “offers the best of both worlds” and can also grab share from full-serves by competing on quality.
Torchy’s Tacos founder Mike Rypka says human beings are social by nature, and the demand to gather didn’t evaporate when the option did.
“No one really loved being locked down in their house the last 18 months,” he says. “I think there’s still a big need for that.”
Torchy’s will continue to commit to an experience that courts a social, inviting environment far removed from the “food-as-fuel” chains of past quick-service lure, Rypka adds. This means full-service bars and ambiance, and branding felt across the 95-unit fleet.
“Also respecting and knowing that you’re probably leaving money on the table if you’re not investing and working on your digital to-go experience,” he says. “You’ve got to tackle both, and for us that’s very important.”
Thanks to COVID, guests now have a drive-thru menu in their hands, Schulman says, which also blurs the lines in fast casual’s favor. Piada’s Harding refers to this as the ability to “meet guests at the screen.” They can order ahead and go to curbside, or run to a pickup shelf. “You have the [quick-service] convenience with the quality of a fast-casual experience,” Schulman says. “But you can also have the ambiance or the quality of food that you can get at a casual-dining [brand] without the time or price commitment.”
Rypka says Torchy’s is looking at pay-at-the-table, increased curbside, and just offering more channels to communicate and reach out to guests. “Definitely, I think that’s the wave of the future,” he says.