Thursday, August 23, 2012

More than Fast Casual

Why is Fast-Casual the right brand direction for the Blazing Onion

In September of 1997 Lorri and I bought our first Subway Franchise. Previously I had worked for 13 years in management at Denny's doing various roles, including multi store management and management training. My favorite thing about the transition to Subway was how easy it was to get it right the first time. A guest told you that they wanted lettuce, pickles and extra olives and you simply listened and did what they asked for. To become successful, we needed to hire employees with good personalities who could listen to our customers. That simple rule allowed us to grow our business from one restaurant to six. Eventually our success would allow us to sell three of the Subway's and start our own concept.

In June of 2006, Lorri and I were heavy into the brand design for our new burger restaurant. We wanted to be different from the crowd. That's not very easy to do, after all burgers were already America's #1 food. Back then the field wasn't so crowded with all the "Better Burger" competitors. Red Robin was still using white and red as their inside colors, 5 Guys & Smash Burger were just getting started on growth and soon to be new competitors were still trying to figure out their brands. We decided to focus on food, atmosphere and service to create our differentials from the crowd.

The food needed to have an edge. We started by having more burgers than most. We wanted a "meat & potatoes" guy like myself to have at least 5 burgers that may tempt them on any given visit. We focused on recipes more. Lorri and her team are constantly creating new and better recipes. We make things from scratch every morning and that's definitely a differentiator. The food quality also had to be a major draw. Fresh simply taste better. Searching for the best product is a constant effort. With huge demands for product; McDonald's, KFC, Chick-fil-A and a few others have forever changed the way cattle and chicken are raised and processed. Ranchers could no longer keep up, so science had to get involved to increase production. For some of us restaurant owners, that simply would not do. The stories are not hard to find. Chicken has been the focus of many evening news shows and you need not look further than to watch Food, Inc to see the real story behind most beef that comes to market. We felt the need to reverse the clock and go back. Restaurants like Chipotle are out in the forefront, making decisions to go Natural. Natural means that the animals are raised humanely, they graze and feed in open pastures and are antibiotic and hormone free. It takes longer for the animal to reach their mature weight, so the cost of the product is higher than most restaurants will pay. You can't sell a $1 burger that's All Natural. Lorri and I decided that the Blazing Onion Brand would be represented by all natural ground chuck and initiated a partnership with Painted Hills.

We had taken our original inspiration from restaurants like Red Mill in Seattle and Fuddruckers in Houston. Both were order at the counter models. We both thought Red Mill was too cramped and Fuddruckers, like Red Robin, was too cluttered and loud. Just because its Fast-Casual, doesn't mean the chairs, tables and decor have to be a few steps above a fast food dining room. Why not let it look like you walked into a nice casual restaurant where it was ok to relax. With that thought in mind, we proceeded to create our warm decor package and eventually our lounges.

Frequently, Lorri and I go out to eat and are held hostage by service. Waiting for a server to finally take our drink order, waiting for our drinks, waiting for the opportunity to order, waiting for the server to come back by the table to correct something, waiting for the chance to order desserts, waiting for a check... you get the idea. While sitting and relaxing to order always seems ideal, it often comes packaged with meeting the time restraints of the service model and assigned stations. My biggest pet peeve is when someone is missing something and it results in several people disengaging from the conversation while they look to get an employees attention. This happens especially with the host of the table, who feels responsible since they selected the restaurant.

After 28 years of marriage, Lorri and I still routinely make Friday's a "Date Night." We often work until the last possible minute then race to a restaurant so we can balance a second activity afterwards. We love to have dinner at a new restaurant, especially when it involves a new chef we've read about. Unfortunately, when we leave late the restaurants are usually all full with impossible waits. I know what your thinking, "make a reservation". We sometimes do, but often the hecticness of our Fridays prevents us from even seeing one another to plan the evening. Thus we often compromise for fast-casual with no cocktails, losing options we would have prefered. Our design was meant for busy people like us that are looking to improve the speed of service with fast-casual but also want to relax, choosing to keep the standards for food quality, menu choices, atmosphere and service at a premium. We created a restaurant where fast-casual wasn't a compromise!

It all starts by ordering at the front. This allows us to take care of you as a team.  The food is also started right away. At first we ran into problems as many guests wanted a second beer or dessert but didn't like opening a new tab. Soon we started allowing each guest to choose at the order point between leaving their check open to pay later or close it out immediately. We incorporated "Service Stop Signs" that guest raise on a stand at the tables. Our goal is to respond in under 30 seconds allowing you to remain engaged at the table. These "Service Signs" were replaced at Alderwood with a new system we have been testing that allows you to simply push a button to summon a server. This system brings less attention to your table from other guests while improving our service time to your table. It also eliminates the number cards we have been using to find you and makes us immediately aware of where you're sitting to bring your food and drinks. This has been a wonderful success and has helped guide our next transition. We have grown so fast that sometimes a successful test is replaced by another test before we have a chance to implement the first one at all the stores.

When we started in Mill Creek, we didn't even have a lounge. After Snohomish, we realized that many of our guests would enjoy a lounge. You can't build a competitive lounge unless you incorporate full service. Lorri and I are constantly preaching raising the bar on service and team work. Each new Blazing Onion is now a hybrid mix concept utilizing a full service lounge and fast-casual restaurant. We like to call our restaurant a fast casual restaurant with a fine dining attitude!

Whats next?
We have modified and changed our restaurant several times since 2007 reacting to guests feedback. The lobby ordering is our next big project. It is awkward to be placed on a 30 minute waiting list to order at the counter. We get this, but at the same time want to preserve our "Team Service on Demand" system in the restaurant. We hope to launch our next idea, a wonderful new brainstorm, a "Holy Cow, they're doing what?" in November at our Marysville location. If our guests love it as much as we anticipate they will, we will begin launching it one store at a time and eventually convert it into all our remaining restaurants. I'd tell you more, but that would kill the surprise. Let me just say, we're going to "WOW" you!

1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed reading this Dave. You and Lorri should be very proud of your accomplishments. Your restaurants have fabulous atmosphere and delicious food. I'm excited about the big surprise for marrysville to launch.