Mystery shopping secrets

An army of mystery shoppers canvassed the units of 14 leading quick-service and fast-casual brands last fall to benchmark consumers’ experiences. Which provided the best service, menu surprises and overall enjoyment? Two brands tied for the top overall score: Chipotle and Arby’s.

Arby’s. Really? Chipotle Mexican Grill has been leading the fast-casual innovation charge since 1993, so no real surprise there. But 50-year-old Arby’s, known for its early forays into the world of franchising and beloved for the dependability of its traditional roast beef sandwiches, had been operating pretty much under the radar.

Arby’s solid scores across the board reveal an organization that has what it takes to run a successful franchise chain, says Cameron Watt, president and CEO of Service Intelligence, the Charlotte, N.C., data-collection company that conducted the sweep of stores. While the chain was bettered by a few points in several areas, says Service Intelligence Project Manager Caryn Suuronen, Arby’s generally placed second or third in every category (see the rankings on pages 108 and 110).

“Bottom line,” says Watt, “more than two-thirds of our shoppers agreed that they had a better experience at Arby’s than they normally have at a fast-food restaurant, with comments like, ‘I have been to a lot of quick-service restaurants, and this is probably one of my top five experiences. The employees were nice, energetic, happy and very pleasant.’ We sent in people who weren’t familiar with Arby’s, and I can pretty well bet you that now they’ll be going back.”

“We want our customers to love Arby’s as much as we do,” says Rob Lynch, Arby’s new brand president and chief marketing officer. “We are working hard to make sure that every time they think of Arby’s, whether it’s at the restaurant, while online, watching a television commercial or conversing with their friends or family, they have a positive experience. We are investing in product innovation, brand communication, improved restaurant designs and improved customer service protocols to ensure that they do.”

The fact that Arby’s tied with a brand like Chipotle—and outperformed Panera Bread, another fast-casual player that was added to the survey for comparison purposes—just may signal the return of a sleeping giant.

That’s because Arby’s hasn’t been sleeping much lately. Nestled safely under the wing of parent company Roark Capital Group since 2011, when it split off from Wendy’s, Arby’s Restaurant Group has been driving change throughout the organization.

In October 2012, the erstwhile roast beef chain rebranded under the “Slicing Up Freshness” promise. Although the company always has sliced its meats on-premise daily, the new tagline brings that point of differentiation front and center, with a new logo and an ad campaign that features former New York City police detective Bo Dietl on assignment to “expose the truth about fresh slicing.” Dietl notes that Arby’s slices its roast beef in stores, while a competitor’s sandwich meat is sliced at a factory hundreds of miles away. Arby’s sees plenty more headroom in telling the freshly sliced story, in terms of ingredients, prep and flavor.

On the management front, Arby’s has implemented several major changes. Paul Brown, who held key roles at Hilton Worldwide, InterContinental Hotels & Resorts, Expedia and McKinsey & Co., was brought in as CEO in April 2013. Six months later, the company created the new position of Arby’s brand president and CMO for Lynch, who was part of the Taco Bell team that launched Doritos Locos Tacos. At that time, chief operating officer George Condos was promoted to the additional position of Arby’s Restaurant Group president and COO.

Arby’s also has completely changed the way it brings new products to market, introducing new sandwiches and other menu items that highlight its 50-year history of slicing meats fresh in its units every day. “The last few years have been a real Renaissance for us,” says Len Van Popering, senior vice president of product development and innovation, a veteran Arby’s executive who is credited with helping to lead the menu-driven charge.

Let’s face it, back at the time that we went from being a public company to a privately held company, our product pipeline was a little thin,” says Van Popering, who has overseen the chain’s product development team since 2011, rising to his current title in 2012. “We know that in the QSR industry, new products are a powerful driver of growth, and we needed unique and relevant new items, both as LTOs and updates to the core menu. But we didn’t want to turn our backs on the strengths we already enjoyed—or on our target audience who loves Arby’s.”

Recognition that team members are in day-to-day contact with customers and in a position to know what guests want has led to changes in hiring and training. “Customer service is the most important responsibility of our front-line employees,” says ARG’s George Condos. “Our franchisees and front-line employees are a vital part of the Arby’s business. They know firsthand what Arby’s customers are looking for, based on their daily interactions, and they make a conscious decision to deliver a great customer experience every visit.

“We take great care to hire individuals who embody [the company’s] principles, are team players and enjoy working in a fast-paced environment. We then give them the resources and support they need to provide great customer service. The result is an industry-leading experience for our customers,” says Condos.

In the past 18 months, Arby’s has launched a significant number of products that grow the menu beyond its core Classic Roast Beef, French Dip and Market Fresh offerings, including the Turkey Roasters line of freshly sliced turkey sandwiches and such LTOs as the Smokehouse Brisket Sandwich and two roast beef sandwiches produced in partnership with King’s Hawaiian, which is known for its fluffy Original Hawaiian Sweet sandwich buns. There is a new Snack ‘N Save menu that features Mighty Minis slider-style sandwiches and Chocolate Molten Lava Cake. And the company has introduced into test bottled versions of its iconic Arby’s and Horsey sauces.

Collectively, these changes have helped to drive 12 consecutive quarters of positive sales growth, according to executives. None of this could have happened, they assert, had it not been for a tectonic shift in the culture of Arby’s, aimed at creating a robust and successful “Open Innovation Philosophy.”

“We had to agree first on what our true focus would be,” says Van Popering. “It was just as important throughout this process to discover what we were not going to be, and led us to a strategy of leveraging our strengths. We made a conscious decision to focus on our core customer base, not a new one, and to motivate them to come to Arby’s more frequently.”

Brand vision in hand, the company also had to invest in the right talent, including not only its executive team but also a new advertising agency. New faces also were added in the ranks of marketing and culinary.

Most important, says Van Popering, was the decision to create a “culture of empowerment” that would involve more people in the product innovation process. “Success of this scope is not the byproduct of a few individuals but of many,” he explains. “But that required a profound change in our approach. We needed to encourage the entire Arby’s team, including our customers, to help drive product innovation, from ideation to market testing to new menu item introduction. We needed to involve more stakeholders.”

Two and a half years ago, Arby’s began evaluating the way its entire product development team was structured and how their time would be utilized, in order to build a stronger link between brand strategy and product development. Culinary is no longer the epicenter of new menu item development; now, according to Van Popering, product marketing leaders are embedded within the culinary function in a way that is designed to loop in customer feedback at every turn. “Now marketing provides much more articulate guidelines to culinary, ensuring more exciting products that fit within the brand strategy,” he says.

Case in point are Arby’s Roast Beef Paradise products, the two sandwiches presented on King’s Hawaiian bread. “Our customer research led us to a deep understanding that the Arby’s guest is motivated by savory and sweet elements, as well as a strong love of Arby’s roast beef,” says Van Popering. Finding that sweet enhancement to savory beef, however, was a challenge, as the company experimented with various glazes, sauces and condiments to no avail. “We also realized that bread was becoming a more important strategic element in QSR, so we formed the perfect marriage with King’s Hawaiian, which is a successful and well-known brand in its own right.” (For more on  the less-traditional bread trend at QSRs, see page 20.)

Other successes include its Smokehouse Brisket Sandwich, tender brisket that is pit-smoked for at least 13 hours, topped with smoked Gouda cheese, crispy onions, smoky barbecue sauce and mayonnaise on a toasted bakery-style bun.

The new sandwich lines, introduced nationwide on a limited-time basis, have performed even better than expected, according to Van Popering. He says that it’s too early to tell whether they will be moved onto the core menu. “Both represent the kind of high-quality ingredients that we identify as Arby’s brand strategy,” he says. And all of this happened without the need for operational changes.

The company’s new Open Innovation Philosophy includes many new initiatives—about a dozen in all—that encourage participation by both customers and employees. For example, the Consumer Guidance Panels are part of a series of tools for frequent two-way dialogue with guests, in which thousands of Arby’s fans have volunteered to contribute their insights. “This has been a very cost-effective way to get more insight and more validation much earlier in the process,” notes Van Popering.

On the employee side, “Hey Chef Neville!” is a new product submission program in which team members are encouraged to submit new menu item ideas to corporate executive chef Neville Craw. The company has encouraged participation with quarterly themes and challenges, prizes and internal branding and communications support. “In the past, we’d maybe get 100 ideas a year, but this year we got 1,200,” says Van Popering. “I can tell you that our House Made Kettle Chips sprinkled with Arby’s sauce seasoning [a 2013 LTO] and at least one new sandwich for a 2014 LTO came from team members.”

“No one strategy or piece of research holds all the answers,” he says. “But today we have a much deeper understanding of what our customer wants. And for the first time ever, we have more products in the pipeline than we can promote and more LTO items than we can use.”

In the coming months Arby’s will be experimenting with new items using King’s Hawaiian bread, new proteins, more beverages and new dinner possibilities.

Tops in Mystery Shops

Overall performance

Few will be surprised to see Chipotle atop the list. The dark horse is 50-year-old Arby’s which ranks top three in almost all categories, following a year of menu shake-ups aimed at energizing core customers.

Chipotle Mexican Grill89.5
Taco Bell85.4
Panera Bread84.1

Exterior appearance

Shoppers praised the category leaders for appealing, well-kept and new-looking exteriors and dinged operations with small, confusing or dimly lit parking lots and hard-to-find signage.

Tim Hortons96.8
Jack in the Box95.1
Chipotle Mexican Grill94.4

Interior cleanliness

A clean operation went a long way with mystery diners, while a dirty restroom was enough to mar the whole experience. Some diners called for better lighting and music to help with ambiance. 

Chipotle Mexican Grill92.7
Tim Hortons91.0

Speed of service

Inefficiency was a sticking point. Many shoppers noted that servers manning both the counter and drive-thru seemed to slow down service at several stores. Shoppers also said they didn’t mind a few minutes of prep time because it meant their food was fresh.

Taco Bell86.0
Chipotle Mexican Grill83.9

Customer service

Many shoppers singled out individual servers who seemed genuinely enthusiastic and happy to have their business and who checked up on them as they were dining in. However, scores show that there’s room for improvement across the board in the area of upselling. 

Chipotle Mexican Grill90.5
Jack in the Box89.7
Panera Bread87.9

Most professional employees

All of the chains in our study received high marks for well-dressed and professional employees. Shoppers gave Chipotle Mexican Grill employees a perfect score for being professionally dressed, followed closely by Jack in the Box (99.0) and Taco Bell (99.0). Taco Bell and Starbucks employees received perfect 100s for behaving professionally.


Mystery shops were conducted by Service Intelligence. Visits were completed between Sept. 20 and Oct. 24, 2013. Visits could be completed any time between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m; shoppers could visit the restaurant when they desired. Shoppers ordered in and dined in. All ordered a sandwich and a drink, and were asked to observe the menu, the cleanliness of the unit and the promotion of technology, social media and loyalty programs. Overall scores were calculated using all scored questions on the survey. Category scores were calculated using all scored questions in that category. Each question was given equal weighting. 

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