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2016 RB/FSTEC Awards: Technical perfection

FSTEC awards cover

This year’s class of social media standouts found surprising ways to break through on popular platforms, reinvent their voice on established ones and gain footing in the “brand”-new worlds of Snapchat, Instagram and more. 

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Social media marketer of the year (large and small chain)

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Tech accelerator, limited service

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Tech accelerator, nontraditional

Tech superstar

Franchise project


About the awards

For our second annual Restaurant Business/FSTEC Awards, the magazine’s editors reviewed nearly 200 restaurant chains to single out and celebrate the concepts that exemplified best practices—and guts—over the past year through social media, digital or all-around technology efforts. These awards are a collaboration between RB magazine and FSTEC, the technology conference from our parent company, Winsight, being held Sept. 25–27 in Dallas.

Instagram

instagram shakes

Platform pioneer: Sonic Drive-In wins fair and square

Engagement is an intangible thing, measurable with numbers and anecdotes. But the retro drive-in made it real when it broke the fifth wall, selling milkshakes via Instagram to concert-goers at this year’s Coachella. At the music festival, attendees could order Sonic’s square shakes via a geotargeted, sponsored Instagram ad. Geofencing allowed for on-the-ground delivery within 10 minutes, avoiding lines. To spread the reach, Coachella-goers needed only “pay” by posting a photo of their shake. Sonic’s president and CMO, Todd Smith, told AdWeek’s blog the brand wanted to be the first to sell a designed-for-Instagram product on the platform.

Honorable mention: &Pizza sees success in black and white

This craft pizza chain’s black-and-white brand aesthetic is unmistakable, and it’s played up with eye-catching effectiveness on Instagram’s clean, photo-focused social platform. Its highly curated Instagram account aims to rope in hungry social media scrollers with shots of cool kids donning its branded swag or a grayscale rendering of Beyoncé fiercely gripping its drinks.  


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Twitter

ihop tweet

Platform pioneer: IHOP’s War Room

This year, the breakfast chain prepared itself to reach both the pancake obsessed and the occasional indulger on National Pancake Day (March 8) by gathering its social media team for an all-hands-on-deck social media blitz. The team sat at the ready,  responding in real time (take that, Red Lobster) to developing trends and deftly tapping into the platform’s young users. One tweet played off a song by artist Drake with a photo of a fake billboard reading “started from the short stack.” Another mimicked the internet’s sometimes nonsensical language with a photo of a syrupy short stack captioned, “Wow. Such pancakes.” The venture earned the breakfast chain 10,000 new followers and 38,000 shares of the #NatlPancakeDay hashtag. 

Honorable mention: Panera crowdsources its “critics”

Swimming upstream against the current of disjointed tweets, Panera Bread strung together posts from its followers into an “endless” movie trailer. Designed to build awareness for its clean soups, the trailer—a nod to chef documentaries—stars SVP of Food Dan Kish as he toils to create a “clean” broccoli cheddar soup. Followers then were invited to review the soup on Twitter with film critic flair. The responses  continually are added—along with lots of b-roll—to the trailer to create a “never-ending” video, viewable in its evolving entirety on its microsite.


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Social media marketer of the year (large and small chain)
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Snapchat

taco bell snap filter

Platform pioneer: Taco Bell Spits Fire for Cinco De Mayo

Snapchat is all about silly fun, and early adopter Taco Bell got that when it hosted a Cinco De Mayo face lens. The feature turned users’ heads into teetering tacos with fire shooting from the eyes, made complete with a packet of Diablo sauce squeezed across virtual toppings. Every aspect of the lens was subtly branded, from the taco to the chain’s well-known “bong” sound effect.


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Facebook

wingstop phones

Platform pioneer: Wingstop makes Facebook history

Though giants like Domino’s have made headway with pizza-emoji delivery and Apple Watch compatibility, Wingstop became the first restaurant this year to utilize Facebook bots to handle orders. Simply sending the word “Order” to the brand via the platform begins the process—no previous interaction or Wingstop account required. The bot provides real-time automated responses to allergy and nutritional questions and always remembers to suggest extra sauce. The chain announced that Phase Two will involve predicting when customers want wings and reaching out through Facebook and Twitter to seal the deal. 

Honorable mention: McDonald’s paints a masterpiece—live

McDonald’s debuted on Facebook’s live-streaming feature with an improvised burger-painting lesson in the style of Bob Ross, host of a 1980s instructional painting TV program who has become the subject of memes in recent years. Users have since commandeered Facebook Livestream for more serious and consequential voyeurism, but at the time, McDonald’s video struck the intended gripping yet goofy tone with content that was unscripted, amusing and awkward in all the right ways, and its audience responded.


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Social media marketer of the year

ben jerrys save our world

Winner—Small chains: Ben & Jerry’s casts food porn with a story

The politically unshy 235-unit chain shows that smart can be sexy with an information-rich take on food porn. On Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, mouthwatering photos of ice cream spilling out of its waffle cone are set off against backgrounds with signs promoting voting rights. Another post, with sculpted ice cream letters spelling out “Save Our World,” urges fans to prevent climate change and includes relevant links.

Winner—Large chains: Denny’s sizzles on every platform

The 1,600-unit, 63-year-old chain shows a surprisingly on-point comprehension of each social media community and an offbeat voice. Its Instagram page has evolved to include memes of pancake hats and dancing pie, garnering at least triple the engagement of older posts. On Twitter, Denny’s buoys off of a new Green Day album or the Olympics, but also creates its own content that is far from generic. And a bacon scarf is among the many items the chain sold via its YouTube series parodying the Home Shopping Network. 


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dennys tumblr message

Platform pioneer: Denny’s—Keep Tumblr weird

While other brands pander to high schoolers and bastardize hip hop lyrics, Denny’s stands out from the noise. Its Tumblr voice, a mashup of stoner and nerd culture, is right at home with the site’s community, which regularly dotes thousands of notes on Denny’s posts. Waffle conspiracy theories, “Magic: The Gathering” game references and some combination of extraterrestrials and diner food are regulars on the Denny’s page. Fans often ask, “Denny’s, u alright?” or “You high bro?” To which the Denny’s team replies with a tongue-in-cheek GIF.


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Social media marketer of the year (large and small chain)
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Tech accelerator, nontraditional
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Tech accelerator—limited service

These best-in-business nods recognize the concepts that lead all others in innovation and adoption of technology throughout, be it front of house, back of house, above store or in-app.

eatsa bowls

Winner: Eatsa

The ultimate frictionless concept, this four-unit (and growing) fast casual brings tech-forward processes into every step. From an order-ahead app and in-store ordering kiosk to an automat-style cubby system where meals are served, diners can manage their experience all through tech. There’s even an advanced kitchen-display system to keep cooks on task and speed the training process. This automation helps keep labor costs in check, letting the chain pass savings on to its consumers; all bowls start at $6.95.


Who will win?

The Tech Accelerator of the Year will be named at the FSTEC event, Sept. 25–27. For more information and to see these finalists’ videos, go to fstec.com.


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Social media marketer of the year (large and small chain)
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Tech accelerator, full service
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johnny rockets baskets drink

Winner: Johnny Rockets

What started as a test at its fast casual Johnny’s Burger Factory mall unit in Syracuse, N.Y., is being rolled out in full-service spots to improve both front- and back-of-house operations. The chain added enhancements to its fryers and swapped in new clam-shell grills that have sped up cook times. The result: a more consistent end product. Johnny Rockets also added tableside and counter kiosks for ordering. The revamp boosted sales at the test store by nearly 22%.


Who will win?

The Tech Accelerator of the Year will be named at the FSTEC event, Sept. 25–27. For more information and to see these finalists’ videos, go to fstec.com.


More awards
Instagram
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Social media marketer of the year (large and small chain)
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Tech accelerator, limited service
Tech accelerator, nontraditional
Tech superstar
Franchise project

Tech accelerator—nontraditional

sheets breakfast

Winner: Sheetz

Shedding the traditional convenience store model of roller grills and warming drawers, Sheetz is using technology to attract younger diners with its two food-first units near Penn State and West Virginia University. Under “Order Here” signs, the concept brought in self-ordering kiosks in an effort to help lines during peak hours. And it’s encouraging eat-in guests too, including outlets and USB ports near many seating areas. It’s marketing team is even on board, turning to social media to drum up some attention.


Who will win?

The Tech Accelerator of the Year will be named at the FSTEC event, Sept. 25–27. For more information and to see these finalists’ videos, go to fstec.com.


More awards
Instagram
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Social media marketer of the year (large and small chain)
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Tech accelerator, limited service
Tech accelerator, full service
Tech superstar
Franchise project

Tech superstar

alinea back of house

Winner: Kokonas reserves

For restaurants with prix-fixe menus that do only a few seatings a night, a no-show can be a big loss. So Nick Kokonas, co-owner of Michelin-starred Alinea in Chicago, developed a ticketing system, and also has proven that the pay-ahead-for-your-space model works for more than just fine dining. At his new Roister concept, guests put down a set-price deposit for the ticket, which then applies to their a la carte meal.


More awards
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Social media marketer of the year (large and small chain)
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Tech accelerator, limited service
Tech accelerator, full service
Tech accelerator, nontraditional
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Franchise project

freshii storefront

Winner: Freshii taps tech hub staffers

To solicit fresh ideas, Freshii franchisee Alex Blair opened a unit at the entrance of Chicago’s tech hub 1871. Set up as an incubator of sorts, the location, through its Project </Pioneer> campaign, is soliciting ideas both from members of the 1871 startup community as well as other entrepreneurs. Signs around the restaurant ask guests to submit suggestions via Freshii’s website, answering questions such as “How will you use tech to innovate refrigeration?” Once accepted, the ideas—which target both menu and operations, as well as the technology field with topics such as disposal, efficiency and payment—are tested at Blair’s downtown unit before being rolled out in a larger test.


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Social media marketer of the year (large and small chain)
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Tech superstar

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