The Changing Face of Casual Dining: Customer Engagement Served Any Style

Sep 11, 2013

For the past few months, I’ve observed some significant changes among casual dining establishments and how this sector is undergoing an identity shift as the lines between casual dining, fast casual dining and quick service restaurants continue to blur. However, as these lines blur, new opportunities for customer engagement are rapidly coming into focus.

Restaurants like KFC, once considered quick service, are expanding into fast casual territory with the launch of KFC eleven. The flagship restaurant, which recently opened in Louisville, Kentucky, offers vastly different menu options including flatbreads, salads and rice bowls with creative names like “Caribbean Tango,” and “Southwestern Baja” – a dramatic departure from a menu that’s been largely unchanged for over 80 years.

Casual dining restaurants are also adding elements of speed to their customer experience. Red Robin Gourmet Burgers Inc., for instance, is undergoing significant rebranding with new menu choices at multiple price points and changes in its service model, presumably for a faster and better customer experience. The chain is also rolling out smaller, fast casual-sized 4,000 square foot restaurants and a spinoff experiment called Red Robin Burger Works, a competitor to establishments such as Five Guys. 

Reasons for the shifting identities are many, starting with a still-sluggish economy, but some of the challenges lie with casual restaurants themselves. A recent study by Market Force Information finds a lack of new restaurant openings has undercut customer interest. The study also found that few marketing outlets were effective in inspiring diners to try something new. Online reviews and online ads only motivated 5% of survey respondents.

However, over half of respondents, 56%, were inspired by recommendations from friends and family as well as by promotions and coupons. These methods of engagement can easily be improved upon and adapted to digital engagement. Thus, restaurants of all types have an opportunity to turn Market Force Information’s less optimistic numbers on their heads.

Putting the differences between casual and fast casual dining aside, the point is clear: Diners crave genuine engagement as well as timely and relevant offers – and social media is a great way to satisfy that craving. The Restaurant Social Media Index, compiled by Digital CoCo, finds that fast casual and QSRs – led by Chipotle, Starbucks, Firehouse subs, Wendy’s and Shake Shack – are leaders in the usage of Foursquare, Instagram and Vine.

Facebook and Twitter, meanwhile, have been major components of Hooters’  rebranding, which marks its 30th anniversary while attempting to broaden its female customer base. Launched earlier this year, the “Step into Awesome” campaign includes posts on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and other channels as customers are encouraged to share their “awesome experiences.” In less than a month, over 10,000 photos were posted to the hashtag #StepIntoAwesome.

Efforts like this underscore that traditional customer rewards programs are just the beginning of successful loyalty marketing – expanded menus, changed ambiance and creative social media are equally important. Ultimately, customers are less concerned with restaurants’ names than with the service they receive, the price they pay for that service and experiences they have.

Are you a casual restaurant looking to emulate the fast casual business model? How are your customer rewards program and customer engagement model adapting to fit those needs? Share your thoughts in the section below or email us at