Fast Casual Summit: 4 questions restaurant brands must answer

Few restaurateurs would deny that the food service landscape is crammed to overflowing with viable players. In fact, according to food service marketing consultant Gerry O’Brion, there are now about one million U.S. restaurants in this nation of 320 million people. That’s one restaurant for every 320 people, and one big reason why fully one quarter of all restaurants fail nationally.

Last month, at the Fast Casual Executive Summit outside Los Angeles, O’Brion used those cold, hard numbers to crystallize one idea in the minds of restaurant leaders about surviving in food service today: The difference between winners and losers in this game, he said, is all about differentiation.

During a gathering of several hundred restaurant leaders at the ocean-side summit, O’Brion laid out the details from his research that support a short list of success factors employed by this country’s biggest brands. Taken to its purest distillation, O’Brion told the audience that truly successful brands are those that have carefully considered and implemented key features that set their brand apart from its competitors.

But, he said, the best brands don’t just settle for any old differentiating gimmick. O’Brion explained that the real winners have differentiated themselves by first clearly defining who their customer is and how best to meet their needs. To that end, he urged restaurateurs to consider the four following questions to develop clear, detailed answers:

  • Who are your ideal customers?  Answers to this question act as a compass for the overall direction a restaurant brand takes to differentiate itself from other players in this competitive game, he said. The more descriptive a restaurateur is about the fundamental drivers, desires and needs of their target customers, the better that restaurant becomes at strongly satisfying its customers.
  • What are those ideal customers seeking? Here, O’Brion engaged audience members to answer that question if, for instance, the restaurant’s target customer is a young mom bringing her kids to lunch. The answers came fast and furious from the audience. “She needs a break,” shouted one woman in the rear of the room. “She wants her kids to be healthy,” another said. It was the kind of collective brainstorming and “putting yourself in your customer’s shoes” that OBrion said helps restaurateurs find the best ways to reach their audience and enlist their support.
  • What can your restaurant do to provide what that customer seeks? Here again the answers came quickly from the audience, including responses like “She wants restaurant employees who actually act happy to see her and her kids, not like they’re just a pain,” and “The restaurant should make moms feel like that restaurant is home.”
  • Finally, given all the above, what’s your big idea for differentiation? Here, O’Brion stepped in with an example of a Manhattan lunch spot called Sweet Revenge that specializes in savory cupcakes with wine and beer in what is known to be a decidedly upscale part of town. O’Brion explained that the operators of Sweet Revenge not only understood why they were there, but had a well-defined answer to that question. “So, what’s your ‘because’?” he asked the audience of food service experts. “Know that, and make your ‘because’ believable and repeatable.”