NRN editor and restaurant marketing expert Jennings breaks down what you should be watching in the industry this week. Connect with her on the latest marketing trends and news at @livetodineout and [email protected].
Last month, Noodles & Company tweeted that it is testing antibiotic-free, vegetarian-fed chicken breast at restaurants in its home state of Colorado.
Company officials are not commenting on whether the chicken will roll out systemwide, and it’s not the first time Noodles & Company has used antibiotic-free protein. The fast-casual chain already offers antibiotic-free, vegetarian-fed pork systemwide, and is increasingly promoting other sustainable ingredients, including cage-free eggs and organic tofu, milk and tea.
The move is another sign of what is being shaped into a core brand message, as Broomfield, Colo.-based Noodles & Company works to build awareness.
At a recent investor conference, Noodles & Company president and chief operating officer Keith Kinsey said officials in the second half of 2014 have been looking hard at how the chain communicates its focus on quality ingredients, a brand aspect that is crucial in the increasingly competitive fast-casual segment.
“We haven’t done as good a job about communicating the ingredients we have,” Kinsey said, citing its natural pork, cage-free eggs, fresh produce and the organic tofu. “Those are the things we need to drive home stronger.”
This is not surprising, given that Noodles & Company chief executive Kevin Reddy was previously part of the executive team at Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc., a segment leader that has built its brand on the notion of “Food With Integrity.”
Noodles officials see an opportunity to tap into growing consumer concerns about issues like antibiotics in meat, humanely raised livestock and, as Kinsey put it, “the story behind the ingredients,” like cheese used by Noodles that comes from family farms.
“It’s an important part of being in fast casual,” Kinsey said.
With a menu of pastas, salads and sandwiches with global flavors, Noodles is already recognized as a healthful brand. The chain has repeatedly been named among Health magazine’s top healthiest fast-food restaurants in the U.S.
But Noodles officials are looking to take that positioning further.
The company invested about $1 million during the third quarter to amp up marketing efforts, as well as to promote its new catering services, which rolled out to all 425 restaurants by the end of the Sept. 30-ended third quarter.
Noodles gains momentum
After a rough start to 2014, Noodles is gaining momentum that it expects to pay off with same-store sales projections of between 2.5 percent to 4 percent in 2015. In the fourth quarter, catering alone is expected to lift same-store sales 1 percent to 1.5 percent.
For Noodles, catering not only adds a new layer of revenue. It also helps raise brand awareness by introducing its food to consumers who have never visited its restaurants.
The investment in catering goes hand-in-hand with the company’s overall marketing efforts, Reddy told Wall Street analysts during a call discussing third-quarter earnings.
“In the third quarter, we tested multiple advertising platforms and messages to help us understand how we can better communicate the brand to new and existing guests alike,” Reddy said. “We have historically spent considerably less on advertising than many of our national competitors, and the investments during the third quarter have already taught us several lessons as we slowly and deliberately increase our share of voice in spending.”
Without going into detail about how that investment was spent, Reddy said efforts thus far were primarily digital, like sending targeted e-mail messages to the chain’s E-Club database about things like menu items under 500 calories, for example.
In October, a National Noodle Day “Lucky Bowl” promotion invited guests to post selfies with their favorite Noodles dish on various social media channels for a chance to win free Noodles for a year and a trip to the Broomfield, Colo., headquarters to learn how to make noodles with executive chef Nick Graff.
While too early to discuss results of the campaign, Reddy said, “We are pleased with its efficacy in driving impressions and awareness and ultimately trial into our restaurants.”
Brand awareness is a key challenge going into 2015.
Noodles & Company chief financial officer Dave Boenninghausen said at the investor presentation that the chain’s top-performing restaurants are showing better unit economics partly because they are in markets with better brand awareness.
As Noodles & Company continues its aggressive growth, with the goal of reaching as many as 2,500 units domestically, expect to hear more about who they are and what their brand stands for.
Contact Lisa Jennings at [email protected].
Follow her on Twitter: @livetodineout