The UK’s casual dining sector is at crisis point. If brands want to thrive, they need to take a fresh look at their guest experience, says David Foster
As the casual dining crunch continues, hardly a week seems to pass without some casual dining chain or chief executive bemoaning macro-economic and market forces, over-supply and cost inflation. While these are critical issues facing the industry, they are only part of the story, and they tend to completely ignore a key factor at play: the guest experience.
Take Jamie’s Italian for example – high prices, disappointing quality, small portions and a complex menu that underpinned a challenging food platform to scale were just some other factors that proved indigestible for many guests of the brand. In short, the brand failed to deliver an experience that was as good and different as its price point suggested it should be.
In fact, the recently published OC&C Fundex, a global study of guests’ views of the restaurant, pub and hotel brands they visit, has revealed an uncomfortable truth – the UK has, on average, the second worst-rated casual dining market examined in the study.
The problem is not that the UK doesn’t have some great brands – Wagamama, Miller & Carter, Nando’s, Côte Brasserie and others are very well-rated by their guests (Jamie’s, incidentally, was rated a poor 25th out of 34 UK restaurant brands examined). But the UK is also home to a lot of brands that are delivering poor or undifferentiated guest experiences.
Five ways to exceed expectations
1 Get the basics right
As the industry well knows, guests are demanding, and many believe they are getting more so. Consistently delivering on every single element of the guest experience is getting even harder. But evidence from the OC&C Fundex suggests that there are three critical areas where the experience simply must perform – food and drink quality, a good menu and cleanliness. It may seem surprising, but many brands have taken their eyes off these basics – and guests are noticing.
2 A distinctive experience
Customers are looking for more than just a meal. Winning brands have distinctive propositions where sights, sounds and smells make the experience distinctive, memorable and shareable. Consider some of the UK’s favourite restaurant brands – Wagamama, Nando’s – their restaurants are instantly recognisable and offer experiences difficult to find elsewhere.
3 Fresh (but fast)
Guests are increasingly looking for freshness, but are reluctant to sacrifice speed of service. Leading food-to-go brands like Subway and Greggs have historically used this to their advantage, creating experiences that excel in friendly and fast service but with a strong perception of ‘fresh’. It is easy for ‘freshness’ to get lost in a restaurant context, especially if your menu changes only once a year and your food could have been microwaved out of sight.
4 Focus on repeatability
For a restaurant to be successful, it needs guests to keep coming back. Creating a repeatable proposition requires striking a careful balance between quality and value. The days of bribing guests to return with value-based promotions are
all but over – the guest experience itself must do the leg-work. Truly repeatable restaurant brands need to offer regularly evolving experiences, where guests are not left with a lingering sense of over-indulgence and guilt and are excited to come back to try something new.
5 An advantaged platform
It is difficult to achieve any of this unless the proposition is supported by an advantaged operating platform.
There are many potential ingredients in an advantaged platform: a short, specialised menu, high commonality of ingredients, batch preparation, and a common cooking platform are just a few.
Cleverly combined, these can create genuine advantages in the guest experience and operational advantages that help brands drive real commercial benefits. It is time that casual dining brands turned their attention back to what is most important – how to deliver better and smarter experiences to ensure guests are happy and come back for more.
David Foster is an associate partner in the hospitality and leisure team at OC&C Strategy Consultants