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Functionality drives restaurant mobile app adoption

T.G.I. Friday's, Jersey Mike’s Subs and Sweetgreen discuss why they rolled out smartphone apps

Restaurants continue to adopt new smartphone applications, and brand leaders insist that improved app functionality — not improved development costs — is driving these rollouts.

T.G.I. Friday’s rolled out its My Friday’s app in April, and the functionality possible with today’s smartphone apps, rather than improvements in development costs or the proliferation of smartphones, drove the decision, said vice president of brand marketing Shannon Gewinner.

“Obviously, the app installation base is huge, for both Apple and Android, but that wasn’t really the reason we did this,” she said. “As far as price goes, it wasn’t an economical decision. I’m not sure the development of custom apps is down at all. Once you add functionality, it’s similar to building a website and not necessarily less expensive.”

Friday's mobile appThe latest version of the My Friday’s app was released last week and is fully compatible with the new iPhone’s iOS6 operating system.

“We asked ourselves, 'what is an app for?'” Gewinner said. “We didn’t just want to check a box and feel good about ourselves; the app had to be functional. With a restaurant, there wasn’t a compelling reason to download one unless you do on-the-go ordering and it comes alive once you go into the restaurant.”

The app’s first iteration was built around a pay-at-the-table function that solved guests’ needs, Gewinner said. According to Tabbedout, Friday’s technology partner that developed the app, more than 250,000 people have downloaded the My Friday’s app this year, and 70 percent of the Friday’s system now supports customers using it.

In July, the chain integrated the app into its Give Me More Stripes loyalty program, allowing them to manage their accounts through their phones. A built-in scanner uses a smartphone’s camera function to allow customers to redeem rewards on the spot, Gewinner said. Since the integration eight weeks ago, Friday’s has signed up 7,500 new loyalty club members, she added.

“We feel the need to lead the way with technology in casual dining,” she said. “Really, combining loyalty with paying at the table is a good start to solving our guests needs.”

Investing in loyalty

Jersey Mike’s Subs revamped its loyalty program back in May, complete with a proprietary smartphone app and a near-field communication, or NFC, component that pushes text alerts to members’ cell phones when they are in close proximity to a store.

Of the 600,000 customers who have opted into Jersey Mike’s loyalty program, a little more than 60,000 manage their rewards through the smartphone app, chief marketing officer Rich Hope said. Most members still prefer to swipe a loyalty card they carry in their wallets, though they also can participate simply by giving a Jersey Mike’s staffer a linked phone number at the point of sale. Reward stats are printed on every receipt.

Sweetgreen mobile appA smartphone app made sense for Jersey Mike’s because enough customers would see it as an attractive complement to the loyalty program, Hope said, though development costs for the app, while better than years ago, are still a significant investment.

“Everything in tech seems to come down with time,” Hope said. “It still costs money to develop an app. But certain people love apps and technology, so the app and the NFC sticker for them is the way to go. But overall, more often than not, members simply carry a card and scan it when they come in.”

Other restaurant brands that recently introduced smartphone apps for mobile ordering and payment include 20-unit La Boulange Café and Bakery, which partnered with technology provider OLO, and Northern Lattes Java Café, which rolled out an app developed by ShoutEm.

The best of both worlds

While many operators would agree with T.G.I. Friday’s and Jersey Mike’s that developing a proprietary app is not necessarily inexpensive, some brands like 13-unit Sweetgreen report cost-effective success by partnering with developers who offer prefabricated apps that can be customized and branded.

This week, Washington, D.C.-based Sweetgreen was the first restaurant to launch a “white-label” app with LevelUp payment network. Customers can download the Sweetgreen app to their phones and receive a personal quick-response code, or QR code, on their screen, which Sweetgreen staffers then scan at the point-of-sale system to manage a person’s loyalty club rewards, process mobile payments and collect back-end analytics information.

“We had tried to do an app ourselves, and we bit off more than we could chew in terms of features and custom options that we wanted,” said Nathaniel Ru, cofounder of the fast-casual salad and frozen-yogurt chain. “Doing it this way was the best of both worlds, because it’s a beautiful interface and experience and a deeper dive into analytics on the back end. We use a Micros POS and a third-party loyalty program, and it can be hard to segment the data that way, so this is more cohesive.”

Ru said the approach was a good way for Sweetgreen to split the difference between a custom app built in house and participating in a giant global app like Google Wallet, while retaining control over the branding.

“We’re big geeks over here and big fans of technology,” he said, “so finding a solution that’s easy and turnkey, but also customizable, is win-win-win.”

Contact Mark Brandau at [email protected].
Follow him on Twitter: @Mark_from_NRN

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