The Experience Paradox

“I just don’t understand,” the restaurant owner lamented as we discussed a recent customer incident. “He said he was excited to finally be able to eat inside again . . . and then five minutes later, he storms out because we can’t seat him right away. Doesn’t he realize how short staffed we are?!”

It’s a dilemma vexing restaurants across the country. On the one hand, consumers are craving unique human experiences with food more than ever before. Two years of COVID restrictions have reminded all of us just how important in-person dining is to our daily lives. 

On the other, consumer expectations for those experiences have never been greater—we want quality food that is fast, cheap, and customized to our every need. 

I call it the “experience paradox.” What’s going on and how can restaurants respond? 

It’s important to understand that while COVID intensified consumer expectations, these trendlines were well underway. We can thank companies like Amazon for shifting how we think about the buying experience. Simply put, we expect all our purchases (including food) to be as frictionless as opening an app and pressing a button.

And yet, some things have never changed. Since the beginning of our species, food and community have been inseparable. An MIT study found that 10 hours without any social contact can produce psychological and physical cravings the same as 10 hours without food.

Perhaps that is why, for many of us, eating a gourmet restaurant meal in the isolation of our home is not nearly the same as sitting around a table with friends and family at our favorite dining spot. 

The restaurant industry has adapted and innovated remarkably over the past two years. Conveniences like app-based ordering, home delivery, and grab-and-go have no doubt created value in the face of heightening customer demands. But they are no substitute for the unique human experiences with food found only inside the restaurant. What can restaurant owners and operators do to deliver

Here are three actions leaders can take now:

Step One: Know Who You Are and Where You Are Going

Interestingly, COVID has heightened consumers’ sensitivity towards what can be called “organizational hypocrisy,” which occurs when companies (including restaurant brands) don’t practice the values they profess. This applies to employees too. One of the most effective ways to reduce employee turnover is to show how organizational purpose connects with individual employee values, including how an employee’s work contributes to overall company goals.

Restaurant owner and operators, at the bare minimum, need to have a clear statement about where the organization aspires to go and how core values will be practiced to get there. In my work with clients, I help them shape a three-to-five year vivid vision that answers the question, “What does amazing look like?” Then, we create 12-month clear objectives and measurable key results at the both the organizational and employee level. 

Step Two:  Make it Insanely Easy for Customers To Do Business With You

In a world of seemingly limitless food options, consumers are increasingly making decisions about where and how they will eat based on a single factor—how easy are you to do business with?

One of the biggest mistakes restaurants make is to create a detailed set of standard operation procedures that lose sight of the ultimate goal: customer satisfaction. Recall the 2017 United airlines incident that resulted in a bloodied passenger being forcibly removed from the plane. In a now infamous internal memo sent out the day after, then United CEO Oscar Munoz wrote: "Our employees followed established procedures for dealing with situations like this.”

An effective strategy for reducing friction is regular customer journey mapping. I recommend clients, at least twice per year, pull together diverse teams made up of 5-8 people from different parts of the operation. We then go through a facilitated list of questions that help us analyze the company’s operations from the perspective of the customerto identify where there is potential friction that we can proactively eliminate. For example, placing to-go silverware and napkins closer to the check-out counter so that customers don’t have to walk as far.   

Step Three: Be Unforgettable

Amidst all the technological innovation, something else hasn’t changed—the power of human connection. There is a great irony in the experience paradox: Our heightened expectations often mean that our most unforgettable dining experiences occur in the simplest ways. When we are welcomed into the restaurant with eye contact and a smile. When our drink is replaced for free after we accidentally spill it. When we receive a personalized note after dining. To be unforgettable, look for simple ways to delight your fellow human during their dining experience. 

Good food, experienced together, through human connection. It’s that simple.