Digital ordering tools are no longer a clever differentiator for restaurants; they’re table stakes in this tech-friendly, off-premises-heavy climate that’s been supercharged by the COVID-19 pandemic. But while brands all over the country are rushing to leverage technology to make their offerings more convenient, some are still clinging to the human interactions and the quality-forward experiences of yesteryear — while also embracing the technology of tomorrow.
Bluestone Lane is one such brand. The New York based coffee and café chain was founded by Nick Stone in 2013 and inspired by the coffee culture of his native Australia. The brand quickly grew to about 50 locations by the end of 2019, thriving by investing in the intersection between artisanal products and service with digital-driven convenience.
Stone joined Nation’s Restaurant News editor in chief Sam Oches on the new podcast Take-Away with Sam Oches to talk about how Bluestone Lane is walking the line between convenience and quality, how it’s expanding through different models based around customer use cases and why young families are the brand’s coveted demographic. Here are Sam’s five take-aways from his chat with Stone:
1. Convenience is not always king. The U.S. coffee market is built on the idea of convenience, of getting in and out of the coffee shop or drive thru as quickly as possible. And digital innovations in the past few years have made the process of getting a coffee or espresso beverage no more difficult than pressing a button on your phone.
But Bluestone Lane was founded on the principles of Australia’s coffee culture, which is more about slowing down, connecting with other people, and enjoying a premium product. Pre-pandemic, that strategy had helped Bluestone race to 50 locations in six years. And despite the brand’s struggles in the pandemic’s early days, that strategy has helped Bluestone rebound and it’s something that Stone says continues to be in high demand.
“When I came to the states, I realized that Starbucks had been so successful in making espresso coffee more commercial, growing its proliferation and awareness of the taste profile, but they'd done it focused around convenience,” he said. “And I realized there's a way in which we can provide premium coffee, a dedication to service and having locals, not customers.”
2. Creating these premium experiences doesn’t mean you need to ditch digital tools. Bluestone Lane may want people to slow down and comfortably enjoy their artisanal foods and beverages, but that experience can still be facilitated by new ordering technologies. In fact, Bluestone has invested in a new app that allows guests to order for carryout or dine-in, so if they want to skip the line but still sit down to enjoy their meal, they can, and they’ll still receive personable service.
“It's not about substituting service or human connection, it's about augmenting the experience, and I don't see it as displacing roles or erasing the need for people,” Stone said. “I think it makes the experience to the customer more efficient, more informed, more educational and gives them that full convenience.”
3. You can create multiple concepts to fit multiple use cases. Bluestone Lane has two models it’s invested in for growth, one being a coffee shop that you might find at the bottom of an office building, and another being a café that’s more about a sit-down, food-driven experience, and which works well in more residential areas. Stone said this strategy — experimenting with the real estate, the local demographics, and the service model to match your local customer’s ordering habits and designing prototypes around those habits — has picked up steam during the pandemic, but was part of Bluestone all along.
“If you look at Chipotle and Taco Bell, they probably have like 8 or 10 different concepts now,” he said. “We always had multiple concepts because we could see the use case was quite different and the value proposition really meant that we had to be able to distribute and meet our locals in different ways. And I think it's played to our real strengths.”
4. There is opportunity at the intersection between the home and the office. Stone pointed out that Bluestone’s business in office districts is significantly diminished because of the pandemic, and he doesn’t think it’s going to come back anytime soon. But its business in residential areas is booming.
With the explosion in the work-from-home movement, more Americans are seeking dining opportunities in suburbs and urban residential neighborhoods. And more often, those who are working from home are looking for a place to retreat so they’re not in their homes 24/7.
“I think that Bluestone Lane will be such a wonderful venue for these different suburban and urban residential markets where people have business meetings, where they have it over breakfast, they have it over lunch,” Stone said. “You don't have to go and meet in the office. You can meet somewhere out where someone lives.”
5. Young families are a goldmine for long-term loyalty — and breakfast may be the daypart that brings them in. Bluestone Lane has put a lot of effort into being the coffee brand of choice for millennials, who are now starting their own families. Stone points out that breakfast and brunch are generally more popular for family business because it’s not as formal or as complicated as dinner. Bluestone Lane wants to become the dining destination of choice for those young families and secure their loyalty for decades to come.
“We have this younger core customer that is the customer of the future. They're going to be in the workforce for the next 20–30 years. As they continue to age, they're going to most likely earn more, they're going to be more focused on what they consume. And then they have their own families and are really focused on how they feed their families and how they live, and I think that that all plays very nicely for our ambitions and our growth opportunity. It's phenomenal white space.”