A closer connection
The pandemic has forced millions more Americans onto digital ordering platforms, and one of the massive advantages to this is that restaurants can collect far more information about them, and then craft the ordering experience according to that data.
“It’s greater guest intimacy,” Guith says. “We know better what you like and what you want, and can tailor those experiences and communications to you.”
LISTEN: Stream the conversation with McAlister's president Joe Guith below
Sweetgreen’s thinking a lot more about the power of data, too. The salad fast casual with more than 100 locations across the U.S. has long been a leader in technological innovations; even before COVID, more than half of Sweetgreen’s sales came through digital channels. That included third-party delivery but also native delivery, mobile-order pickup, and its Outpost program, which stationed pickup locations in hundreds of office spaces and other sites near Sweetgreen stores.
But Daniel Shlossman, SVP of digital and growth at Sweetgreen, says that didn’t give the brand permission to coast in the pandemic. Rather, with the rest of the industry outpacing its previous innovation out of necessity, the pressure was on Sweetgreen to get ahead of the curve all the more. And Shlossman says the company’s primary goal in that regard is getting customers to order through Sweetgreen’s native channels—and meet them there with an even better experience.
“How do we make this new normal as efficient and seamless as possible?” he says. “And then we also look at … since everyone’s accessing our menu digitally now, how do we make that digital menu as personalized and as customized as possible for the customers?”
For Sweetgreen, the answer to that question was its Collections platform, a digital-only menu that was introduced last fall. Available online or through Sweetgreen’s app, Collections offers guests a curated list of menu categories designed to better steer their purchasing decisions. Lists will be added and adapted based on seasonal items and availability, and will eventually include menu recommendations unique to each user.
“As we understand you as a customer, what you like to order, we can direct you toward more things that you want to order and that are inherently going to create that closer connection between customer and us, and ultimately make them a happier customer,” Shlossman says, “which is good for everybody.”
Iterating for the future
While some of Sweetgreen’s pandemic initiatives have been very much of the future, some have also been distinctly rooted in the past. Case in point: The fast casual announced late last year that it would open its first drive-thru location in Highlands Ranch, Colorado, some time this year. But the new prototype isn’t so much an admission that quick-serve strategies are a better fit for the brand than its previous innovations as much as it is recognizing that the two can go hand in hand. The store will feature a pickup window for digital orders, as well as a drive-in component that’s also powered by digital ordering.
Shlossman says the drive thru is just another service iteration for Sweetgreen as it tries to figure out the best ways to conveniently serve its salads and bowls. “If you think about drive thru and being able to place your order ahead of time and being able to effectively have that Sweetgreen pickup experience but without having to get out of your car, that’s an enhancement,” he says. “That’s something that we believe people are going to enjoy, and that will ultimately drive growth for us.”
Sweetgreen isn’t the only brand to turn its eye toward drive thru because of COVID. The contactless nature of the outdoor lane plus the swift evolution of technology has drawn the attention of restaurants up and down the service spectrum. And over the last several months, the industry has seen a flood of renderings of post-pandemic prototypes from quick-serve and fast-casual leaders—everyone from Shake Shack to McDonald’s, and Qdoba to Taco Bell—as brands adapt to customer behaviors solidified by COVID-19. Virtually all of these renderings have drive thru as the centerpiece of future restaurants.
Smashburger likewise announced a digital transformation that will incorporate drive thru, as well as drive-up curbside service in which customers grab their food out of temperature-controlled cubbies. President Carl Bachmann says the brand has taken a “wide, not deep” strategy in its post-pandemic efforts, which has also included developing online and app-based ordering and partnering with third-party delivery. In developing the new store prototype, Bachmann says, the key was creating an efficient, understandable flow for the myriad ways guests could get their food.