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Kruse/Thorn: Does high tech also require high touch?

Nancy Kruse and Bret Thorn discuss how to make restaurant visits memorable

In a monthly series, menu trend analyst Nancy Kruse and NRN senior food editor Bret Thorn debate current trends in the restaurant industry. For this installment, they discuss the growth of technology alongside the importance of the customer experience.

Kruse Company president Nancy Kruse says the growth of technology has made the customer experience all the more important.   

As we moved through the recent holiday shopping season, business writers glumly forecast the imminent demise of traditional brick-and-mortar department stores, while also detailing the innovative steps many were taking to try to re-engage with customers and escape their impending doom. Two things strike me about these prognostications: First, they were mostly wrong, as many legacy retailers did better than expected. Second, and of greater interest, was how often the reporting on these re-engagement efforts had a familiar ring. Consider the following:

· Chain department stores, like their restaurant brethren, have been struggling to stand out in a sea of sameness. Take Nordstrom, which has launched Local in Los Angeles, a “neighborhood hub, a place to gather and gab.” It’s an experimental shopping concept minus the typical mind-numbing racks of merch. Instead, there are wine and juice bars, manicurists and personal stylists who only show samples of their wares, all of which appear in full on the company’s website. “Neighborhood hub and place to gather?” Is it just me, or does this sound a lot like Starbucks circa 1990? And “Local?” Holy smokes, are they selling cosmetics or cauliflower?

· In New York City, small specialty retailer Story has been thriving by changing themes, or stories, every few weeks. “Storytellers,” not salespeople, greet shoppers at the space that is described as a combination gallery, store and magazine. It’s apparently a winning combination of which customers can’t get enough, since lines are reportedly out the door at times. Storytelling? Isn't that what savvy menu marketers have been up to for the past several years?

· And it’s not just other retailers taking a leaf from restaurants’ playbook. Besides the doggy spa and landscaped doggy park on the fifth floor of Linea, a new apartment complex in downtown Chicago, the building also boasts work stations and lounge areas, a tactic warmly embraced by many hotel chains in order to get guests out of their rooms and foster, you guessed it, a place to gather and gab.

· Then there’s Spacious in New York City, a work-sharing start-up that allows individuals to set up shop, give presentations and even hold meetings in restaurants that are typically vacant through the daytime hours. Fourteen restaurateurs in the metro area, some pretty prominent, have signed onto the program. Promotional materials tout the hospitality and helpfulness of the friendly hosts and promise unlimited free coffee and tea with each workspace. But here’s the kicker: In addition to free Wi-Fi that is “lightyears faster than your local coffee shop…there’s incredible peace and quiet.” The concept, which I think is truly intriguing, is obviously trying to one-up coffee shops on their own turf by providing a more work-friendly twist on the notion of the third place popularized, again, by Starbucks some decades back.

These experiments are all nascent. With the possible exception of Story, none has been around long enough to demonstrate either a viable business model or financial track record. Nonetheless, there are some innovative ideas at work, all of which are united by an obvious common thread, which is their focus on the experiential. This, of course, echoes what’s been going on in restaurants for a very long time. 

In prior conversations, Bret, we have discussed a contemporary restaurant experience that seems firmly rooted in the past, built on reclaimed barn wood and faux fireplaces. More recently, I kvetched that retro concepts like tiki bars, food halls and other current hot spots are actually souped-up retreads from the past. Sure, they’ve been contemporized, some quite cleverly, but they’re looking backward, not forward.

Maybe I’ve been missing the larger point here, and maybe I need a do-over. These operations have in common with each other, as well as with the examples I just cited from outside the restaurant industry, the reassuring, high-touch comfort quotient that counterbalances high-tech innovations like, say, kiosk ordering. I’ve been speaking and writing about this high-tech/high-touch duality for some time, and I think I blew the call here. 

Rather than mere throwbacks, these concepts may speak to the larger need for connection that has taken hold in lots of arenas. For example, consumers are buying old-fashioned, metal typewriter keyboards to connect to their iPads because they love the comforting clackety-clacks. And several recent studies have reported on the enduring popularity of old-fashioned paper coupons and print flyers in the digital age. Contributing to Trader Joe’s raging success in the grocery business is its Fearless Flyer, whose 19th-century graphics wink at bygone days, even as it currently promotes totally trendy Organic Coconut Aminos Sauce as a stand-in for soy sauce. 

I’d like to turn this over to you now, Bret, with some questions and an answer. My questions have to do with your take on all this and what we can learn from experiential innovations outside the restaurant industry. I wonder whether or not you’ve seen any operators who’ve upped their game and really stand out in terms of experience. And I’d also like your opinion on whether or not we’ll see manicurists popping up to service all those Millennial mommies who push their strollers into bakery-cafés and coffee shops every day. 

And as to the answer: I take my crow cooked medium rare, thank you very much, with a side of humble pie.

Craving for connection 

NRN senior food editor Bret Thorn responds to Kruse Company president Nancy Kruse’s take on the importance of the restaurant experience.   

Nancy, put the knife and fork down. There’s no need for you to eat crow (which, honestly, would probably be better if it were braised for a few hours with some heady spices rather than served medium-rare). You spotted the retro trend, you just might not have fully grasped what it all added up to. Neither did I. But now you raise an interesting point. 

If I understand you correctly, you’re saying that this nostalgia is a call for some sort of spiritual hug from bygone years to replace the digitally-driven sense of disconnectedness of the 2010s. 

Maybe so, but this yearning for the past is hardly new, which is why in the ’70s America loved watching the TV show “Happy Days,” which took place in the ’50s. In the late ’80s, we watched “The Wonder Years,” celebrating the late ’60s and early ’70s. Then, in the late ’90s, it was “That 70s Show,” and now “The Goldbergs,” which takes place in the ’80s, is a hit.

And, of course, there were the 19th Century Romantic artists who extolled the virtues of Classical times. And in ancient times we longed for Eden. 

What can I say? Things often look better in hindsight. 

But maybe this current bout of nostalgia does speak to your high-tech/high-touch theory, in which the convenience and efficiency brought about by technology must be augmented by even more human interaction. Surely the most salient aspect of modern culture is the digital shell in which so many of us are encased — constantly connected, yet disconnected. 

An image comes to mind of tens of millions of people viewing the world from their own couch, plugged in yet all alone, and eating food that was delivered by an Uber driver. 

That might sound sad, but it’s also comfortable. Speaking personally, after a busy week I’m happy to spend the weekends with my door locked, Netflix on and my Seamless app open. 

As long as people order delivery from restaurants, the industry can handle that, but as supermarkets and other food delivery services continue to improve their prepared-food game, and at lower prices than restaurants, restaurants’ real point of distinction increasingly will be the experience — the charming service, great décor and connection with other humans. 

And, to capitalize on that, they have to get people to put on their shoes and get out into the real world. 

There are several ways that operators are making going to their restaurants a grander experience than a mere meal. 

At the higher end, festive concepts like STK set a positive vibe that helps set the stage for a fun night out. DJ’s in each restaurant read the room and help build the energy with music.

Cool lighting, sleek lounges and smaller steak sides help attract more women who, the last time I spoke with STK executive chairman Jonathan Segal, made up 55 percent of customers. And servers are trained to read tables to determine what kind of night guests are looking for, and parties of men and women who seem like they might want to mingle are seated near each other. 

It seems to be working: In its most recent quarter, STK posted a same-store sales increase of around 9.5 percent. 

Other operators add a personal touch, and even small ones can make a difference. For example, at the build-it-in-front-of-you salad chain Sweetgreen, the staff member who starts your salad walks you through the entire line, rather than passing it on to the next person. Founders Nicolas Jammet, Jonathan Neman and Nathaniel Ru have said that the added connection helps build loyalty and happiness with customers. 

Then there are the moves to make an ordinary day a special occasion. We’ve discussed the proliferation of national food days, such as National Cheesecake Day or National PB&J Day (I’m writing this on National Hot Chocolate Day). I find such days to be ridiculous, but if they convince customers to come in for a slice of pie to celebrate, then why not promote it? 

More successful, it seems, are restaurants that create their own special occasions, like when Starbucks or Arby’s launches an extremely limited-time offer. Starbucks got tremendous traction with its Unicorn Frappuccino, introduced very briefly last spring. And Arby’s has gotten national attention and lines out the door with one-day-only venison sandwich offerings.

Shake Shack is taking it to another level, not for the first time, with a one-day LTO at its first location. The New York City-based fast-casual chain is teaming up with Rosio Sanches, the chef and founder of Sanchez and Hija de Sanchez restaurants in Copenhagen, to offer a breakfast taco and chicken sandwich for one day only, Feb. 6, at its original location  in Madison Square Park. 

The restaurant will be decorated for the occasion and Latin Grammy-award-winning all-female mariachi band Flor De Toloache will perform. To add to the attraction, $1 from every item purchased will go to Mujeres Latinas en Acción, which provides social services and advocacy initiatives for Latinas. 

These successful ventures play into the restaurants’ strengths. I’m more skeptical that restaurants should mimic those in other service sectors and start offering things that aren’t what they’re really good at. 

Would someone really say, “I like the food at this restaurant, but I can get my eyebrows threaded at the restaurant across the street, so I’ll go there instead.” 

I think restaurant operators are better off thinking about what makes them great in the first place and then creating special occasions around that. 

Contact Bret Thorn at [email protected]
Follow him on Twitter: @foodwriterdiary

Nancy Kruse, president of the Kruse Company, is a menu trends analyst based in Atlanta and a regular contributor to Nation’s Restaurant News. E-mail her at [email protected]

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