At a time when the industry’s growth overall is minimal and stealing market share is necessary to build sales, improving the guest experience is proving to be a key factor in differentiating a brand.
For many chains, that focus on experience has meant upgrades of food or the remodeling of restaurants. Others, however, also have addressed another facet: enhancing service.
Service, in fact, remains a challenge for many restaurant operators. In a poll conducted for the 2012 Zagat New York City Restaurants survey, 60 percent of the guidebook’s 41,600 surveyors cited service as the No. 1 dining-out irritant — a figure that has remained unchanged since 2009.
Despite the difficulties, an increasing number of operators are working to improve service at their restaurants. Chains such as Fazoli’s, Jack in the Box, Boston Market and Ruby Tuesday have rolled out or are in the process of developing new initiatives to improve the way they serve guests, and the results so far have been positive.
Moving the needle with service, however, is a challenge for large chains. Inevitably, it involves changing human behavior, an investment that takes time and consistent coaching and support.
“You’re teaching people how to talk and behave, and it can be hit-or-miss,” said Pat Peterson, Ruby Tuesday’s director of quality service.
But when it works, he added, “it can really break [the guest] out of that transactional rut.”
For chains like Jack in the Box, improving service was a key element in turnaround efforts accompanying improvements to core menu items and remodels.
The service aspect, however, involved more of a cultural shift, said Lenny Comma, executive vice president and chief operating officer at Jack in the Box Inc.
The burning platform for San Diego-based Jack in the Box was poor sales performance as the recessionary climate began to improve in recent years, and other chains showed signs of faster recovery, he said.
Today’s guests have a “discriminating dollar,” he said. If they have a bad experience, they’re not likely to go back.
For Jack in the Box, winning a greater share of that discriminating dollar meant that both company and franchise operators had to believe they had control over generating sales, and that had to do with service, Comma said.
“It really was a cultural shift of looking at sales through service, where in the past we might have looked more to marketing for a solution,” he said.
In the fourth quarter of 2010, Jack in the Box began looking at service in earnest. The company hired temps to do a mystery shoppers program “on steroids,” and asked them to judge restaurants against high standards and in a hurry.
Restaurants received feedback every week, which created a significant sense of urgency, Comma said.
But rather than establishing certain criteria by which restaurants were audited and then forced into compliance, Comma focused on a more fundamental change of culture, one that required responsibility on the part of each employee and created a climate of connecting with guests.
If restaurants weren’t clean enough, for example, Comma didn’t assume it was because the staff didn’t know how to keep them clean.
“It was about people not caring to,” he said.
Comma and his team hit the road and did a tour of both company and franchise operators, bringing out a playbook with expectations and resources for making changes.
The road trip was followed by training events and coaching sessions in which employees were provided detailed information on how to interact with guests in various situations.
“Before this, we didn’t really have a specific standard for that sort of thing; they were all just doing it their own way,” Comma said.
Improvements have focused on four elements: speed of orders, accuracy of orders, cleanliness and friendliness. Though the enhancements are still a work in progress, Comma said the effort is showing concrete results.
In the first quarter of 2012, for example, the chain made a 30- second improvement in speed of service compared with the same quarter last year, he said.
“That’s huge in QSR.”
However, Comma said additional work needs to be done. On a scale of one to 10, Jack in the Box has achieved roughly a two, he said.
“We have significantly more to do to be recognized as a brand with great service,” he said. “I don’t want to be average.”
Carl Howard, chief executive of Lexington, Ky.-based Fazoli’s, also has seen service initiatives move the needle.
Fazoli’s was struggling with migration issues during the recession, in part because of food quality and menu variety, Howard said.
A menu overhaul in 2009, however, didn’t have quite the impact hoped for, and Howard blamed the fact that Fazoli’s still served everything on paper, styrofoam and foil, and guests had to pick up their orders from the counter.
So the chain began testing the use of real plates and silverware, which alone was an investment of about $40,000 to $50,000 per store because it required the installation of dishwashers.
In addition, guests still ordered at the counter, but food was delivered to tables by food runners.
The result was a more than 50- percent improvement in customer- service scores, Howard said.
“So I went to [owners] Sun Capital, and I said, ‘Hey, I think we’re onto something.’”
The systemwide rollout of plates and silverware was completed by October 2011, but that was just the first phase, Howard said.
The company is now working on improving the hiring and recruiting process to ensure those who join the chain’s team have the right characteristics to interact well with guests.
Cashiers are also now trained to know the menu to better answer specific questions about the Tuscan pizza or chicken carbonara, for example.
“We put so much care and detail into our food, I want the cashiers to be proud of what they’re selling,” he said.
In addition, the 220-unit Fazoli’s has redeployed managers into the dining room in company-owned locations, where they pass out free bread sticks, bring drink refills or otherwise serve as concierge.
Overall, the improvements have increased labor costs by about 1 percent, but the company has saved about the same in reducing its use of paper goods, Howard said.
“The net-net effect is neutral, but we’ve seen a 4-percent to 10-percent increase in sales” following the upgrades, he said. The company reported double-digit same-store sales increases in December and January, the highest in Fazoli’s history.
Service also was a key aspect of Golden, Colo.-based Boston Market’s recent format revitalization, dubbed America’s Kitchen Table, the chain’s chief executive George Michel said.
Rolled out over the past year or so, the upgrades include the creation of a new Guest Ambassador position, a team member responsible for taking plates, refilling drinks or generally providing customer service in the dining room.
Boston Market also switched from disposables to real plates and silverware, and tweaked staff uniforms.
Hospitality training was rolled out first to restaurant managers, and then employees. Last summer, the chain trained again to “double down,” Michel said.
“I felt strongly it was all about execution,” he said.
The goal was to ensure that team members were providing “the royal treatment” to guests — things like walking customers to their car under an umbrella on rainy days, or passing out roses or balloons in the dining room on holidays.
Initially, labor costs rose about 1.5 percent with the changes, but they later returned to pre-test levels.
By the end of 2011, average unit volumes increased from $1 million to $1.1 million, which Michel attributes to the service enhancements.
“It was a short-term cost for a long-term gain,” he said.
Ruby Tuesday, based in Maryville, Tenn., also had invested heavily in menu upgrades and other changes. Last summer, however, research indicated that the benefit of such improvements had reached a plateau, said Peterson at Ruby Tuesday.
So in November, Ruby Tuesday began testing a new service initiative in about 60 locations, focusing on three key changes:
• Language. Team members were trained to talk about dishes differently and asked to give guests more descriptive accounts of menu items, such as how the chef prepares them.
• Uniforms. Both servers and bartenders were given a new look, Peterson said.
• “Surprises and delights.” Staff members were trained to offer guests unexpected moments or things that would improve their experience.
Peterson said they started with 18 suggested behaviors to surprise and delight, from pulling out the chair for a lady to grating fresh Parmesan over dishes or shaking martinis tableside.
Immediately, Ruby Tuesday saw increased tip percentages for servers and other key metrics indicating positive results.
The enhanced service initiative was rolled out nationwide by January, and the chain is now seeing new ideas for surprises and delights coming from the restaurants.
Now, it’s all about coaching to maintain the momentum after the initial bump, Peterson said.
“We wanted to make a quantum leap, not just a bunny step” in upgrading service, he said. “Our goal is to make guests feel valued and special, and that will have an impact.”