Four Ways to Improve Customer Experience at Fast Casual Restaurants 

By Kayla Tumblin

Fast casual dining first originated in the 1990s, characterized by a mix of elements from both fast food and casual dining. It offers the speed and convenience of fast food, with higher quality ingredients and customer service. While chains like Panera Bread and Chipotle are likely what come to mind, there are more than 20,000 fast casual restaurants in the United States. 

 

Despite the restaurant industry taking a hit from the COVID-19 pandemic, the fast casual restaurant market will continue to expand. By 2027 the sector is expected to grow by $83.5 billion to meet increasing consumer demand for high-quality, convenient food.

 

With elevated customer expectations, fast casual restaurants need to make the customer experience as frictionless and enjoyable as possible in order to be successful. There are four areas to focus on to improve customer experience at your restaurant.

1. Food Quality

 

The foundation of any customer’s experience is the product or service they are receiving. Thus, high quality food is vital to fast casual restaurants. Quality ingredients differentiates fast casual from fast food, meaning customers expect it. Not only do you need to ensure you are purchasing quality ingredients, you need to share that effort with customers. Convey your commitment to sourcing better ingredients, and even consider openly sharing how you source items, in order to instill trust in your customers.

 

Chipotle serves as a great example.  They were one of the first companies to prioritize high quality ingredients on a national scale, and they have incorporated this into their values and branding.  On their website, you can find a list of every single ingredient used in their restaurants.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Due to the perceived overall higher quality, customers are willing to spend more at fast casual restaurants. The average spend at fast food is $5, compared to $12 at fast casual restaurants. Since customers are willing to spend more money for quality ingredients, it’s essential you deliver on that. 

 

This is where quality control comes into play. Even when investing in high quality ingredients, you are still bound to run into issues - like produce gone bad prematurely. For this reason, you need to have a quality control system set up and ensure all staff is trained to know what to look for.  Do not assume all of your employees know what you may view as “basic” knowledge of food.  They should all be trained on food quality. 

Listing all of the ingredients you use, like Chipotle does, is just one way to demonstrate your dedication to providing the best for your customers.  It will look different for everyone, so consider what is most relevant to your restaurant. If you purchase from local farmers, share that! How you share the message that you care about quality depends on your process of actually finding those quality ingredients, so base your strategy on that.

2. Excellent Customer Service

Another way fast casual is different from fast food is the dining experience.  There is more of an expectation for customers to actually dine in the restaurant as opposed to just picking up their order. As a result, creating a positive dining experience with regard to customer service and the environment is essential for success.

 

Bill Chemero, Chief Development Officer of Wayback Burgers, shared that dining rooms of fast casual restaurants will continue to be an important element. “Dining out has become a novelty,” Chemero points out, and people look forward to the opportunity to be able to.  As it becomes safer, people will be eager to eat out for a number of reasons - food quality diminishes with takeout, the social aspect is lost in takeout, and people have been cooped up at home for months. While currently limited, in-person dining experiences are still important to the restaurant industry.

 

Bill Chemero, Chief Development Officer of Wayback Burgers, shared that dining rooms of fast casual restaurants will continue to be important as people look forward to the opportunity of going out. “Dining out has become a novelty,” Chemero points out. As it becomes safer, people will be eager to eat out for a number of reasons - food quality diminishes with takeout, the social aspect is lost in takeout, and people have been cooped up at home for months. While currently limited, in-person dining experiences are still important to the restaurant industry.

While fast casual does not offer full service, it is often common to offer some service - such as offering drink refills and, in some cases, even delivering food to tables. Consider implementing these practices if you don’t already. 

 

Customer service encompasses how employees interact with customers, and how helpful they are. To set your employees up for success, they should be aptly trained in customer service. This includes social etiquette to follow, problem solving, and being knowledgeable about the business. 


Another way to improve customer service is by asking for feedback and implementing any suggestions provided. With Hylite, it’s easy for customers to provide positive feedback about individual employees - all they have to do is send a text! Hylite helps show what your employees are doing to go above and beyond for your customers; these practices are analyzed and presented in our quarterly Insights Reports. These findings can inspire other employees to replicate the service that customers love, therefore improving the overall customer experience!


 

3. Takeout and Delivery Offerings

Now, more than ever before, seamless takeout and/or delivery options should be an integral part of your operations. While this was a trend before 2020, its permanence has certainly been established over the past year. It cannot be ignored that people will increase their dining outings as it becomes safer. However, people will continue to want the convenience takeout and delivery offer, even if it is not the option they always choose.  

 

Restaurants have increased takeout and delivery options, and customers have become accustomed to these. Options range from simply ordering via a phone call to directly on the restaurant website, a restaurant’s own app or a third-party app such as UberEats or Postmates.  

The variety continues when it comes to how customers receive their food.  Takeout can be picked up curbside, at a counter or even a designated pickup area. Delivery options include handing the food directly to the customer or providing contactless delivery.

When deciding what options to include for your restaurant, it comes down to your restaurant capabilities. If you can afford to operate your own delivery operations and maintain a profit, it may be the best option as food delivery apps can take up to a 30% cut.  For those that don’t have the resources to do so, utilizing third party apps are still a viable option to expose more people to your restaurant.

 

Ultimately, you will have to compare the costs and benefits for all takeaway and delivery options to determine what is best for your business.  The important part is ensuring you have takeout and delivery available for your customers, however you execute it.

4. Loyalty

  

Establishing a loyalty program is a great way to improve customer experience, benefits, and increase customer lifetime value. There are various benefits, one being that it makes customers feel valued. This leads to an overall better experience, and as a customer is gaining points (or whichever method the loyalty program uses) it makes them feel like they are getting more out of the experience.  

 

Another benefit is that it makes the customer experience easier. Oftentimes, information is stored within a loyalty program account, such as payment information or previous orders. This makes repeat purchases easier for customers by not having to provide this information again. It also allows suggestions to be made, tailored to customer preferences. 

 

Loyalty programs also have direct benefits for the restaurant itself. They encourage repeat purchases from customers, and increase the lifetime value. It can help the restaurant develop a clearer understanding of their customers and their preferences. 

 

For example, Honeygrow is an independently owned fast-casual chain in the Northeast.  Through their own app, customers can access their loyalty program.  Customers are rewarded for their purchases and the app stores payment information making transactions quick and easy. 

There are a variety of ways to structure a loyalty program. A popular option, specifically within fast casual, is a points-based program where customers earn points based on the amount of money they spend. These points can then be redeemed for various freebies. 

 

Once again, the best option will ultimately be dependent upon your individual business and will differ for everyone. If you decide that implementing a loyalty program is not right for your business, you can still focus on building customer loyalty through positive experiences that make customers want to come back. 

 

To create more of these positive customer experiences, it all starts with your employees. Hylite is a great way to connect both your customers and your employees to foster more of these great interactions that build loyalty. Businesses that use Hylite have boosted employee morale and engagement, leading to more loyal customers and increased employee retention. Learn more about Hylite here

 

There are many tactics around improving customer experience at your fast casual restaurant, but these four are a great place to focus. Quality, customer service, takeout and delivery options, and loyalty create the foundation to build a positive customer experience that can be successfully executed and easily replicated time after time.