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How to boost foodservice success with big data

It’s not just by chance that top chain restaurants are successful. Most are also highly sophisticated connoisseurs of big data.

Consumer insights inform decisions on menu development, marketing, store design and even what music consumers hear when they walk through the door. And chain restaurants have shown that there are big benefits to this use of consumer data.

With data now more accessible than ever, foodservice directors and chefs can employ the same tactics restaurants use to integrate consumer insights into their own development processes, as well as to help them make research-driven decisions.

Here are five key ways noncommercial operators can benefit from consumer data, just like their restaurant counterparts: 

June census

1. Get to know your core guest

There’s a natural tendency to want to be all things to all customers, but it’s the loyal and repeat guest that drives the success of most operations. Understanding the core guest should be the first step for noncommercial operators as they use consumer data to drive the decision process.

Take the fast-casual sandwich chain Jersey Mike's, for example. Jersey Mike's overall guest count is split almost evenly between males and females, based on a survey of 100,000 consumer restaurant visit occasions in Technomic’s Consumer Brand Metrics (CBM). However, frequent customers—those who visit Jersey Mike's more than once a month—skew heavily male. Appealing to their largely male core consumer and increasing visit frequency among female consumers may require two different menu strategies for Jersey Mike’s.

The same study found Buffalo Wild Wings’ consumer base is made up of roughly one-third millennials and one-third baby boomers, with the remaining clientele spanning other generational demographics. But baby boomers make up less than 20% of Buffalo Wild Wings’ frequent guests, which skew 44% millennial. That’s a very different guest composition when it comes to deciding which menu promotions will drive traffic.

Concentrating on very targeted audiences, such as older millennials with children or price-driven Gen Z males, is the advantage savvy restaurant chains use to make smart decisions. Noncommercial operators can emulate the chains by tapping into consumer data to focus menu development and marketing on the demographic groups that have the greatest impact on profits.

2. Understand what influences your customer

What’s important to diners may be surprising. And finding out what influences their choices and loyalty can illuminate opportunities beyond the menu. Is it important that your operation offers a wide variety of beverages? Perhaps, but it may be less important than speed of service or having a knowledgeable staff.

Consumers rated the importance of 42 factors that influence their decision on which fast-casual restaurants to visit in Technomic’s CBM study. Among the ten highest-rated attributes, less than half pertained to the food.

In fact, after food quality and flavor, consumers report that cleanliness of the dishware and overall restaurant cleanliness are the most important attributes when choosing fast-casual restaurants. Cleanliness of the restaurant, bathrooms and kitchen or prep area are all far more important to consumers than whether the restaurant is kid-friendly, offers healthy options or has affordable menu prices.

Consumer data can be vital in determining where to focus efforts and how to have the greatest impact on guest experience. Big data also allows for more complex analysis, such as finding connections between these decision factors. There might be a direct correlation between food quality and whether a guest returns, while there may be no connection at all between affordable prices and diners’ loyalty.

3. Tailor to the customer, not just the trends

Once the core consumer and their influences have been identified, the next step is to tailor a menu to their tastes. Or, if the goal is to attract a new customer base, incorporate offerings that appeal to the target audience.

In the case of pizza, the dough or crust is the most important element, according to Technomic’s 2018 Pizza Consumer Trend Report. Thicker pizza crusts are rising in popularity; however, the study found this is largely driven by Gen Z and millennial consumers. At operations with a core audience of Gen X and baby boomer clientele, a thinner pizza crust will appeal more broadly.

Focusing on consumer data related to the core customer base helps operators decipher which trends are the right fit for their operation, helping them develop their menus with that specific audience in mind.

4. Identify the competition

When consumers aren’t dining in your operation, where are they eating instead?

Potential customers may be bringing a meal from home, picking up a prepared meal at a supermarket or going off campus to a restaurant. Identifying customers’ common alternatives allows foodservice directors and chefs to use that competitive set as a benchmark for menu development, promotions and pricing. Even operators with a narrowly defined audience, such as K-12, can benefit from knowing what their diners view as the competition.

Consider that the average price of a sandwich on college campuses is $6.45, based on menu tracking by Technomic at 142 universities. Comparatively, the average sandwich price at a survey of 250 food trucks across the country is $8.49, and the average price at the top 250 chain restaurants is $7.50.

If consumer data indicates that students are visiting off-campus restaurant chains and food trucks as an alternative to dining on campus, there may be opportunity to entice customers with premium ingredients or bundled meals while remaining competitive on price against these off-campus alternatives.

5. Uncover occasion opportunities

Knowing the when, where, why and how of customers’ dining occasions is important to meeting their needs. Packaging may be important if they are traveling back to their desk or reheating their meal at home. A wider variety of portable and handheld options may draw in consumers for snacking occasions.

More than 40% of consumers buy snacks from foodservice locations to save for later. And more than 50% of the time, consumers who buy snacks at foodservice locations and save them for later also buy a meal for immediate consumption, according to Technomic’s 2018 Snacking Consumer Trend Report. In this case, consumer data draws attention to what may be an untapped opportunity to promote to-go snacks for later during the breakfast and lunch rush.

Illustrations courtesy of iStock

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