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Customer Experience In The Fast Casual Restaurant Industry: More Than Just The Food

A hand holding chopsticks reaches for a plate of food while other plates adorn the table. Customer experience in the fast casual restaurant industry is about more than just the food.

Customer experience in the fast casual restaurant industry is more than casually important.

People who frequent a fast causal restaurant are choosing to upgrade from fast food, meaning they generally want a place where they can sit, be served, and have a good time. That inherently makes the experience just as important as the quality of the nachos and drinks.

Chili’s Grill & Bar leaned hard into fast casual customer experience when it recently launched its “raise the bar” initiative. The idea is to boost bar-area traffic with everything from NFL games on DirecTV to creative booze options such as peanut-butter-and-jelly whiskey shots.

The parent company’s new chief executive, who hopes to bring the concept to the dining room too, made the move when he realized that the chain needed to be more “fun.”

The enhanced Chili’s bar scene reinforces the unique niche that fast casual eateries occupy in the restaurant industry landscape. They offer menus more varied than the burger and fries of fast food, yet not as elaborate – or pricy – as traditional full-service restaurants.

They are supposed to be fun, ideally with some decent food and drink. That means that the customer experience plays a huge role.

Casual dining chains are taking a variety of customer experience steps as they try to fight off competition from trendier rivals that don’t necessarily offer sit-down service. One customer marketing survey found that they retain a certain popularity and even nostalgia.

“As it turns out,” the survey reported, “people care about more than the pancakes, paninis and pan-seared pork chops these establishments are serving up. They’re delighted with the overall experience, from the decor to the music to the customer service.”

Related: This Company is Changing the Lunch Break Experience

The Fast Casual Restaurant Industry Is Explosively Growing

That experience has become even more important as the overall industry has exponentially expanded. Fast casual restaurants grew at a rate of more than 500 percent between 1999 and 2020, making them “the growth darling of the industry.”

A recent study shows that the trend is intensifying, with the U.S. fast casual restaurant market projected to grow by $55.4 billion from 2022 to 2027, a compound annual growth rate of 11.56 percent.

Experts attribute this impressive growth to consumer tastes that have evolved and focused more on healthy, higher-quality alternatives to traditional fast food, combined with a continued need for speed and convenience.

Fast Casual Restaurants Respond With Technology To Customer Experience Challenges

Growth has been so rapid in the fast casual restaurant sector – twice as fast as the rest of the industry – that the results have created their own challenge: customers expect a consistently good experience.

The COVID-19 pandemic halted that expansion, for a time, and led to patrons placing greater emphasis on takeout, contactless delivery, or contactless payments.

Some fast casual restaurants responded by investing in technology, luring back customers with everything from QR codes for menus to kitchen automation aided by artificial intelligence and machine learning to help “ensure consistent experience” for diners.

Other establishments have turned to AI-fueled customer analytics to gather data on customers and optimize customer experience steps accordingly.

One of the best-known fast casual chains, Applebee’s, used the pandemic to invest in digital technology tools that are now improving experience.

Severs in hundreds of locations acquired handheld devices, which drove faster table turns and more drink orders. Applebee’s also introduced a pay-as-you-go service that allows patrons to conveniently check out at the table with their own devices and a digital wallet capability for redeeming offers and coupons.

Customer Experience Examples In The Fast Casual Restaurant Industry

Yet sometimes the focus on customer experience in the fast casual restaurant industry is more, well, casual – emphasizing old-fashioned improvements like better menus and food quality to provide a better overall experience.

At Chili’s, the heightened bar atmospherics are part of a broader push to enhance customer experience that includes steps such as reducing workload for wait staff – so they can spend more time with customers – and increased focus on takeout and delivery.

TGI Fridays, which was originally a jam-packed singles bar known for innovative food and drink, is trying to recapture the magic with a comprehensive menu modernization emphasizing Grilled & Sauced offerings with sauces such as Spike Orange Glaze and Korean Red Chili.

Fridays is also getting into the fun theme with “$20 beer buckets” on sports game day Fridays and $4 cocktails designed to “let the good times pour.”

Related: How The Alcohol Industry Has Pivoted The Customer Experience

Red Robin, meanwhile, has overhauled menus and updated kitchen equipment in an effort to revive sagging sales.

Red Robin CEO G.J. recently Hart acknowledged that while the chain was once a leader in guest satisfaction, a series of cost-cutting decisions have inadvertently caused those high customer marks to decline.

Near the top of the Red Robin’s new “North Star” is a plan to invest “in people, food quality, and the restaurant facility” through steps such as the new menu and cooking platforms.

The goal: to “elevate the guest experience.”

What’s Next

Competing on price is a loser’s game, especially with the restaurant industry’s notoriously low profit margins. And food quality is only half the recipe for restaurant success. (For more on this, see The Bear’ Season 2 Is A Love Letter To Customer Experience.)

So anything that will put customer experience front and center is an investment in long-term loyalty. The steps these fast casual restaurants are taking, from better technology to tastier food and enhanced service, can only help make patrons feel more welcomed – and well-served.

In the future, expect more investments in the employee experience (since happy employees are more invested in providing a remarkable customer experience), technology that enhances the experience with speed and/or convenience, and “little things” in the experience that help to create memorable dining moments for every guest.

Image by Karrie Zhu from Pixabay

Note: This post is part of a series of articles exploring the role of customer experience in different industries.