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2019 Fast Casual Executive Summit

Delivering a frictionless guest experience: one size doesn't fit all

| by Elliot Maras
Delivering a frictionless guest experience: one size doesn't fit all

Karl Ruter, Todd Madlener, Jamie Cohen and Devin Handler discuss delivering a frictionless guest experience. Photo by Willie Lawless.

Removing friction for guests has become the "holy grail" for restaurants. And while restaurant technology has created new solutions to provide a better guest experience — such as mobile ordering and order delivery — restaurants still need to test these solutions to see how well they integrate with existing operations.

A panel at the recent Fast Casual Executive Summit in Austin discussed a variety of ways technology allows them to deliver a better guest experience, but they all agree restaurants still need to test new solutions. In many cases, companies need to make adjustments — such as limiting menus or reducing hours for accepting online orders — after introducing solutions. Karl Ruter, a West Coast salesman at Paytronix Systems Inc, a restaurant and retail technology provider, moderated the panel.

What metrics do you need?

"For operations we have a cross functional team that will look at the problem and then, from there, understand what does success look like, what are the metrics that we need to put in place for this to be better," said panelist Jamie Cohen, COO at Kerbey Lane Café in Austin.

For example, there was an issue with the consistency of pancakes the company was serving across its different locations. Upon investigation, they realized they were not using a consistent recipe. Fortunately, this was an easy issue to rectify.

Trial and error still needed

Coolgreens, an Oklahoma City-based health food chain, was allowing customers placing online orders to choose when to pay — while placing an order or at pick up. Recognizing this caused guests to have to wait in line to pay with the sit-down guests, they decided to require payment at the time of order.

"That then allowed us to build the online orders, put them in a dedicated place," said panelist Todd Madlener, company partner. In introducing this approach, the company deployed big signage and placed an ambassador for the first three weeks to advise guests who made online orders they did not have to wait in line. Since then, online orders have increased almost 20%.

"We've really reduced the mistakes with online ordering," he said.

At one point, Coolgreens restricted its "create your own salad" offering to five toppings to minimize waste, which created a dual friction: 1) For those orders with more than five toppings, the cashier had to look at the bowl and decide which toppings to charge more for. 2) For those with less than five toppings, the cashier would advise them they could have more toppings.

The guest would then have to explain why they were satisfied with what they took, or they would have to go back and decide what to add, thereby halting the checkout process.

This year, Coolgreens switched to unlimited toppings. No one complained that 20% of the toppings were eliminated.

"Team members are much happier, labor is down about a percent, sales are doing fine," Madlener said, and a minute and a half has been cut from salad and wrap orders while hot food orders are down to five minutes. "Food cost hasn't moved an inch," he said. "We're getting them through (the line) now."

Changing the menu for any reason may cause some guests to complain, Cohen pointed out, which is one reason data is so important. "The first place we always go is the data," he said.

Physical considerations

Physical considerations can complicate deploying technology.

Coolgreens removed seats to put in racks for online pickup, Madlener said. "Our restaurants were built 10 years ago, they weren't designed for online pickup," he said.

Panelist Devin Handler, vice president of marketing at Garbanzo Mediterranean Fresh, a St. Louis-based Middle Eastern restaurant chain, said his stores were not built to accommodate online orders, so it was necessary to address confusion at the pickup counter.

"How we mitigate them (online orders) depends on the floor plan of the restaurant, it depends on the traffic pattern, and it depends of the volume of mobile orders," he said. The solutions were customized for the different situations.

Looking forward, Garbanzo Mediterranean Fresh is considering second lines, cubby systems and making in-store customer activity visible from the kitchen.

Staff friction also matters

The panelists recognized the important link between staff needs and customer needs. Sometimes online orders have to be limited to reduce friction for the staff.

"In Coolgreens' opinion, the internal guest is actually more important than the external," Madlener said. Employees were grateful when they didn't have to take phone calls during certain hours.

Cohen said Kerbey Lane Café does significant volume on weekends and may choose not to take online orders during certain hours. Could this create another pain point?

"There's a lot of testing that we have to do before it ever goes system wide," he said.

Employee training is another area where technology is playing an important role.

"Tablet based, mobile learning is where they [today's workforce[ goes," said Madlener, whose company uses Hot Schedules. The company can change and upload material to franchisees from Oklahoma City.

"As we're visiting our franchisees, it's very easy to pull up a report and you very quickly can understand exactly where they're at with their team members," he said.

Kerbey Lane Café, which also uses Hot Schedules, tries to determine where it may be falling short or setting incorrect expectations, Cohen noted.

Payment pain points

Payments can also present a pain point. Handler said near field communication technology offers one of the safest and easiest payment methods. Mobile wallets, most of which use NFC, allow customers to pay and sign up for a rewards program simultaneously at the POS.

"Now I don't have to fumble for my card," he said. "It's the most secure transaction possible, and it's fast."

Getting more people on the rewards program, for its part, will bring more useful customer data. "If we're making smart data driven decisions, we might actually hit on something that someone wants," he added.

Coolgreens, by contrast, is only accepting swipe cashless payments since it's much faster (five seconds per transaction) than chip and PIN payments which take 30 to 35 seconds. However, nearly half (48%) of the company's payments are cash, a situation not shared by every restaurant.

Third party delivery friction

Third party delivery, cited throughout the summit as the fastest growing initiative, has brought its share of guest friction. Coolgreens introduced sealed bags when it was discovered that a driver was pilfering food from the orders. 

"This was a solution to solve the trust factor with the guest," Madlener explained.

New opportunities

Meanwhile, companies continue to keep an eye on opportunities created by technology.

Coolgreens plans on expanding into the fresh food vending business, thanks to remote machine management that makes temperature and transaction monitoring possible.

"There's just a lot of opportunity we think within these small businesses, especially in downtown Oklahoma City," Madlener said, pointing to the success of Farmers Fridge vending fast casual salads in the Chicago market and Alpaca Market in Austin that does a lot of private vending.

The company was pleased with the results when it placed two vending machines at a college in Oklahoma City for seven days. "It was just unbelievable to see the lines," he said. "Whoever thought at a baseball game people would buy a salad over a funnel cake? We were selling out daily." 

"We think this will be an opportunity…another leg or spoke…for our franchisees," he said.

Topics: Customer Service / Experience, Fast Casual Executive Summit, Online Ordering, Operations Management, Systems / Technology

Companies: Coolgreens, Garbanzo, Paytronix Systems, Inc.

Elliot Maras

Elliot Maras is the editor of and

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