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Managing Two Brands–Casual and Fast Casual

The restaurant industry continues to evolve and quickly. It is constantly adjusting to better serve the consumer, whose needs for quality, control and speed are at an all-time high. Today, fast casual and casual are closer than ever with their caliber of menu options, commitment to value and hiring quality team members.
As the similarities between casual and fast casual dining are amplified and the differences become blurred, it is critical to highlight both the strengths and similarities in each category. Casual and fast casual segments both must understand their likenesses and differences to each other to allow for the best operation and customer experience. Franchisees and restaurant operators can use the following four tips as guidelines to achieve stand out success.

Maintain Brand Identity
Identify your brand for what it is, quantifying it in either the fast casual or casual setting to ensure your customers receive the best experience available. As casual and fast casual operations collide, it is imperative that casual dining restaurants continue to stay the course, and maintain their brand image, by providing the sit-down experience on which guests have come to depend. Casual dining establishments need to focus on their strengths: value and speed, but at a level that provides a customer with an experience, not only a meal. On the other hand, many fast casual brands build their existence on quickly delivering a quality product at a good value with fewer menu options and a lower price point. While many factors between these concepts–such as trends, menus and pricing–both must be flexible to compete and brand identity must be identified and maintained.

Create a Customized Customer Experience
If you are an individual who is in a hurry, yet still has the desire to partake in the “T.G.I. Friday’s experience,” for example, it is the job of the restaurant to quickly assess the customer’s needs such as, are you in a hurry, and, if so, get you in and out in the time frame you need, while still leaving with a positive experience. McAlister’s Deli, a quick casual example, has the advantage of understanding most of their consumers will be in the mode of expecting quality of food and service in a timely manner. Conversely, a casual restaurant, such as T.G.I. Friday’s, may not have that same advantage of automatically understanding their consumer, as the segments continue to blur the lines. A casual restaurant may also have the same person enter the restaurant with identical needs as a fast casual customer and the casual restaurant bartender or server must quickly make an assessment about the needs of the customer, gauging their needs of timeliness most importantly. Previously, each segment was clearly defined and a casual restaurant server or bartender didn’t have to understand and assess that perhaps the same customer still may want the casual experience in more of a quick casual time frame. Therefore, in years past, the casual restaurants didn’t make it a priority to help the customer get in and out. But today, we understand as the segments merge it is important to read your customers and understand their needs.

Campaign For a Consumer
Whether a quick casual concept such as McAlister’s Deli or a family casual restaurant like T.G.I Friday’s, the focus must remain on local community. Campaigns can improve the customer experience, but also be customized for the ultimate visit in either segment–to speak to causes close to the community. The restaurant must identify that which will mean most to their guests and ensure campaign messaging is able to reach individuals at the local level. Ideally, campaigns should be devised to accomplish the right thing. T.G.I. Friday’s recent initiative, “Can For A Fan,” for example, centers on donating cans of food to local food banks for each new “Like” the page received in November and December of 2011. Consumers responded well to “you click, we donate” for their respective cities’ food banks. The campaign, in short, aligns the consumer with a charitable effort on the local level.

Identify, Customize and Campaign Between Casual and Fast Casual
The Bistro Group sits in a unique position within the restaurant world, having first hand experience owning both fast casual and casual dining chains. Having the ability to watch, learn and apply in each segment provides for a great understanding of the similarities and differences within the two. Casual dining and fast casual are becoming inexplicably intertwined, however that is not something to be shunned, but rather embraced. Having competition is healthy and cross-segment competition creates a sharper model for the best customer experience available. No longer are there stark differences in caliber and quality of an hourly team member, commitment to value or quality of food. Rather the difference is exemplified in the experience at the restaurant.
Casual dining operators can embrace this fact, using innovation and technology and maximize their consumer dining experience. Quick casual operators can continue to bridge the gap in their number of menu offerings and pricing. Originally, fast casual variety was limited, and just a step above fast food. Now, fast casual food has grown closer to casual dining menu items in an effort to address the consumer’s need for quality, a consideration that was previously reserved for casual and fine dining establishments only.
The restaurant industry will continue to evolve, but isn’t that part of the challenge? To embrace change, understand how to maximize each category and most of all how to provide the very best consumer experience for whichever segment the customer has decided to dine in during his or her day. 

Jeff Ritson is the president of The Bistro Group, a leading franchising company that owns and operates both casual and fast casual dining brands. The Bistro Group is the third largest privately held franchisee of T.G.I. Friday’s restaurants in the country with more than 30 T.G.I. Friday’s and five McAlister’s Delis across Ohio, Kentucky, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. The Bistro Group has successfully grown its family-owned business over the past 20 years. He can be reached at 513-271-2349.


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