Case Study: Innovating The Fast-Casual Restaurant Experience

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Customer Strategy
Customer Experience
In 2011, the executives at Bertucci's, a 30-year-old restaurant chain in the US Mid-Atlantic and New England regions, faced a big problem: The restaurant had become nearly invisible to younger generations of diners. Bright lighting and rows of faux-leather booths beckoned parents with messy young children -- not ever-shifting groups of young friends on the move. And its traditional table service felt increasingly irrelevant for diners who wanted to get in and get out -- or park themselves for hours with a laptop.

In 2011, the executives at Bertucci's, a 30-year-old restaurant chain in the US Mid-Atlantic and New England regions, faced a big problem: The restaurant had become nearly invisible to younger generations of diners. Bright lighting and rows of faux-leather booths beckoned parents with messy young children -- not ever-shifting groups of young friends on the move. And its traditional table service felt increasingly irrelevant for diners who wanted to get in and get out -- or park themselves for hours with a laptop.

Bertucci's saw that it had to throw out its old restaurant model in order to court (and keep) a younger generation of diners. Rather than rework its existing locations, the executive team decided to create an entirely new brand. "What we wanted to do is cut the competition off at the pass," says James Quackenbush, Bertucci's' chief development officer.

Partnering with design and innovation consultancy Continuum, the firm created a new restaurant concept called 2ovens. The success of the pilot restaurant demonstrates the power of following a structured approach to customer experience innovation.

The first step in that approach was gaining a deep understanding of Gen Y and Millennial diners' eating preferences and social habits. Execs and researchers visited target customers in their homes and interviewed them about their eating habits. The research team asked them to describe the types of ingredients that were important to them and to rate a variety of fast-casual restaurants on attributes like quality, value, and authenticity. Then they took the participants out to eat at the restaurants of their choice, watching what they ordered and digging into their decision-making process. The resulting insights enabled the team to create a dining experience with a vibe that's relevant to hip young diners.

Next, Bertucci's grounded the new restaurant experience in a solid business model by tapping into one of its core competencies: brick oven cooking. As the 2ovens name implies, two giant ovens -- one wood-fired and one gas -- sit in plain view of customers. This allowed Bertucci's to expand its offering without forcing a new skill onto the organization -- and that increases the new restaurant's chances for long-term success. The open kitchen also exposed Bertucci's' culinary strengths and provided a point of differentiation from the throngs of fast-casual restaurants that microwave their food behind closed doors.

The third piece of the puzzle was the team's outside-in approach to defining the 2ovens brand. "How can a brand that's created by a consulting firm for your parents' Bertucci's be credible?" asks Craig LaRosa, former principal at Continuum and lead on the 2ovens project. The answer: Rather than focusing on what it thought the new brand should embody, the innovation team took a cue from its target customers. The upfront ethnographic research had revealed the qualities that Gen Yers and Millennials wanted from a dining experience. Continuum turned these attributes -- dynamic, genuine, confident, and warm -- into the core of the brand identity.

Just like the execs at Bertucci's, you'll find that customer experience innovation happens where you create the link between consumer needs, your business model, and your brand. If you'd like to know more about the 2ovens story, please check out my recently published 2ovens case study.

I'll be speaking about customer experience innovation in my keynote address at Forrester's Customer Experience Forum EMEA, November 19 & 20 in London. Hope to see you there!

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About the Author: Kerry Bodine is a vice president and principal analyst at Forrester Research serving Customer Experience professionals. She blogs at http://blogs.forrester.com/kerry_bodine and tweets at @kerrybodine

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