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Food should be king at fast-casual restaurants

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Restaurant and Foodservice

Monday morning started with a bang at the NRA Show 2010. My first session of the day, “Fast Casual Differentiators — Make Your Brand Stand Out in the New Market Economy,” was a comprehensive look at how eateries are setting themselves apart.

The panel, which featured executives from Firehouse Subs, Au Bon Pain and Panera Bread, among others, highlighted such a wide range of ideas that each major point will be addressed in a separate post. First up is the state of fast-casual dining, as presented by Panera’s Scott Davis.

The key thing to remember about fast casual is this: Customers don’t know what it is. To them, “fast casual” just means “food.” That insight can go a long way toward helping you refocus your energy where it counts the most, Davis said. The food is what matters. It is the No. 1 way to differentiate your business from your competitors. At Panera, Davis said, “The food people are the rock stars.” The quality and the taste of the food are the most important part of the company’s business.

Customers have a lot of expectations about food. Inventiveness, taste, nutrition and sustainability are all factors that can play a role when customers decide where to eat. Rather than feeding customers the same old sandwich they’re used to, Davis recommended, add a surprising little twist to make your menu item stand out. For example, Panera added a chipotle mayonnaise to one of their sandwiches at a time when half the people in the restaurant industry couldn’t pronounce “chipotle.”

As for nutrition, he said, customers want a balance. Sure, healthy customers flock to Panera for their tasty and nutritious salads and soups, but Panera still sells a ton of cinnamon buns every day. Fast-casual restaurants would be wise to cater to both ends of the spectrum. Not everyone wants to eat healthy all the time, and not everyone wants a daily indulgence, either.

Sustainability is certainly a hot topic across the industry, and Davis acknowledges that it can play a large role in terms of differentiating yourself from the next guy. It’s all about building trust with your customers, a theme that has reverberated throughout the educational sessions so far at the NRA Show 2010. Acknowledge that there are ways to improve elements of your supply chain (such as the treatment of animals or where you source your ingredients from). Customers’ self-esteem will rise with the knowledge that they are supporting (and buying) from a fast-casual company that is trying to make a difference.

Davis threw out one particularly interesting tidbit about Panera: The company doesn’t have test kitchens. Panera tests all new menu items directly in its cafes. You can experiment all you want in the kitchen with a new product, but you won’t really see a measure of its potential until you see in the store.

Image credit: robynmac, via iStockphoto