Restaurants face an unprecedented level of complexity and competition to survive in today’s marketplace. Owners have always had to select the right location, provide excellent menu items and customer service, market themselves effectively and carefully manage operational costs - but that’s not all anymore.
Consumer appetite for technology presents new ways to connect with restaurants. Restaurant managers now use software to manage everything from accounting to inventory to their web presence. They’re also posting and answering social media inquiries to drive engagement and sales. Artificial intelligence is even starting to take hold, doing things like scheduling work shifts and suggesting menu items.
In this age of change being the only constant, it can be difficult to focus on what really matters. Just keeping up with the latest trends can be all-consuming. But in order to build a consistent, profitable brand, restaurant owners really need to put blinders on and push away the distractions. Here’s why:
You Can’t Be All Things to All People
If you try to please everyone, you end up pleasing no one. When creating a brand that resonates with someone, you will most certainly alienate someone else. The hard part is coming to terms with the idea that that’s ok. In order to do something well that pleases a specific group of people, you have to neglect something that might cater to another group of people.
Take Raising Cane’s, the poster child for a laser-focus on doing one thing well. And we do mean just one thing: everything on the Raising Cane’s menu is some combination of chicken fingers, french fries, coleslaw, Texas Toast, and its seriously-addictive Cane’s sauce. You want a hamburger, a salad or a wrap? Not at Cane’s.
Raising Cane’s was founded by Todd Graves, a Louisiana State University (LSU) student who created a business plan in the early 1990’s based on a “vision of a restaurant that served the highest quality, freshest chicken finger meals – and nothing else.” His professor handed him the lowest grade in the class, saying “a restaurant serving only chicken fingers would never work.”
Todd went on to renovate a building near LSU that became the first location of Raising Cane’s in 1996. The business has grown to 467 outlets nationwide as of late 2019. In 2017, Raising Cane’s was recognized as the fastest-growing restaurant chain in America, with a 26% increase in sales from the previous year.
The Raising Cane’s concept clearly shows the value of trying to be something (not everything) to one group:
The success of Raising Cane’s doesn’t mean successful restaurants only offer one menu item. However, it does show that catering to a specific audience supports restaurant growth and sales.
Guests Remember the Differences
Restaurant owners doing market research about a specific niche may be quick to imitate their competitors in an effort to get started. If you’re going to compete with McDonald’s or Burger King, you’ve got to have burgers and fries, right?
Yes, it’s critical to do your competitor research and understand what’s happening in your niche. But while doing that research, it’s important to look for the gaps. If you’re planning to open the next fast-casual vegetarian restaurant, learn what competing businesses are doing AND not doing. Therein lies a way to differentiate your restaurant.
Consider the Alamo Drafthouse, a movie house and full-service restaurant originally founded in Austin, Texas in 1997. Tim and Karrie League opened the first theater based on a love of movies combined with good food and cold beer.
At the time, the majority of movie theaters sold standard concessions like popcorn and soft drinks but did not offer full-service dining and alcohol during the movie. Want to go to a movie but you don’t have time for dinner, or get some more popcorn but you don’t want to miss anything? The Alamo Drafthouse is for you.
The next differentiating feature for the Alamo Drafthouse has become notorious: its strict policy on audience behavior. Before each movie played at the Alamo Drafthouse, there’s a short clip (or PSA, as the theater calls it) explaining that no disturbances will be tolerated. Patrons can raise an order card to signal a problem, and if after a warning the offending movie-goer doesn’t cooperate, they’ll be removed from the theater. The Alamo Drafthouse is effectively selling you an insurance policy with your movie ticket: movie-goers will not be disturbed.
Since the initial theater opening in 1997, the Alamo Drafthouse has grown to 41 theaters across 10 states, with 21 of those locations in Texas. And it’s continued the trend of catering to a very specific audience with special events like movie quote-a-longs and sing-a-longs, customized movie launch parties and obscure as well as mainstream movie showings.
The Alamo Drafthouse brand has become so popular that the citizens of Savannah, Georgia have started an online petition to open an Alamo there. Much of that is because of its unique differentiation from the standard movie theater experience.
Everybody Looks Online First
Before the massive proliferation of the internet and smartphones, it was quite possible that patrons would show up at a restaurant without any prior knowledge other than location, type of food, and maybe word-of-mouth from friends and family. Not anymore though, as evidenced by these staggering statistics from a 2019 survey by MGH:
- ¾ of participants report that they visit a restaurant’s website before deciding whether or not to eat there.
- Of that ¾ of participants, 70% have been dissuaded from going to the restaurant based on their website visit and 62% were discouraged from ordering takeout our delivery due to the website visit.
- Over ⅓ of those surveyed were deterred from online ordering because the restaurant’s website wasn’t mobile-friendly.
Other than a lack of interest in menu items offered, the reasons cited that prevented respondents from patronizing a restaurant were difficulty navigating the website, menus that were hard to read, poor food photography and websites that appear outdated.
And it makes sense: if a guest walked into a restaurant and had difficulty getting in or figuring out how to order, couldn’t read the menu, saw a lot of low-quality pictures of food, or determined that the furnishings were very old, he or she would probably leave. The same goes for restaurant websites.
When prospective guests visit a restaurant website, they should get the same feel from it as the physical location. Take Memphis-based Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken, for example. The first thing on its homepage is a beautiful image of the signature food, which is clearly sitting on one of its iconic tablecloths next to the drink cup everybody brings home from Gus’s.
At the top of the homepage are easy links to store-specific menus and locations. Each store’s menu page has a link to online ordering options.
And the mobile app replicates the experience while still making it mobile-friendly.
When building a restaurant website, consider it the first stopping point for prospective patrons. Make them feel like they are right there in the brick-and-mortar restaurant so they can easily say “yes” to dining in or online ordering.
Building a Successful Restaurant Brand Requires a Laser Focus
With everything that goes into launching a restaurant, it’s easy to go down a rabbit hole and waste time on non-essential parts of the business. However, in order to be profitable and stay afloat, restaurant owners and managers need to focus on what really matters. That means deciding what the restaurant is and what it is not, coming up with differentiating factors, and making sure the web presence replicates the physical experience as closely as possible.
Want to learn how to manage online channels to protect your restaurant’s good standing? Check out our recent blog post, 3 Ways to Safeguard Your Restaurant's Online Reputation.