Operators are always flattered to hear, “You should open a location in my town,” but committing to building a chain’s next unit wherever the outcry is the loudest can be a risky business proposition.
Yet with its “I Want My Quaker Steak & Lube” contest on Facebook, the Sharon, Pa.-based brand of about 60 chicken wing restaurants did just that, slating Toledo, Ohio, as the site for its next restaurant after Facebook fans voted for that city in droves.
Chief executive John Longstreet admitted in an interview with Nation’s Restaurant News that putting site selection into the hands of the restaurant’s fans for this social media contest was “a little dangerous,” but Quaker Steak found it to be an effective way to identify territories with underserved brand fans, called “Lubies.”
From Feb. 6 to April 22, more than 2,500 Facebook fans participated in “I Want My Quaker Steak & Lube” to vote for their cities. Dozens of initial suggestions were accepted, and then the brand’s management culled the list to 10 finalists. Those cities, in the order they finished, were: Toledo, Ohio; Orlando, Fla.; State College, Pa.; Philadelphia; Indianapolis; Altoona, Pa.; Ft. Myers, Fla.; Detroit; Sioux Falls, S.D.; and Houston.
In all, the contest made more than 400,000 Facebook impressions, Quaker Steak disclosed. Of the 2,670 total votes cast, Toledo won with 750 votes.
Quaker Steak made sure to marshal its resources effectively by following the “American Idol” model of paring down all suggestions to the 10 finalist cities with its own input, Longstreet said, rather than letting Facebook fans vote on sites in far-flung places unable to support a Lube location.
“If, say, Warren, Pa., had won, they have a population of maybe 10,000 people,” Longstreet said. “Even if they’d had a lot of votes, we couldn’t have put that city in the top 10.”
Yet some of the finalists were located quite far from areas where Quaker Steak has major penetration or marketing support, he noted. Fans in Florida mobilized support for Orlando and Ft. Myers, even though the state has only one Quaker Steak, hours away in Pinellas Park, near Clearwater.
“We wanted to be actually committed to opening wherever won, because we try to be a very transparent brand,” Longstreet said. “We didn’t say we would absolutely do it, but I felt we had to.”
Building off of brand recognition
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Once Quaker Steak got to Toledo to do consumer awareness surveys, stopping random people outside major shopping centers to ask how familiar they were with the brand, executives discovered that Quaker Steak had an 80-percent incidence of brand recognition. “I was shocked,” Longstreet said, adding that Quaker Steak has entered markets like Fargo, N.D., or Rapids City, S.D., where the brand’s recognition probably wouldn’t have topped 10 percent.
Now that the site selection process has played out through social media, Quaker Steak is back in complete control with its real estate team to determine the best type of unit prototype for the best parcel of land it can acquire in Toledo, Longstreet said. “Two of the things that have been challenging since day one for our brand are that the restaurants are really big and really expensive,” he said. “Our biggest challenge is keeping it small.”
However, Quaker Steak will have options. A new, smaller “Power Lube” prototype that opened in Medina, Ohio, in February is producing the same average sales volumes in 4,900 square feet as full-size locations, which can require up to 8,000 square feet in some locations, he said.
“We’re trying to build new restaurants that make money but also to try new things so that we’re not making franchisees experiment with their money,” Longstreet said. “That’s why most everything we’re doing are new prototypes.”
In all, the brand would be open to revisiting “I Want My Quaker Steak & Lube” in future years, even though it is getting steady commitments for new units from new and existing franchisees, Longstreet said.
“It did extremely well, and it blew the doors off our brand, because I think that’s how we are,” he said. “We really want to have the Lubies involved with everything. If we can’t come up with something else, then I’d want to go back to it. And maybe we look at a whole new model for expansion that is collaborative efforts with the Lubies. The more we can do that, the better off we’re likely to be.”
Quaker Steak operates in 20 states and one Canadian province.
Contact Mark Brandau at [email protected].
Follow him on Twitter: @Mark_from_NRN