Restaurants: The New Battlefield for Customer Experience

You get home from a long day at work, don't feel like cooking and want to treat yourself to some great food. Until recently, you probably settled for mediocre pizza or Chinese. But with the rise of services like DoorDash, GrubHub and Caviar, good food — some of it from Michelin-starred chefs —  is only a click away. Home meal kits have surged in popularity, with sales expected to double over the next five years, and grocery stores like Whole Foods are selling higher quality prepared food.

Restaurants, like retail before them, are battling the rising tide of digital services by ensuring an experience that can’t be had online and that reflects well on their brand.

All of these convenient ways to get great meals means less people are visiting restaurants (especially millennials), and sales are down. Restaurants can thrive, even in the era of digital services, by offering an experience that can’t be found online. So what can restaurants do to differentiate themselves and get customers excited about going out to eat? 

Unique and Complementary Experiences

When consumers can get great food delivered in less than an hour, restaurants must deliver a differentiated experience that makes going out worth the effort. Whether that’s through exceptional customer service or the new trend of “eatertainment,” restaurants need to think beyond simply providing good food.

Take Pinstripes Bistro Bowling Bocce, a rapidly expanding chain whose main attraction is right in the name. Low-key activities like this are a natural complement to casual dining and a draw for groups and families. Or look at Pieology, which has made pizza interactive, allowing customers to choose every detail of their pizza from toppings to dough. This dedication to customer experience has driven the chain’s growth in the US and beyond. Independent eateries succeed by offering a truly unique experience — something that can’t be matched online.

Zehnder’s of Frankenmuth and the Frankenmuth Bavarian Inn (#64 and #69 on the top 100 Independent Restaurants list) have become destinations in their own right, offering live music and an Oktoberfest celebration so authentic it has the blessing of the original Munich Oktoberfest.   

A Dirty Truth About Experience

Consumers look for a sparkling clean front of house. They usually can’t see into the kitchen, so if the front of house is a mess they will probably assume the worst about your kitchen. Our research has found that 64percent of consumers have walked out of a retail store because of its physical appearance. In restaurants, where people want to enjoy a meal without concerns about food safety, the stakes are even higher. 

Seventy-five percent of consumers say they will not visit a restaurant that has negative reviews for cleanliness. Our recent study also showed that one out of four people want restaurants to be cleaner, meaning there’s still plenty of room for improving this fundamental but undeniable facet of the customer experience. Cleanliness is a huge factor in attracting consumers and getting them to come back, even more than price or service as our survey showed.

The Basics of Bathrooms

For retail stores, we’ve learned that one out of five shoppers wouldn’t return to a store if it had a dirty bathroom — it’s even more important for restaurants. They say you can tell a lot about a restaurant from its facilities: bathrooms set the standard for how consumers view the cleanliness of the restaurant. Diners realize it’s probably the place where the people cooking and serving are washing their hands as well, so any perceived dirtiness can directly and immediately affect their experience. 

Bathrooms are a huge part of the customer experience and subpar conditions can be costly: half of diners in our survey said a dirty bathroom would keep them from returning to a restaurant, and that clean bathrooms are one of the top draws for getting diners to come back. 

Restaurants, like retail before them, are battling the rising tide of digital services by ensuring an experience that can’t be had online and that reflects well on their brand. It’s a lesson any industry that offers a brick-and-mortar experience should take to heart, from healthcare to banking to fitness. The best customer experience will always win — are your locations up to the task?