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IHOP president on refreshing the brand without losing emotional appeal

Tech and design updates help keep the chain relevant with grandma and grandkids

The new IHOP is a study in balance.

There’s updated technology, but it won’t get in the way of the welcoming service customers expect. The brand is focusing on unit growth and remodels, but also keeping the classic IHOP touches.

It’s not your grandmother’s IHOP, but your grandmother is welcome at her usual booth.

“All of the key elements of the brand are in place,” said Darren Rebelez (left), IHOP’s president while in New York last week for Dine Brand’s Global Inc.’s third-quarter earnings. Dine Brands is the parent company to the IHOP and Applebee’s brands.

“Really when we talk to our guests, we don't hear feedback from our guests saying we think you need to blow it up and start over again,” Rebelez said. “What they'll tell us is, we just want you to be an updated and refreshed version of who you are.”

IHOP’s digital updates include handheld tablets for servers, a wireless EMV device at tables for payment, and an integration with Yelp’s NoWait app, which uses an algorithm to predict wait times and texts customers with updates.

“We were looking at how we can take the guest experience and just remove all those friction points that can sometimes get in the way of a guest having a fantastic experience,” Rebelez said.

Wait times were one of those friction points.

“That's a high-class problem to have, but it still can be an issue, so we're testing waitlisting in particular, which makes the wait time a little bit more predictable and allows the guest to get on the waitlist in advance, so they can arrive at the restaurant a little closer to their time of being seated,” Rebelez said. “For us that will reduce the defection that we sometimes experience when a wait goes a little bit long.”

The other side of new IHOP is what the brand is calling its Rise ‘N Shine Remodel, which has been completed in nearly 800 stores. The remodel includes removing carpets, adding community tables, changing up the art and lighting, and adding space for meals to go.

“We're not removing booths, the coffee pots on the table, that's not going anywhere. Although we did change the coffee pots recently to stainless steel with better insulating capability, so our coffee stays hot the whole time. Our iconic syrups are not going anywhere,” Rebelez said.

And all these new touches will be showing up at more and more restaurants as IHOP continues to expand, Rebelez said

“We're growing, and I know in the industry right now, and family dining particularly, that's unique from the unit perspective,” he said. “We're going to have one of our biggest development years on record this year. And that's both domestically and internationally.”

Dense urban areas will be critical targets, he said.

All of this proves to Rebelez that family dining is far from dead. Or at least his family dining brand.

“I think there's a question sometimes around the viability of family dining and the guest, and there's a bit of perception that the guests in this segment are in the 60-plus crowd and these brands don't resonate with younger people. And I would say that that's not an unfair criticism for some of our competitors, but that's just not where we fall in. We separate ourselves from the category in that respect,” Rebelez said.

The 60-plus crowd is going to IHOP, of course, but Rebelez notes that 50 percent of his guest base is 35 years of age or younger. He emphasizes the brand's “lifetime relationship” with guests. Kids come in with their parents or grandparents. A few years later they come in on their own. During the college years, IHOP is a late-night hang out.

“Millennials, they've now come of that age where they're forming their own families. So, they have these fond memories of IHOP as a child, and now they want their kids to experience the same thing,” he said. “And then ultimately they'll get older and become grandparents, and we'll get another shot at them there.”

IHOP has more than 1,750 restaurants worldwide.

Contact Gloria Dawson at [email protected]

Follow her on Twitter: @GloriaDawson

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