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Lori Weaver - ChainWise

News & info from ChainWise, the chain restaurants app

Chains Serve Up Their Own Smart Restaurant Apps

June 10, 2014 | By | No Comments

Brand-specific restaurant apps have become a top priority for restaurant franchises. Those late to the game are developing their first diner-friendly apps and chains that wisely saw the mobile app revolution coming are adding sophisticated new features like dynamic ordering. “Cut the pickles”? There is now an app for that.

Restaurant Apps Demanded by Diners

Mobile savvy customers are demanding mobile apps to diminish even the slightest inconveniences of dining out or grabbing take out. Restaurant apps that do that best are winning these customers. So what used to be thought of simply as a tool for operations is now becoming a profit driver.

A panel discussion at the National Restaurant Association Show in Chicago delved into the latest trends in customized mobile app development for diners.

Of course you can use ChainWise to help you locate your next meal. But mobile app growth within the restaurant sector has focused on what happens after you have carefully selected your dining destination.

Fast casual and fast food restaurants are scrambling to meet customer demands to connect to their favorite brand in more complex and customized ways than ever before.

restaurant apps

Panera is one of many several brands with new apps that allow diners to skip the register.

For example, earlier this year Panera Bread Co. announced it had made a whopping $42 million investment in technology upgrades, enabling its customers to order online as well as with their mobile app and iPads.

Apps Rush Restaurants Into the Data Debate

As dining establishments seek to meet the insatiable consumer appetite for technology, some are finding more than a few challenges along the way, including the question of what happens to the customer data collected.

Restaurants that develop their own complex mobile apps, allowing patrons to order and pay for meals, retain control over the information collected. But what about eateries that outsource their app development?

If there’s a third-party intermediary involved in helping that customer choose the soup of the day, the data collected may not be readily available to the restaurant. That raises concerns for consumers. In most cases, diners expect their data to be kept confidential by the restaurant they are eating at.

The issue for restaurant owners comes into play because typically the “one who enrolls, is the one who controls.” In other words, whomever first enrolls the customer into the online interaction of taking the order or other services controls the database and the statistics that can be derived from it.

As one panel member noted, the problem is that the behavior and identity data associated with top customers can be worth five to 10 times their value as a loyal diner. Bundles of data on these top tier diners are extremely valuable to companies that aren’t even related to dining. For restaurants that recognize this, third-party apps for onsite restaurant services are simply out of the picture. They can’t take any chances with such prized information.

White Castle, for example, now has online ordering, mobile ordering and even kiosks in some test markets. They spec out their own app, designing it to suit their needs. Only then do they turn to an outside point-of-sale vendor for a bit of coding and tweaking.

The Future of Restaurant Apps

Most industry watchers believe that despite a few challenges, with smartphone usage expected to stretch beyond 70 percent in the near future, the advantages of customized iPhone and Android restaurant apps will continue to grow.

As with most emerging technologies, there are advantages as well as challenges. For chains, restaurant apps that allow the customer to tap into services—to order a meal, for example, rather than just look at an online menu—offer a unique opportunity. These restaurants see an opportunity to develop a personal, one-on-one relationship with customers. That is something the hotel industry has benefited from for years but which, until now, has eluded the restaurant industry.

While you may enjoy the convenience and hassle-free process of placing your order through an app, the restaurant also benefits. It learns about your behavior—giving it a leg up on trying to influence your future actions.

That’s not all. Some restaurants are reporting that in-store kiosks are up-selling customers at a rate more than 50 percent above a traditional human server. In addition, more than one representative of restaurant chains on the panel stated that online orders are nearly double that of non-online orders, on average.

In addition to feeding sales, there is a longer term goal with restaurant apps. One of the panel members noted that the they want to develop two-way communication between patron and restaurant—even when the customer isn’t in the store. That relationship could lead to major improvements—new menu offerings, nearly instantaneous responses to complaints, and much more.

Written by Lori Weaver. You can find her on Google.

The Stars of the Fast Casual Restaurants Boom

June 6, 2014 | By | No Comments

The restaurant scene in your city will look completely different in a decade or less, the result of the quick rise of fast casual restaurants. Do restaurants like Chipotle, Panera, and Noodles & Company dominate your list of Faves in your ChainWise iPhone app? If so, chances are you have frequented at least one fast casual franchise recently.

Fast Casual Chain

The fast casual chain Moe’s Southwest Grill is rapidly growing.

What is a Fast Casual Restaurant?

Fast casual has the affordability and relaxed atmosphere of fast food. They combine that with higher quality ingredients typically found in casual “sit-down” restaurants. The other identifying feature, which contributes to the affordability, is counter service instead of waitstaff. The fast casual dining segment is now the fastest growing sector of the restaurant industry. The most recent sales data shows no indication of fast casual being a passing fad.

Diners Win As Nearby Restaurants Compete

Whenever an industry experiences this kind of abrupt change, the consumer usually comes out the winner. Diners have more choices available to them and the increased competition has kept prices in check. A larger number of restaurants are vying to become top-of-mind with hungry patrons looking for just the right spot to get a meal.

The MVPs of Fast Casual Franchises

Last month, the industry announced the 2014 Fast Casual Top 100 Movers & Shakers in the restaurant business during an awards gala at the National Restaurant Association‘s trade show in Chicago. The event was sponsored by Networld Media Group and Judges were asked to identify the top 50 brands among nearly 900 industry nominations. Winners were selected based on criteria like innovation, social responsibility, growth and overall contribution to the restaurant chain business. Along with recognizing brands, the judges also acknowledged 20 of the top execs who were thought to be the most innovative and influential. The executives particularly excelled in the areas of menu, healthy eating and technology use.

In addition to looking at chain restaurant brands and leading executives, the program recognized innovative menu items and technology trends in the fast casual sector. If you are a fan of Smashburger, Chipotle Mexican Grill or Fazoli’s, you won’t be surprised to learn the restaurants placed first, second and third, respectively, for top brands.

Fazoli’s CEO Carl Howard walked away with honors as the industry’s top executive. Greg Creighton, chief operating officer of Smashburger, said that the fast casual burger chain saw a niche that fast food burger chains could not fulfill. His franchise targeted fast food’s weaknesses: quality, service and dining atmosphere.

Creighton said Smashburger sees a healthy appetite for higher quality burgers and chicken sandwiches, as well as salads. Smashburger’s phenomenal growth is not likely to slow anytime soon. The restaurant has grown to 267 locations in just seven years. Another 400 are set to open before the end of 2015. One of Smashburger’s secrets to success, in addition to an innovative menu, is its ability to establish a loyal local following in the communities where it operates. Every city with a Smashburger location is given its own special burger to honor local traditions. Smashburger also offers locally crafted beers, which is an industry segment experiencing its own meteoric rise. The option to have a drink adds to the chain’s hometown appeal.

The top menu trend recognized during the function was bite-sized food and snacks, while the most influential technology trend was identified to be mobile apps like ChainWise.

It’s likely fast casual dining will continue to make its mark. Of the $231 billion limited-service category, fast casual options now account for $34.5 billion, according to foodservice research firm Technomic. The fast casual segment is truly the engine of growth in the overall restaurant industry. Sales increased 11 percent in 2013 for the fast casual segment versus just 3.5 percent for the overall industry.

Written by Lori Weaver. You can find her on Google.

Chain Restaurants Fight for Breakfast Crowd

May 26, 2014 | By | No Comments

Not long ago you were limited to only three choices when it came to finding fast food chain restaurants open for breakfast: McDonald’s, McDonald’s or McDonald’s.

But on-the-go dining has come a long way. These days, when you open your ChainWise restaurant app in the morning, you’re likely to come up with plenty of breakfast options, from fast food fare to sit-down fast casual chains.

Sales Numbers Never Lie

Why the sudden interest in helping consumers launch their day? It boils down to pretty straightforward economics. Julia Gallo-Torees, U.S. food services manager for Mintel, told Market Watch recently that breakfast menu items are the only real growth opportunities fast-food and casual-dining chain restaurants can cling to.

The numbers speak for themselves. According to Mintel, breakfast sales rose over 5 percent to $27.4 billion in 2013 at quick-service and fast-casual chain restaurants, based on Bureau of Labor Statistics data.

Not to mention, every time you hit up a breakfast spot you found on ChainWise, you’re likely to end up contributing to continued phenomenal growth in sales of breakfast meats and eggs, which climbed 300 percent between 2010 and 2013.

Chain Restaurants Rise or Fall with Coffee

So, how are chain restaurants luring you in during the morning hours? Most are focusing on hooking you with a good cup of coffee to give them the edge on winning the much-coveted breakfast dollar. In fact, Warren Solochek, vice president of client development for the food service practice market research firm The NPD Group, told Market Watch that the following chain restaurants had all recently upgraded their morning coffee: McDonald’s, Starbucks, Subway, Dunkin’ Donuts, and Burger King.

Chain Restaurants Coffee

Coffee is Key for Chain Restaurants

Just look at what happened when Taco Bell ran its breakfast food campaign using non-actors with the real name Ronald McDonald. Did McDonald’s retaliate in like fashion? No, it rolled out a campaign that gave out free coffee for two weeks to lure customers away from Taco Bell’s new breakfast offerings.

Boring But Profitable Breakfast Staple

You might be surprised to learn about another high-margin breakfast food that is continuing to grow in popularity with breakfast customers: oatmeal. There’s no solid explanation for why the lowly bowl of oatmeal has become so competitive among chain restaurants—Starbucks, McDonald’s, Dunkin’ Donuts, Jamba Juice, Einstein Bros. Bagels, and Caribou Coffee all serve a version—but the answer could be in the time it takes most people to cook it at home.

Sure, the instant packets are quick, but they’re just that: instant. The real stuff out of the paper canister tastes better. The tradeoff is the time investment, which eats into morning routine time, which eats into sleep time. Therein lies the reason folks are stepping up for a bowl at their favorite chain restaurant. It helps that many restaurants throw in goodies like raisins, brown sugar and nuts.

Another reason for the oatmeal trend is that it plays into fast food’s reluctance to give up on trying to market to an increasingly more sophisticated and health-conscious crowd. In most attempts to do so, new menu items have quietly disappeared not long after their arrival. But oatmeal with a gourmet flair seems to have enough sticking power to make a difference.

Certainly, it can be argued to the healthy-minded that oatmeal is the wiser choice, with a bowl of McDonald’s fruit and maple oatmeal with brown sugar sporting 290 calories, 4 g of fat, and 160 mg of sodium. Compare it to Taco Bell’s hotly advertised Waffle Taco at 370 calories, 23 g of fat, 115 mg of cholesterol, and 550 mg of sodium.

The dust is far from settling and the battle over breakfast is likely to continue. For now, it appears the consumer may just end up the victor, with more choices of chain restaurants and more menu items to start the day.

Written by Lori Weaver. You can find her on Google.

Voters Choose Top Fast Food Chains

May 21, 2014 | By | No Comments

Whether you are willing to take the leap and try something new the next time you’re on the road or you’re just ready to explore a new fast food venue in your hometown, the sheer number of choices can leave your head spinning.

Stifle that urge to run screaming with open arms back to your old standby. Instead, if you’re truly ready for some fresh ideas to grab a quick bite, a recent Business Insider survey naming the top fast food chains has got you covered.

Take a look at what survey participants believed to be the top dog in burgers, pizza and more, then use the free new iPhone app, ChainWise, to find fast food chains near you. No doubt you are likely to find one or two old favorites mentioned below, but you may also find a few vote-getters you have always passed by.

Of course, the final taste test will be yours.

Best Overall Fast Food Chains

1. Chick-fil-AWhen it came to best overall fast food chain, Chick-fil-A beat out such past favorites as McDonald’s and Wendy’s. Not only do diners enjoy the chain’s signature menu favorites of chicken fillet sandwiches, shakes and waffle fries, but the company drew strong praise for cleanliness and service. If you’ve made Chick-Fil-A a favorite on ChainWise but you see it has no nearby locations, take heart in knowing the chain is undergoing a massive expansion.

fast food chains

Chick Fil A is tops with voters among fast food chains.

2. Chipotle Mexican Grill. This Mexican food chain soared past a number of popular burger joints to come as close as just one percentage point behind top vote-getter Chick-fil-A. Survey participants gave Chipolte very high marks in quality of ingredients as well as ethics, edging them upward past longer-established chains.

3. McDonald’s. You knew the burger giant would show up somewhere near the top of any list of fast food chains, didn’t you? Survey participants found the familiarity and predictability of McDonald’s menu appealing, although others who chose the chain as their favorite did so because of new items, like the egg white delight sandwich.

Rounding out the top six were Wendy’s, Panera Bread, and Starbucks, all popular favorites by ChainWise users.

Best in Category Winners

Hungry for a fantastic fast food burger? Looking for the perfect pizza? Here are the top vote getters for a few fast food menu favorites.

1. Best Burger. It was Wendy’s classic burger, known as Dave’s Hot ‘N’ Juicy, that had what it took to slide past Burger King’s Whopper and McDonald’s Big Mac in this survey. Wendy’s has long set itself apart from its competitors by vowing it will always use fresh, never frozen, meat. The ability to customize each order is another secret to its success.

2. French fries. Fresh, hot, golden. McDonald’s fries were chosen by survey takers as being a cut above the rest. The chain left others in the dust, with Arby’s curly fries coming in at a very distant second. Other restaurants have tweaked their recipes for years, trying to dethrone McDonald’s as king of the fries, but none have been able to replace the strong consumer preference for the fries from the golden arches.  

3. Pizza. Competition among pizza chains has seen dozens vying for the biggest piece of the pie, but it is Papa John’s steadfast resolve to stick with what it does best that appears to have won the hearts of consumers. Perhaps better ingredients truly do make better pizza because the chain was able to nudge past Pizza Hut and Domino’s in a tight field.

4. Fried Chicken. That finger-lickin’ recipe of secret herbs and spices is still serving Kentucky Fried Chicken well. In yet another strong category, the Colonel was able to retain the fried chicken crown, with Popeye’s and Chick-fil-A settling for a second place tie.

Written by Lori Weaver. You can find her on Google.