From the Street: Driving Differentiation

Our first-hand research in Chicago shows three things operators can consider doing to improve guest experience, drive differentiation and gain a competitive advantage.
Restaurant staff team meeting

In our ongoing first-hand research, we recently convened in Chicago. There, we visited three restaurants that are mixing things up—El Che Bar, GT Prime and Giant—all showcasing examples of innovation. Blending this primary research with data, industry trends, consumer behavior and more, here are the insights we have to share:

The landscape remains competitive

All foodservice operators are competing for customers. Protecting market share and building a  competitive edge comes down to three things: preparation, authenticity and execution. In Chicago, we saw how those three things thrive when you have a strong brand, staff and culture.

Brand and experience matter more than ever

The operators we visited have mastered the art of attracting and retaining customers by linking their menu and their brand. What they articulate through marketing and messaging is delivered via their menu. A great example is El Che Bar, whose brand is steeped in South American influences, exhibited by live-flame cooking most of their menu, a traditional Argentinian method with Buenos Aires flair.

The menu/brand link is important because consumers use brands to make decisions, and your menu is the most tactile part of your brand. To gut check where your menu stands in relation to your brand, do a simple analysis. If the two aren’t aligned, make changes to get them there, including executional tweaks, if necessary. If it is (or once it is), turn your attention to training your staff on your menu and delivering great service

See your staff as experience ambassadors

It’s impossible to  be involved in every staff-guest interaction. Nor should you be. That being said, your staff represents your brand, your menu and sets the tone for all guest experiences. This makes  them ambassadors for your operation. Set them up for success by:

  • Making sure they can  articulate your brand. Servers are your brand voice, one customers will hear from a lot. Servers must  understand your brand story, especially as it relates to your menu, so they can share it.
  • Coaching great customer service and hospitality. Note the difference between service and hospitality—service is what you do and hospitality is how you make guests feel about what you do. Strike a balance by keeping things approachable, including how your servers talk about your menu. Guests are looking for positive experiences and pretentious servers will have them eating elsewhere.
  • Training them to tell the right story. Storytelling is the smarter, wiser sibling to upselling. Guests are eager to share their own version of their experiences on social media. After working through and training your staff on your story, servers can share the message with guests, giving guests the details to inspire their own social sharing, fueling engagement and advocacy. 

We saw this in action at GT Prime, a steakhouse  reinventing the concept by evolving beyond traditional protein-heavy trappings. With 4 ounce and 8 ounce  meat portions and a litany of sharing plates, the staff walk guests through exploring the menu. One dish we sampled was sliced meats served with several dipping salts. The server took the time to explain how the salts were imported from Australia, the unique flavor profile of each one and how they would change the taste of the meat. The Australian salt anecdote resonated with the GT Prime team and was made part of their story, the story was passed along to us by our server and we were able to create a unique message about our experience. 

Use culture and training to increase employee engagement

Fostering employee needs for collaboration, ownership and transparency can lift employee engagement and improve the guest experience. Giant, a modest restaurant offering New American fare, models this idea. There, employees  engage in creating new menu items. They partner with the chef on production, execution and even naming. Radiating tableside, this involvement enables servers to take customers on a menu journey, from genesis to execution. 

To increase employee engagement, start by focusing your energy on mitigating the processes and costs of staffing and training and developing your workforce. As staffers gain knowledge and experience, shift appropriate areas of participation and task ownership to them, with your guidance appropriate. Giant, for instance, trains front-of-house employees to mix cocktails for their guests instead of employing bartenders, and they are better able to present beverages because of it.

The marketplace is crowded and choice abounds for consumers. Focus your limited resources—time, money, energy—on  creating a point of differentiation in the market, namely your brand, staff and culture, and you’ll stand out from the crowd, just as El Che Bar, GT Prime and Giant are doing.

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