Despite an improving economy, many consumers still equate dining-out value with low prices and big portions, according to Technomic’s 2017 Value & Pricing Consumer Trend Report, powered by Ignite. The report, released last month, suggests ways for operators to promote value to consumers without relying on meal deals alone—ideas that can help increase margins as food and labor costs continue to rise.
1. Invest in quality
Pushing premium ingredients and scratch-made preparations is an effective way for restaurants to differentiate as QSR price wars heat up. In fact, 37% of consumers are seeking out higher-quality items at restaurants more often than they were two years ago.
McDonald's saw boosted comps during its latest quarter due to a strategy that included promoting its new premium sandwiches, while Togo’s Sandwiches recently began sourcing oven-roasted, deli-style turkey breast that’s hand-sliced daily. Togo's now places a quarter-pound of turkey—a larger portion than before—on top of the produce rather than beneath it so customers taste the turkey on their first bite.
2. Go bold
Taste and flavor are top value drivers for 86% of consumers, and chains are leaning on bold-flavored sauces and condiments to spice up menu descriptions and new item introductions. Fast casual Zoe’s Kitchen just launched four sauces that hit global trends, including Israeli skhug (citrus sauce with spicy green peppers, cilantro, lemon and olive oil) and Moroccan harissa, a red pepper puree.
Whataburger is competing for breakfast customers looking for some morning heat with its new Spicy Strawberry Chicken Biscuit and Spicy Strawberry Sausage Biscuit, both slathered with a berry and jalapeno jam.
3. Make LTOs truly limited
Younger consumers in particular see value in experiencing a can’t-miss opportunity or eagerly anticipating the return of a favorite. Twenty percent of 18- to 34-year-olds equate uniqueness with value, something that drives the success of such LTOs as Starbucks' Unicorn Frappuccino. This season, fast casual Sweetgreen—a favorite of millennials—is playing up its seasonal and local bent by partnering with high-profile chefs in local markets, such as Michael Solomonov of Philadelphia restaurant Zahav, to create limited-time salads.
4. Drive traffic via all-you-can-eat deals
Fifty-two percent of consumers see unlimited plates of food and refills as a value indicator, up from 47% two years ago. Chains are capitalizing on the appeal of all-you-can-eat, with TGI Fridays recently instating its onetime Endless Apps LTO as a permanent part of the menu. Others have tried shorter-term deals tied to a specific promotion. Houlihan’s, for example, commemorated National French Fry Day this July with a special of bottomless Parmesan fries.
5. Promote sustainability
In 2017, 57% of consumers say knowing that restaurants use sustainable foods is an important aspect of their dining experience. Tapping into this signal of value, Fazoli’s announced in June that its menu is completely clean and free of all artificial sweeteners, flavors, preservatives and colors. According to its press statement, Fazoli’s is only the third national chain—behind Panera Bread and Chipotle—to offer a wholly clean menu.
6. Mix up combo offers
Fifty-six percent of consumers say they’re likely to buy combo meals, a 7% increase from two years ago. Also on the rise are combo deals that end up costing diners $1 or less per item, as seen in Krystal’s Mix 5 for $5 promotion, where guests can mix and match the Spicy Chik sandwich with other favorites.
7. Ramp up service
Although fair prices and deals still reign atop the value throne, efficient service doesn’t lag far behind. Over 60% of surveyed consumers say speed of service, order accuracy and staff friendliness are the top amenities that create value in both LSRs and FSRs. The staff at Blaze Pizza, for example, memorize the menu through ice breakers and mock orientations in order to properly give customers suggestions on building a pizza.
8. Craft agile mobile apps
Seventy percent of 18- to 34-year-olds say it’s important for restaurants to have a digital loyalty program, a figure that falls to 56% among those age 35 and above. Restaurants are responding to those desires of younger diners, expanding their branded apps to include features beyond simple order and payment options. Noodles & Company, for example, recently rolled out NoodleRewards, which sends customers freebies and deals tailored to their tastes and purchasing patterns.
Some of the more senior members of the team smile at the junior staff who are excited to uncover an interesting trend in “eatertainment” or the latest single-ingredient concept. We try not to be condescending when we suggest they do some research by looking at past issues of Restaurant Business or old Technomic top chain reports before calling it the next big thing.