Customers love to feel you feeling it.
By Charlie Hopper
Walk into a restaurant you like. What do you like about it? Food, sure, but it’s more than that, isn’t it? You like “the atmosphere.”
Some blend of décor, social cues given by the staff starting the moment you come in the door, the processing of smells and sounds, anticipation of comfort, relaxation and, if you’re with other people, camaraderie – then what some people might just call “the vibe.” You like the vibe of your favorite restaurant.
What controls the vibe, the atmosphere, the feel of a restaurant?
Today’s answer (who knows what it will be tomorrow; the future is unwritten): Restless dissatisfaction with the status quo.
We love the sense that people in charge are not settling for just-okay. We want to infer that – beginning with the leadership – everyone is alert, attentive and working on a way to make everything a little bit better.
Notice that I’m not just saying it’s important to do that – yes, of course, make everything a little bit better all the time.
No doubt. Improve constantly.
What I’m saying today is, as customers, we love to feel you doing that.
Hustle and smarts, if you’re a lively place. Thoughtful anticipation, if you’re a cozy place. The sense that, as customers, we’re in good hands.
That’s what you like about your favorite restaurant.
You’re in good hands.
I learned the term “Restless Dissatisfaction with the Status Quo” from an old-school businessman named Ed Kelley. He has a prominent business school named for him and built great restaurant brands out of itchy discontent.
He always felt things could be better.
Frankly, we customers appreciate feelin’ a restaurant feelin’ that way.
Here are a few things that help people conclude that you’re restlessly trying to make things better.
1. Off-script staff.
If a server (or runner or hostess or busboy or guy there to fix the fryer) is relaxed and confident enough to speak her/his mind, that says that person is competent. She/he knows the place well. Admit it: you love when a server seems to take you into confidence, leading you toward a successful experience, representing your interests, maybe slipping you the best slice of pie or cut of prime rib. And sometimes that person isn’t even friendly, exactly: that drive-up BBQ place on the outskirts of town, that diner with the well-curated jukebox, that quiet steak place where the service is almost invisible? The overcrowded place that has the root beer, peanut-butter-burger and sassy servers? Not “friendly” places, really, not necessarily. But they fit the moment perfectly, even if someone’s barking at me to decide whether I want extra gravy with my Italian Beef now please move to the back of the line to wait for my number to be called.
2. Something for consumers to be “in the know” about.
Maybe you have your Red Lobster’s Cheddar Bay Biscuits. Maybe you have a method people can imagine and describe – like at Weber Grill, for example. Maybe you have a secret menu the way, well, lots of places do. If so, you’ve established a powerful system of People Who Know, and People The People Who Know Like To Show Things To. That leads to buzz, and buzz adds to vibe. There’s something valuable here if you know how to get it! One thought: as soon as everyone knows about it, start research and development on a new one. Specialty-sliders was 10 years ago. Customers can’t have the inside scoop if everybody on the outside already knows.
Even if you’re enjoying watching social media catch on to your amazing off-menu beet-based shortcakes (I made that up), available upon request – well, be restlessly dissatisfied.
3. Nothing rote.
Nothing kills the vibe more than “going through the motions.” This applies to food, to types of specials and new products, to “same poop/different day” mentality among the staff. And it applies to (did you sense that I was going to bring this up?) how you display and talk about your food – both in person and in communications. Space here is limited, so I’ll just say: notice how Arby’s had a successful campaign going with Ving Rhames being witty and dry with product benefits before intoning “We have the meats.” Then they hired “Bob’s Burgers” voice actor H. Jon Benjamin to talk about sandwiches, with Ving relegated to the tagline.
On social media, they largely make arcane gaming references involving their packaging. Nowhere do they say anything the same way twice, even as they show food in a way that, across a crowded room, you can tell is “an Arby’s ad.” They’re restless! Yet they never stray too far from the strategy of being “the QSR place that’s proud of their meat.”
4. A lagniappe.
Do you know that word? I think it’s Cajun (I could look it up but I want to see if I have it memorized correctly) and it means “giving the customer a little something extra, even though they didn’t ask for it, just to make them happy they’re doing business with you.” That’s my definition but I think (go on, Google it) you’ll find it’s close. The key here is not expecting it – like the surprise discount on the receipt for having well-behaved children, shared widely on social media.
Or the waiving of an upcharge (see no. 1, where you and the server become co-conspirators – what a great feeling), or chef’s samples circulating the room, out of the blue. As soon as people expect it, though, well, it’s different. Then it’s not a lagniappe (said “lawn yop,” I believe). Free your more trusted staff to experiment – informed experimentation is the chief prescription for treating Restless Dissatisfaction with the Status Quo.
Whatever you do, don’t do nothing. If you think you’ve got things figured out, you’re at the crest of your greatness and now it’s all downhill.
As long as you’re restless, and believe you can improve (with a solid understanding of what makes people love your brand, I should add), you can just keep on climbing.
Charlie Hopper, principal/writer of ad agency Young & Laramore, shares views on restaurant marketing at SellingEating.com, as well as in recently published books “Nuggets, Nibbles, Morsels, Crumbs: Selected Restaurant Marketing Columns from Food & Drink International,” and “Selling Eating: Restaurant Marketing Beyond the Word Delicious.” Hopper is known for his unique and witty perspective on food and restaurant brands and is a regular contributor to Food & Drink International.
Photos by: Zac Neulieb, senior art director at Young & Laramore