The revered Danny Meyer made news this week with his diagnosis of the restaurant industry’s core problem. The challenge isn’t capturing consumers’ money; it’s earning their time. They’re trying to cram so many activities into any given hour that a restaurant experience is squeezed out of contention.
His comments raise the larger issue of how the industry should make its case to a public stuck in high-anxiety mode. What are the means and messages that connect with people fixated on the tick-tick-tick of their mobile phone’s clock?
This week brought plenty of insight on that question—how restaurateurs are engaging with customers, for better and worse.
Here’s a look at some of the head-turning intelligence that came to light.
Chipotle’s ‘little’ slips
You have to wonder how many pokes in the eye are needed to shock the battling burrito chain out of some bad habits. Granted, those worst practices are minor when considered individually. It’s the broader scope that makes them head-scratching moments.
Chipotle’s real challenge is fostering trust: Consumers have to believe the concept is once again a safe place to eat. That’s why the chain’s handling of a norovirus outbreak at a lone restaurant yielded a series of head-turning moments.
First, it failed to fulfill a promise that was issued as a public reassurance after the restaurant shut down to stem the outbreak. Instead of reopening the next day, as food safety guru Jim Marsden had pledged, the unit was kept shut for two, with nary a word about the need for a delay.
Was the infection more pernicious and persistent than headquarters had allowed?
Then came revelations from third parties that the infection was more widespread than initial reports had indicated. Local health officials reported about 60 people were sickened, and the website iwaspoisoned.com pegged the number at 130, given the reports it had fielded. Initial press reports had put the tally at 13.
Throughout the speculation, Chipotle kept silent about the incident's extent. But it did air an announcement: Hip-hop star and Wu-Tang Clan member RZA had been hired as a spokes-rapper for a new website that spotlights the chain’s menu ingredients.
Social trumps advertising
Restaurants knew how their individual marketing budgets were changing as new media arose. Now comes a measure of how longstanding practices have been upended industrywide: Social media has supplanted print advertising as the channel where restaurants are most likely to spend their marketing dollars, according to travel booking and consumer review site TripAdvisor.com.
It found that 82% of restaurants earmark dollars for social media, compared with an incidence of 68% for print advertising. The third most common component of marketing budgets was buying spots on online listing services.
However a restaurant is trying to reach consumers, it’s likely to feel the effort is inadequate. TripAdvisor found that 85% of restaurants believe they should be doing more to promote business.
Delivery’s effect on tipping
Restaurants have found that customers are usually willing to spend a few dollars more on takeout and delivery orders than they normally do on dine-in meals. Now, research has revealed the public also tends to tip more for that mode of interaction—an important finding for the forward-thinkers who hope to use a tip credit to cut their labor costs.
The gratuity can be as much as double what a server would be left as a tip in the source of the delivered meal, according to a survey by Toast—a tablet-based POS system—of the restaurants that are using its software.
The higher the tip, the lower the likelihood that an employer of tipped delivery personnel would have to pay more than $2.13 an hour in wages, since gratuities count toward the federally mandated minimum of $7.25 an hour. Of course, that’s only in the 43 states that extend a tip credit to employers.
KFC’s meteor special
Anticipating what will turn a customer’s head is the overriding challenge for any restaurant marketer. KFC bet the draw would be a 400-year-old meteor sculpted into the shape of the chain’s new Zinger chicken sandwich. It even wagered that someone would be willing to pay tens of thousands for the rock art.
And it was right. A representative alerted us this week that the meteor sold in days for $20,000, to a woman who thought it’d be an ideal gift for her husband. In an unusual twist, the rep said, the whole family has now switched to a vegan diet, making the Zinger meteor sculpture “a nostalgic vestige of their previous love.”
The objet d’art was part of the chicken chain’s new retail “collection,” KFC Ltd., most of which sold out in a week, according to the spokesperson. The KFC Ltd. web store is now being restocked selectively, she said.
There’s no word on a second meteor statue, however.