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Can Mystery Shopping Save Casual and Fast Casual Dining

There are plenty of reasons why we’re seeing casual and fast casual chain restaurants go out of business: Millennials are killing them by not eating there. There are too many restaurants and not enough people are supporting them. People are more interested in farm-to-table not boil-in-a-bag. And some restaurants, like Chipotle, are working hard to re-earn their customers’ trust after several food contamination incidents.

A recent article on CheatSheet.com, These American Restaurants Are Failing to Attract Customers showed 17 casual and fast casual dining chains that are losing sales, closing up stores, and are seeing a general decline in their overall performance.

  1. Sonic
  2. Ovation Brands (Hometown Buffet, Old Country Buffet)
  3. Noodles and Company
  4. Panera Bread
  5. Outback Steakhouse (Bloomin’ Brands, which owns Outback Steakhours, Carabba’s, and Bonefish Grill)
  6. Subway
  7. Cheesecake Factory
  8. Applebee’s
  9. Chipotle
  10. Chili’s
  11. Buffalo Wild Wings
  12. TGI Friday’s
  13. Domino’s
  14. Shake Shack
  15. Ruby Tuesday
  16. Jack In The Box
  17. Starbucks

While each brand had its own reasons why it wasn’t doing well — Sonic blamed bad weather, Outback says people are flocking to delivery and take-out, Cheesecake Factory is found primarily in malls and suburbs — it’s hard to say why these particular casual/fast casual dining brands are failing.

But there are three strategies restaurant brands can use to help boost their sales and increase their customer base.

And they involve mystery shopping.

1. Ask your guests what they liked and didn’t like via mobile surveys.

Don’t rely on anecdotes from customers and don’t spend too much time reading online reviews. Anecdotes may be representative of patterns, but without actual data you can’t be sure. And online reviews are usually only written by complainers or people who love your product. They don’t catch the people who only had a “meh” experience and aren’t motivated to come back.

But with a 4- or 5-question mobile survey, you can quickly find out what problems your customers had, what they enjoyed, and spot patterns on the national, regional, and city level, as well as identify any problem stores or staff quickly and easily.

Rather than waiting for a six-month survey to show you why you’ve lost hundreds of customers, you can identify patterns and trends in a matter of days, and fix the problem before it gets worse.

2. Are your bartenders pouring right

Outback steakhouse, one of the 17 casual and fast casual dining brands having sales strugglesWe once mystery shopped a high-end restaurant that was losing thousands of dollars every year to help them identify their problem. One thing we found was that their bartenders weren’t using jiggers to measure their drinks, they were counting. They were often (unintentionally) over pouring, giving a little more liquor than a recipe called for. While that doesn’t matter one or two times, imagine losing three drinks out of every bottle of liquor. That starts to add up! Our client was losing a few thousand dollars a month just to overpouring.

Another thing they were doing is whenever the bartender poured beer from the taps, they would pour off the foam. I’ve seen bartenders fill up half a glass with foam, and keep filling until the foam ran out, sometimes losing one beer’s worth of foam for every two glasses.

Foam collapses and turns into beer. And all my beer snob friends tell me that the foam is part of the experience, and it enhances the flavor. (I don’t actually know — talk to some beer experts who will tell you why foam dumping is a bad idea for beer.)

But the bottom line is that your bartenders are dumping one in three beers. If you’re charging $5 per beer, you’re losing hundreds of dollars of inventory because they haven’t been properly trained on beer pouring.

Mystery shoppers can visit your restaurants, order from the bar, and pay attention to how the bartenders are filling their drinks.

3. There’s more to loss prevention than just theft.

How many people turn away because it took too long to be greeted and seated? How long did they have to wait before their server brought water or their food came out?

While it’s good PR to comp a person’s meal if there are screwups in the kitchen, how many times do you have to do that per day or per week? A mystery shopping program can help you identify where problems may lie with your hostesses, servers, bartenders, and even managers.

One problem with any kind of management-employee situation is that the employees are often on their best behavior when the boss is around, but they let up on those standards when he or she isn’t. Mystery shoppers can be your eyes and ears in your restaurant, telling you what you can’t see, showing you the problem areas, and helping you find areas to train and retrain your staff so they can better serve your customers.

By finding problem areas, correcting loss prevention and overpours, and surveying as many of your customers as you can, you can keep your patrons happy, keep them coming back, and possible help reverse the trend that these national chains have been seeing for the last couple of years.

If you would like to learn more about what mystery shopping can do for your casual or fast casual dining brand, please contact us and ask to speak with one of our mystery shopping experts.

Photo credit: Mike Mozart (Flickr, Creative Commons 2.0)