Thursday, December 2, 2010

Service on Demand?

Last October, Lorri and I took a trip to Europe. We had been in that airplane for 14 hours when it finally landed at the Paris Charles De Gaulle Airport. We found a bus to Champs Elysee and from there; I thought we could walk to our hotel, which was near the Louvre. I asked Lorri what she thought of this plan and she nodded, trusting I knew what I was doing. I was excited, a new city, such magnificent architecture, I just wanted to walk through the streets and take it all in. I should have paid more attention to Lorri. She was tired. 14 hours on a plane wiped her out. She just wanted to be at the hotel, rest a moment, and then get something to eat. Instead her idiot husband was making her drag her luggage 2 miles through the city. The next hour and a half would not be prudent for me to write about so we'll skip ahead.

Finally we arrived at our hotel. We took our luggage to the room and took a small break. The Maitre D pointed us in the direction of a small cozy restaurant just around the corner from the hotel. In France, it doesn't matter that you just flew 14 hours and then walked an hour and a half to the hotel. Dinner will not be fast tonight. You will be here for the full experience. There are no half experiences on the menu. You will begin by waiting for your server, then your food, then cafe & dessert, and when they're ready, not to be confused with when you're ready, usually 90 -120 minutes later, you will receive your check and be allowed to pay.

In America, we are in a hurry. Sure, there are plenty of nice dinner houses that you can relax in, but lets face it, tradition is not our mantra. With over 160,000 fast food restaurants in America, you can start to understand the mentality in America. We work hard, we cram a ton of stuff into our lives, so sitting at a restaurant for a few hours is a luxury we don't have time for every day. In Paris, this may be a nightly tradition, but in America it has been relegated to more of a weekend event.

Enter the new restaurant food model called Fast-Casual. Created for those of us still concerned with time restraints, but want an experience closer to casual dining. Chipotle and Panera Bread are the two highest profile fast-casual restaurants in the industry, but that doesn't mean the consumer calls them fast-casual. Even Zagat calls Chipotle “the new generation of fast food” and says Panera offers “fast food with class”. 14 Percent of respondents to a recent Web-based consumer survey, told Mintel researchers that they still did not understand what fast-casual means, even after a detailed definition and multiple examples. Only 5% of consumers are even aware of the term “fast-casual. Restaurants like Wendy's are telling us, “It’s waaaay better than fast food. It’s Wendy’s.” McDonald's and Jack in the Box are building their restaurant more upscale. Are they all fast-casual now? I can tell you this, with 15% annual growth in the fast-casual segment, they would like you to think they are. Fast Casual is still a blurry field. Lets face it, with so many players claiming to be fast casual and just as many pretending to be, I couldn't even define it. I can only describe my definition of fast-casual as it relates to the Blazing Onion.

What makes us different? Atmosphere, food, and service are the quick answers. Our decor is warm and welcoming. We're not rushing you through with a red and white landscape. We don't serve your food in a brown paper bag. We don't cook your burgers in a quick toaster style oven. We don't make you sit on uncomfortable chairs that cosmetically look nice. Warm colors, brick, comfortable booths, and lots and lots of televisions adorn the restaurant. The hamburgers are fine dining style, prepped in house, made from fresh All Natural Angus 100% Ground Chuck and cooked on a broiler. Our sauces, soups, fish batter, and much more are made in house. We have 25 Gourmet Burgers on the menu. When you add the exotic choices like Wild Boar, Buffalo, and Lamb as well as the healthier options like our house made turkey burger (might be the best in the industry), chicken breast, and veggie patty, you could say we have over 125 Burgers to choose from. We do all this at prices that are less than most casual restaurants serving similar menu's such as Applebee's, Red Robin, Chili's, or Ruby Tuesday. They have all recently tried to compete for the consumers $$$ by offering more discounting. We'll just remain committed to serving quality foods and refuse to compromise, while keeping our prices reasonable.

You say, "Yeah, but you make the guest do most of the work to save labor $$$ and then call it fast-casual, Right?" The answer is "No". Look around our restaurant on any typical night. There are plenty of team members scurrying around utilizing our labor $$$. That's not what fast-casual means to us. We wanted to create a restaurant that utilized all the benefits of the fast food model while absorbing most of the service and atmosphere attributes of a casual dining model. To accomplish this, the guest must begin the process in the lobby by ordering their food. With the menu being so large, this causes some confusion for our new guest, but it doesn't take long to become a seasoned veteran. The visible benefit is for those that might be in a hurry. Their food has already started to cook as they find their way to the table or booth. They have already paid their bill and since the food will find them at the table, there is virtually no waiting for any service. While this fits all the buzz words & phrases surrounding the definition of fast casual such as, fresh food, nice atmosphere, reasonable pricing, quicker service, etc... it's not why we chose this service model.

Like many new players in the fast-casual segment, we have many twists that make us unique. It starts in the lobby. Our restaurant is split 50/50 between a fast-casual restaurant and a full service sports lounge. If you choose the lounge, you will receive traditional service. We get many enthusiastic compliments for our lounge service. Customers that go in our lounge go there for the interaction with friends and our team, the sports venue, or sometimes because they just prefer full service. We are always trying to raise the bar, establishing great service behaviors throughout our team.

We set out to create a restaurant that offered great service, but allowed the guest to control the experience more. The idea of human emotion being an influence over service, makes service a continual challenge. Our restaurant was created to improve on the already established service model we have all become accustom to. If you choose the restaurant, you will get to control your experience with our "Service on Demand". First, at the register, by choosing to close your check for a quicker exit or leave it open to add more beer, cocktails, or dessert at the table. After ordering, you might notice another benefit, spotting your beer following you as you choose your table. How's that for service? At the table, if you need assistance, simply raise your 'Service Alert'. We will be there in 30 seconds or less. You do not have an assigned server, but instead the entire staff is here to see to your every need. This eliminates the waiting, waiting, waiting for service. Have you ever needed something, but your server has disappeared into the back room and everyone else is too busy to notice? How about wanting another beer, but your server just began taking an order for a party of six. Good luck. Here's my biggest pet peeve. I'm going somewhere after dinner and its time to go. I set my credit card on the table, only to have everyone ignore it because they're not my server. At the Blazing Onion, you are now in control. With our 'Service Alert' system, you can stop head turning trying to make eye contact with a server and get back to enjoying the conversation at your table. Our tips are shared by the entire team, similar to Starbuck's tip sharing, with our team members usually receiving an additional $2-4 an hour from those tips.

Lorri and I are foodies and love to experience new restaurants. Seattle is a great place to live and has many great food experiences to choose from. When we go to many of the awesome fine dining restaurants or new Chef inspired neighborhood restaurants in Seattle, service is usually top notch, with plenty of staff to offer you outstanding service, but at a premium price. When we experience casual dining, lets just say, sometimes I wish I brought my Service Alert!

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