4 Ways Fast-Casual Restaurants Can Build Their Brand While Complying With Social Distancing

Making things easier for consumers is the name of the game

Person waiting in line at a fast-food chain
Fast-casual players that focus on creative brand building in this particular environment will improve their customer experience game for the long haul. Getty Images
Headshot of Mike Herrick

Like other businesses, the fast-casual sector is being challenged right now as public policy around Covid-19 has dining rooms closed. As of this writing, according to the National Restaurant Association, the restaurant industry as a whole may lose out on $225 billion in sales, and there could be several million job losses over the next three months due to closures, social distancing and increasing citywide orders to shelter in place.

Even though times are tough, fast-casual brands need to embrace digital and innovate around customer experience while making ordering food for delivery or take-out a safe experience. If they do, they can not only survive during these challenging times but truly set up their customer experience for weeks or months down the road when the economy normalizes again.

Smart examples already exist. Chipotle is hosting virtual lunch hangouts with celebrity guests and other exclusive content. Starbucks is moving toward a to-go model nationwide. Cracker Barrel is offering contactless delivery for all orders more than $15. Jersey Mike’s is offering free delivery for mobile orders.

Indeed, these unusual times call for superb customer experience, which means brand building instead of being transactional. It means focusing on the health of customers and how fast-casual players can help in patrons’ real lives. Too many brands—typically clothiers—have been blasting out 50% off emails like mad in the last couple of weeks. Fast-casual marketers can do better, and many already are.

It means focusing on the health of customers and how fast-casual players can help in patrons’ real lives.

Here are four ways fast-casual brands can create customer relationships online now that will fill the dining rooms when they are back open.

Offer features for social distancing

Add social distancing-minded functionalities to your customer experience, such as requests for contact-free delivery and pick-up. Contact-free delivery means that the driver will bring the food order to the customer’s address and place it near the doorstep of the patron’s house. This service’s popularity is poised for growth as people seek greater distancing and convenience, but it’s also likely to grow in the future as many may feel that it removes friction in the delivery process. It’s similar to not having to pay on arrival with Lyft or Uber.

Curbside pick-up is another that can work here; it’s when customers travel to get their digitally placed orders and have it brought to them as they wait in a special parking lot queue. It’s an extension of mobile pre-order, which Starbucks pioneered by letting customers bypass having to wait in line in stores. Like curbside delivery, curbside pick-up is now essential, and its novel convenience is likely to stick even in the best of times.

Two burritos with text that says, 'Chipotle Together'

Use the rise in delivery requests to expand mobile

Food delivery is now almost a necessity for many consumers. Fast-casual purchasers are going to want updates on where their breakfast, lunch or dinner is in the delivery cycle. They don’t want it getting cold on the curb, after all.

So they will be more willing to download brand apps, receive timely notifications about their orders and opt into messaging from other digital channels like text messages. Therefore, take advantage of this chance to develop 1:1 mobile relationships with these new sets of customers while making their lives safer and easier.

Make sure your mobile experience is seamless, easy and intuitive. If your data team is noticing your customers getting confused on a certain screen or not using certain features, simplify the flow. The name of the game here is utility and value, not fancy features.

Help them at home

Think about customers’ everyday lives during the Covid-19 situation and offer them new, useful solutions. With that in mind, Moe’s Southwest Grill has found an innovative way to be helpful to patrons with kids at home due to school being closed.

The chain, for the first time, is selling taco kits that serve four to six people who can make their own Moe’s-branded cuisine in their kitchens. Not only will this idea feed a family, but it will give the kids a fun activity while being cooped up. It’s a great example of how brands can bond with customers during tough times.

A plastic bag with food in front of a door
Getty Images

Utilize mobile wallets

Brands should make customers’ lives easier and safer by promoting contact free payments via mobile wallets. Starbucks, once again, has provided a stellar example in recent years, showing how valuable the mobile wallet can become for a brand.

Better yet would be to make the mobile wallet customer experience about more than just transactions and payments and also about timely and convenient updates. If a brand’s restaurant is closing or changing its pick-up or delivery options, such updates should be available on its mobile wallet’s loyalty card or coupons. Promoting and getting people to download mobile wallet items can be much easier than earning app space on their phone, and it provides another channel for brands to reach customers in highly visible ways.

In sum, fast-casual players that focus on creative brand building in this particular environment will improve their customer experience game for the long haul. While mobile is definitely at the heart of where innovation can thrive and inspire during these challenging times, marketers should think about motivating customers to opt into additional channels as preferences will vary and change with circumstances. Above all, be sure to nurture new users and make every interaction as helpful and handy as possible so that these relationships are personal in every way they should be.

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Mike Herrick is the svp of technology at Airship.