1. Hold on to the GM at all costs
Have a good general manager? Focus on retention. “The GM is the one person you have to hold accountable for everything about the brand standard,” said Roz Mallet, CEO of PhaseNext Hospitality, in a session on how big brands can thrive in a challenging market. “You know how hard it is to find good general mangers? … You cannot take it for granted that you appreciate what they do.”
2. Think like an indie
Large chains can—and should—try to think like independent operations. For Houlihan’s, the primary competition is local operators, said CEO Mike Archer, during the session on big chains. “Independent folks operate with purpose,” he said. And part of that purpose is being intentional about the culture in your restaurant. “Culture is what is happening in your restaurant right now,” Archer said. “Being present and proactive in driving that culture … that’s where the independent operators have the advantage.”
3. Measure positive comments, not just complaints
It’s easy to keep track of negative customer comments, and it’s important to do so. But don’t forget the importance of logging positive messages, too. “If someone takes the time to leave a positive comment, that’s huge,” said Mallet, who employs this strategy at a high-performing Buffalo Wild Wings unit in Atlanta.
4. Attract employees by giving back
Gen Z-ers, especially, value companies that are committed to serving the community. Look for charity partnerships that will be of value to your employees and the world around them, Archer said. “We look for things that have a line of sight to the good that’s being done,” he said. “This employee today, they ask what is beyond just making money. There’s lots of places they can go to make money. They want to do something that’s bigger.”
5. Beef up the experience within the four walls
If they’re going to dine in, today’s consumers want an experience that transcends the food. The parent company behind tech-focused CaliBurger has built a “virtual playground” for its units, allowing diners to compete against each other on a variety of smartphone games. Large screens in the restaurants display the winners, said CEO John Miller during a session on the future of restaurants.
6. Consider automation—where it makes sense
To allow workers to focus on less-repetitive tasks, CaliBurger is working out the kinks in a burger-flipping robot it took out of service earlier this year. Taking things a step further, John Ha of Bear Robotics is working on robotic servers that can deliver food to tables. Human servers can work alongside robots, Ha said. “We cannot eliminate the human touch,” he said. “You don’t want to dine in a factory.”
7. Put consumers in charge
Part of the appeal of off-premise dining is that consumers get to control the experience. So to keep up brick-and-mortar business, bring some of that control inside. “Casual dining is a 60-minute solution to a 30-minute problem,” said Michael Buchmeier, Red Robin’s vice president of operations for the central division, during a session on marketing to Gen Z. Having tablets on the tables at Red Robin allows consumers to play games, order and pay—at their own pace. “You’re putting control of the experience in guest hands,” he said.
8. Don’t forget value
Deals are crucial to driving traffic—especially among young consumers—but they sometimes get forgotten with other marketing strategies. “Gen Z is driven by deals and discounts,” said Brandy Blackwell, director of off-premise marketing for McAlister’s Deli, in a session on marketing to that age bracket. “That’s how you can capture spur-of-the-moment business.”