Plano, Texas-based Zoës Kitchen’s leaders like to say the brand was “born in the Mediterranean and raised in the South.” The fast-casual chain grew up fast in the past year, going public in April and announcing plans to rapidly grow off its base of about 120 restaurants.
Vice president of marketing Rachel Phillips-Luther is the Zoës executive tasked with refining and explaining the brand’s Mediterranean positioning to thousands of new customers in new markets as the chain fulfills those growth plans, and the inherent misunderstanding of just what “Mediterranean” means will be her biggest obstacle, she said.
“Three years ago, when I began narrowing our position and building the brand architecture, ‘Mediterranean’ was incredibly foreign to most American consumers,” she said during an interview with Clay Dover, board member of the National Restaurant Association’s Marketing Executives Group. “People interpret it as Greek, and we are not a Greek restaurant. You won’t find falafel or babaganoush at Zoës; instead, you’ll find ingredients and preparation methods that align with the Mediterranean philosophy: lean proteins, abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables, olive oil instead of butter, and using fresh herbs to deliver clean and bold flavors.”
However, she said, as Mediterranean becomes more familiar to people, that cuisine aligns with consumers’ growing preferences for healthful eating, putting Zoës in a position to grow even as the fast-casual segment continues to evolve.
Phillips-Luther spoke with Dover about tailoring her brand’s marketing strategy to the needs of a rapid-growth company.
How has Zoës competition evolved the past few years, and how are you meeting it?
The competitive landscape has changed considerably, even in the past three years that I’ve been leading the brand’s marketing strategy. New fast-casual concepts are emerging monthly, and there are a number of players now with menu items that are Mediterranean-inspired. This hasn’t changed what we do or how we do it. Our success has come from staying committed and focused on what we do best: real Mediterranean food served with Southern hospitality. We stay committed to hiring people that are ready to deliver our mission of “delivering goodness.”
What has the emphasis on growth changed for you and your marketing team?
We’ve spent additional time and energy focused on how we introduce our concept and educate new consumers about the brand. We’ve also spent time identifying ways to tap into our existing advocates’ network of influence and use that community to advocate on behalf of Zoës when we enter new markets. Our purpose of inspiring advocacy doesn’t change, but we have modified our approach to attack growth.
What is fast casual’s future, and what will separate the competitors?
My guess is we’ll continue to see fast casual shake out into two or three subsets. Today, we group Taco Cabana and Piada Italian Street Food in the same category. In the future, I believe we’ll see a clear division between “polished fast causal,” or “fast-casual-plus” as some call it, and the traditional scoop-and-serve model that Chipotle Mexican Grill made famous. Style of service and quality of ingredients will ultimately be what creates the separation.
Which restaurant chain, other than your own, do you think does a great job, and why?
There are so many out there. Your brand, Raising Cane’s Chicken Fingers, is one. When you talk fast casual, Chipotle is one I truly admire. I love the focus and tenacity in which they approach the business and feel they’ve stayed committed to a clear strategic platform. I’ve also been impressed by some newer operators, like Sweet Greens out of D.C. and Sam Fox in Arizona. From a restaurateur perspective, Danny Meyer tops my list of individuals that understand and deliver hospitality consistently, across every segment, without compromising.
What's ahead for Zoe's
What upcoming marketing initiative has you most excited?
I’m most excited about our Live Mediterranean platform. We’ve identified a way to speak to the values, traditions and relationships that define “living Mediterranean,” and we’re excited to bring those to life in our restaurants, with our team and with our guests.
What marketing trends from outside the restaurant industry should be incorporated into our business?
I think marketers today have to pay careful attention to trends in technology but be highly selective in adopting technology without purpose. There are so many industries using technology to provide a new or more compelling value to consumers, and I think we have just tapped the surface of how technology can enhance our business and grow our brands in the future.
It’s important today to look at how you structure your team and how you allocate manpower. The traditional marketing manpower plan is far less relevant in today’s world, where content is king and one-to-one wins. If you aren’t thinking about key elements that effect your brand’s reputation and the key drivers for sales and allocating against them, you may lose ground. “Dream big, start small, scale quickly” has never been more relevant than now.
Has your role changed since Zoës successful IPO?
Not much has changed. My role has expanded to include a new audience, the investor community, but for my team, our purpose remains intact: inspire advocacy. The IPO delivered a unique opportunity to cement our brand position in the mind of both consumers and investors, and we were incredibly pleased with the coverage surrounding the event and to deliver against our “live Mediterranean” strategic platform.
Which of your marketing team’s accomplishments are you most proud of?
The campaign we developed and executed in 2013 to support ultra-marathon runner Zoe Romano tops the list of proud moments. We had less than three weeks to move from contract to “go time,” and I was amazed by the vision, passion and perseverance. Despite the short incubation, the campaign delivered rich content, connected directly to our mission “deliver goodness from the inside out” and saved hundreds of children’s lives by raising funds for the World Pediatric Project. It doesn’t get much better than that.
I’m equally proud of their grit. It’s a team that isn’t afraid to fail. They understand that success looks a lot like hard work, and they support and celebrate each other.