Engaging the lunch crowd

Photograph: Shutterstock

A typical Chicken Salad Chick might open at 10 or 10:30 a.m., but preparation for the oncoming lunch crowd starts a lot earlier—24 hours earlier, to be exact.

In the middle of lunch service every day, each restaurant begins steaming the chicken tenderloin it uses for its chicken salads. That gives it enough time to cook, rest and cool, all while the day’s guests are being served. Workers, meanwhile, arrive daily at 8 a.m. to slice the fruit and vegetables to go with the precooked chicken for the salads, allowing food to be ready once the doors are unlocked.

“It’s all in the preparation,” says Tom Carr, vice president of marketing for the 100-unit fast-casual chain. “When we open, we are ready. We’re able to give great service or a quick turnaround because we’ve prepared.”

It might seem simple, but speed remains paramount to winning in the lunch business right now, and that will undoubtedly continue into 2019 as consumers continue to demand convenience. Consumers have only so much time during the lunch break, and if they’re at a restaurant, the last thing they want is to wait.  

“Monday through Friday your guests are a little more time-sensitive,” says George Kelsey, vice president of operations and training with Wisconsin-based fast-food chain Culver’s. “They either have to get back to work or they have someplace to go.”

consistency countsConsistency counts

Lunch is perhaps the most consistent daypart, at least based on foot traffic data from Technomic Transaction Insights and the GroundTruth location platform. Between August 2017 and August 2018, for instance, 23.2% of restaurant customers visited during lunch, second only to dinner. And from month to month, that percentage ranged from 22.4% to 24%.

By contrast, breakfast traffic is highly seasonal, ranging from as low as 12.6% of total visits during the cold months to as high as 18% in the spring. Late-night business shows a similar wide swing.

Limited-service restaurants get the bulk of the lunch business. Quick-service chains account for the majority of that, with nearly 70% of all lunch visits. Fast casuals, on the other hand, see just 12.3% of the lunch traffic. That said, the percentage of lunchtime restaurant visits has generally increased over the past year for fast casuals, while traffic to casual-dining chains—which currently accounts for 12.8% of lunch visits—has slowed down.

In August 2017, for instance, 13% of lunch diners went to casual-dining restaurants, and 12.1% visited fast casuals, according to data from GroundTruth. By August 2018, fast casuals had overtaken the casual dining for the midday meal: 12.6% and 12.5%, respectively.

the-right-mixThe right menu mix

Product selection matters at lunch. John Gordon, a restaurant consultant out of San Diego, suggests chains follow the model of bakery-cafe chain Pret A Manger. “Hot foods work in winter, and cold foods work in summer,” he says. “Take a clue from Pret A Manger and watch how they rotate their seasonal items.”

Lunch consumers are also more likely than customers during any other daypart to demand healthier offerings. According to Technomic Consumer Brand Metrics, 21.3% of lunch customers want their meal to be “better for you,” compared with 19.6% of breakfast consumers and 16% of dinner customers.

But, finds Technomic, lunch is also a more “captive” occasion, meaning customers are intent on dining at a restaurant. According to Technomic, 61% of lunch customers would dine at a restaurant versus another option, compared with 58% of dinner visitors and 49% of breakfast consumers.

And for all of the convenience demanded by lunch consumers, they’re far more likely to eat inside the location: More than 79% of consumers tell Technomic they order inside the restaurant, and 61% will eat their lunch on-premise. To put that into perspective: There’s no other daypart where even half of consumers say they prefer to eat inside the restaurant. Lunch customers, apparently, would rather dine at the restaurant than in a cubicle.

Still, says Carr of Chicken Salad Chick, the drive-thru is another important traffic builder. “It extends your lunchtime daypart,” he says. “The drive-thru guest potentially is on the early end and the late end.”

pressure-on-laborPressure on labor

Because so many midday diners are on a lunch break or are in between errands and other time-sensitive tasks, they have a limited amount of time, even when they choose to dine in. That, in turn, puts pressure on operators to provide service that meets those needs.

“We need to be fully staffed for lunch,” says Kelsey of Culver’s, one of the highest-rated limited-service chains at lunch in terms of customer satisfaction, according to CBM data. “It’s a pretty predictable daypart. But you have to have the appropriate number of people on staff and you have to have the right people in the right place at the right time. It’s not just quantity, but quality.”

Many of Culver’s franchisees are smaller-scale operators, says Kelsey, so the operators are in the stores daily, interacting with customers. That makes a difference, especially during the lunch rush. “They have a vested interest in the success of the restaurant,” he says. “That’s an edge. The operators are present and engaged in the business.”

Operators get 16 weeks of training, and they have to help open two restaurants before they’re allowed to open their own. Twelve weeks of that training is inside a restaurant. “It puts them a step ahead when they open the restaurant,” Kelsey says. That’s especially important during lunch, which is a pressure-packed environment. For a chain like Culver’s that cooks food to order, that stress is only intensified. “There’s a lot of pressure on us to make sure we’re ready to go,” Kelsey says. “We don’t make stuff ahead of time. So you have to have enough people and make sure they’re in the right place at the right time.”

built-for-lucbBuilt for lunch

Chicken salad is a classic lunch staple, and it’s that idea that drove the creation of Chicken Salad Chick. The fast casual began with stay-at-home mom Stacy Brown selling variations of chicken salad out of her home, before she and her husband Kevin opened a carryout-only location in 2008. “For us, lunchtime is in our DNA,” Carr says. “We started as a lunchtime concept. Our commitment is doing lunch fantastic.”

Carr says that a strong lunch business starts with brand culture and hospitality. “If somebody is going to take time in the middle of the day to be with us, we want them to come away with something special that leaves them with a smile on their face,” he says. “The overall experience is very important.”  

Part of that means choosing the right location. Chicken Salad Chick, for example, is a female-oriented brand—80% of its customer base is women, and they are typically educated and have kids at home. So the brand looks for those customers when exploring potential new units, to be sure the location is convenient for that demographic.

Despite the desire for a quick, convenient visit, experience is still a key driver of business at lunch—47% say so, according to CBM data. In fact, while the experience matters the most at dinner, more consumers say the experience is a driver at lunch than at breakfast. At the same time, consumers are more likely to state that they want to connect with their restaurant at lunch than they are at any other time of day. So no matter how long the lunch experience lasts for customers, that connection during the afternoon meal is vital for operations of all sizes.

“From the point of time you order at the restaurant to when we bring the food to the table is very important to us,” Carr says. “We want [guests] to have an experience, so their time is spent enjoying their lunch and not waiting if they ordered lunch.”

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