On Focus Groups for Bob Hart

Yahoo's Bob Hart speaks about creating a focus group on Indian cuisine.

At Yahoo, in Sunnyvale, Calif., Bob Hart, director of operations/executive chef for Bon Appétit, saw his Indian program taking off. To keep improving the options, he decided a focus group would be the best way to find out ways the program could be improved. Hart spoke to FSD about how he conducted the focus group and how they were able to take what they learned and implement changes.

Q. How did the idea for the focus group come about?

We wanted to get feedback about our Indian program. Our Indian program has continued to improve over the past few years and I really wanted to focus on Indian cuisine to get a better understanding on specific areas that could be improved. I wanted to reach out to the people who were interested in helping us improve the program so I felt that a focus group would be the best forum.

Q. How was the focus group set up?

We had some customer sponsorship and we sent out an e-mail flyer to market the event. We actually held the focus group at both our Sunnyvale and Santa Clara campuses. The Santa Clara class was held in one of our cafés, Coaster’s. The other was in a classroom in Sunnyvale. We set up Indian snacks to entice people to participate. Each participant received a questionnaire along with my outline. I gave my presentation pausing at each talking point. I talked about geography by asking questions such as what regions in India would you like to see better represented or are there specific recipes/food items from other regions that you would like to see in the cafés? I asked questions about our current selections such as what current Indian selections do you enjoy the most and what selections do you enjoy the least?

There is a lot of passion when it comes to Indian cuisine and the different regions that were represented in our groups. People were adamant that one region had better food than another. People were saying that some dishes were too spicy but others would say that the same dishes weren’t spicy enough. We learned simple things like not to always fry the paneer (farmer’s cheese). We were asked to cut our vegetables and meats smaller and to cook the vegetables longer. The most frequent comment was about the rice. People just didn’t like it.

Q. What were some of the biggest challenges involved with setting this up?

This focus group was a big success for us. It allowed us to get great feedback directly from our customers. The challenge was getting people to actually come to the event. We did provide snacks, which always helps. It was a great help to partner with one of our customers who acted in our behalf to get people excited to come to the focus group. Some of the results were simple to implement while others remain a challenge. One thing I would like to have happen eventually is for one of participants to join us at 6 a.m. for the initial preparations and then stay with us until the food was ready for service. I would like to take the cooking practices of the home cook and apply them to larger amounts of meat. That will provide the “homestyle cooking” that was requested.

Q. How did you take what you learned and implement it?

There were a few easy steps that we took that made a world of difference. We did a paneer “tasting” and also adjusted our technique to not fry the paneer for each dish. That made a difference. We cut the vegetables and meat smaller to increase their tenderness and we worked with our Indian grocery vendor to get a different type of Basmati rice that is more authentic. It cooked in half the time and all of the negative rice feedback stopped. We saw an increase of up to 10% in participation.

Q. What advice would you give to other operators who may want to do a similar focus group?

If you are getting feedback about a specific area in your cafés or are thinking about making a change in your cafés, the focus group in a great forum. It gets some one-on-one time with your customers and gets them involved in the cafés. It shows that you really care about them.