When restaurant brands grow as fast as Dallas-based Genghis Grill has in the past few years, the task of scaling up branding and marketing can become more complex despite greater resources, chief marketing officer Ron Parikh said.
Genghis Grill, a restaurant that tries to play in multiple dayparts by incorporating fast-casual and casual-dining elements into its build-your-own stir-fry concept, has grown to 105 locations in 23 states, increasing from approximately 80 units at the end of 2011. Parikh noted that the brand’s recent addition of a “We Build It” section of composed salads, tacos and wraps has contributed to its 5-percent growth in same-store sales for 2013, a year when Genghis Grill at times experienced similar dips in sales and traffic as those for its casual-dining peers.
“Relevance and staying on trend have been tough for us in the past, as we were growing the brand very aggressively,” Parikh wrote in an email conversation with Clay Dover, chief marketing officer of Raising Cane’s and a board member with the NRA Marketing Executives Group. “It’s like flying a plane in the air while you’re building it.”
However, as he noted in his conversation with Dover, Parikh is optimistic that Genghis Grill and other restaurant brands can maintain sales growth along with unit expansion through smart investments in technology and new sales layers like catering and online ordering.
Genghis Grill has a different service style than other restaurants. What has been the greatest advantage of that from a marketing standpoint, and what are the greatest challenges?
Genghis Grill is a hybrid of fast casual and casual dining, due to a full-service bar mix and servers at both lunch and dinner, unlike many other fast-casual concepts. Promoting the brand as a fast-casual concept and as casual dining at the same time is like a double-edged sword. You want people to come to you for lunch, but also dinner.
Our main point of talking to fans is the food. By offering more than 80 fresh ingredients on the Fresh Market Bar and endless combinations, it’s our biggest selling point. As a consumer, you can come in every day and create a different meal plan to satisfy your diet plan based on individual goals: high-protein diet, low-carb diet, etc.
Our greatest strength, which is the build-your-own, has sometimes boxed us in from a marketing standpoint to promote the brand any differently.
What’s the biggest challenge of growing rapidly?
Currently, Genghis Grill is in more than 20 states, all the way from California to D.C. to Florida. Reach and brand awareness is the key to continue to have organic growth. We have great operators in our system that have other concepts that they are franchisees of. So from that perspective, it is easy to communicate with them to convey our operating plan and brand direction. We have an open-book policy, and as long as you explain to them why we’re doing certain things and what’s the benefit to them, then launching a marketing initiative becomes very easy, as you have the operators backing you all the way to communicate your message to the consumer.
Your parent company, The Chalak Group, has several brands under ownership and management. Are you able to leverage these from a marketing standpoint, or is it more difficult to have multiple brands?
Yes and no. With Genghis Grill, Baker Bros., Ruby Tequila’s and Pepper Smash, we own and operate those brands, so there is definitely some synergy, but we are franchisees of Twin Peaks and Yum! Brands, where we’re the private-equity capital source. Twin Peaks and Yum already have a great corporate infrastructure and support system, so all we do there is execute their plan. We do provide feedback and suggestions to them, which always helps, as we are brand owners and operators as well. We also have the opportunity and benefit to implement some of the tactics and strategies that fit our other brands.
Marketing and innovation
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Where are you allocating additional marketing resources in 2014?
For our Genghis Grill brand, we’re focusing on our [area of protection] and aggressively focusing on our catering, local-store marketing and online-ordering programs. Our catering program started out as a need to satisfy loyal fans, and it turned out to be huge in 2013. We’ve since partnered with Monkey Media to assist with growth on catering, online-ordering and takeout initiatives. We’ll be adding a senior-level person to spearhead this program as we see a lot of potential and opportunity in this segment for our brand.
Where do you see innovation happening for restaurants over the next few years?
In technology. Our industry is extremely behind the times. From a marketing standpoint, we’ve already seen adaptation of social networking platforms, location-based services and visual search. As consumer demographics and behavior continue to change every aspect of how they live, work and learn, marketers will need to convince our operators to adapt technological innovations to stay ahead of the competition. Successful operators will retain a personal touch element if strategy is adapted correctly.
We marketers have to be extremely careful and understand that today’s consumer is smarter than us, especially the Millennials. They have been raised on an instant-access formula: Everything should be at their fingertips. Hence we have to adapt technology to get our message out to them quicker and in a more targeted way. Currently, most of our campaigns are extremely targeted and focused on social-media platforms. We continue to find out and measure data provided by our fans to cater to each and every one of them separately. With shrinking marketing budgets, due to shrinking margins, I believe less is going to be more.
What restaurant brand other than your own is doing a great job in marketing?
I like what Taco Bell is doing. It has been smashing on the digital frontier, and not just because they’re a big company, but also because they’re innovative and pushing the “Live Más” bar higher. They threat their employees and customers like friends online.
Another brand that I watch is Firehouse Subs. They also do a great job interacting with their customers and tying in their message with relevancy about the brand and their cause. Obviously, you have your Starbucks and Chipotle up there to learn from, but they have much deeper pockets to experiment.
What marketing trend do you see outside of the restaurant industry that you feel should be incorporated into our business?
Mobile commerce will become top of mind to a campaign’s success. With more focus on real-time marketing, content that is easy, quick, affordable and disposable will drive ad growth, like with Pinterest, Instagram and Vine.
Data management and using technology like RFID sensors — mobile-location data captured in real time to get a picture of what consumers are doing at that moment — is also something marketers will benefit from as the current data is not real time and changing so often. I also see mobile payments trending upward in 2014, with more adaptability of Google Wallet, Square and others that have introduced electronic payments, loyalty and couponing systems. With our crowded restaurant industry, transactional marketing will be a key to build loyalty programs that segments and markets to individuals based on purchase history.