Restaurants’ Next Big Thing: Experience Still Reigns

April 25, 2024

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Our Executive Creative Director, Jamie Cornelius, shares why the most successful restaurants strike the right balance between convenience and human connection.

In the hectic, constantly changing world we live in, the questions we tend to ask ourselves are what’s next and where should we focus? While advancements in technology and shifting consumer preferences have undoubtedly transformed the restaurant landscape, the essence of dining out remains deeply rooted in the human desire for connection, and ultimately meaningful experiences. Experiences that turn you from a fan to a fanatic.

The Rise of Convenience Culture

In recent years, convenience has emerged as a dominant driving force in shaping consumer behavior. With the rise of on-demand services, mobile ordering apps, and drive-thru lanes, consumers are increasingly prioritizing convenience in their dining choices.

McDonald’s for instance, has long been a pioneer in leveraging convenience to its advantage. Through innovations like self-service kiosks and mobile ordering, McDonald’s has streamlined the ordering process, reducing wait times and enhancing convenience for customers. By embracing technology while maintaining affordability and speed, McDonald’s continues to adapt to changing consumer preferences without sacrificing the core elements of its brand. More importantly, they did all this ahead of their competitors. Back in 2018, they invested in their restaurants, making the difficult decision in some cases to scrap and rebuild. Fast forward a few years, when others were dealing with rising construction costs, McDonald’s was quietly innovating on how to better integrate their loyalty program into a restaurant platform.

The Importance of Human Connection

While convenience is undoubtedly important, the importance of human connection is coming back to the forefront of conversations. It’s apparent that consumers are riding the pendulum back to a time when dining experiences mattered to their overall enjoyment and quality of life. In essence, we are moving away from mere convenience toward human connection—an aspect inherent to the industry itself.

This is probably most represented in the success of full-service restaurants, with Texas Roadhouse being the poster child right now. They are not alone in the full-service dining category; Firebird’s is showing an increase in visit frequency from 6 to 10 visits annually. And First Watch has rapidly expanded its footprint while growing sales by over 192%. These full-service dining experiences represent an unmet need for customers right now – a place to gather, whether it be with friends or family and enjoy a good meal. It’s a value equation that many other restaurants are trying to achieve.

The Future of Dining: A Balancing Act

As we look to the future, I would caution the bandwagon mentality. During the convenience culture, we saw many restaurants swing too far in that direction, leading into something that was in fact so convenient it was forgettable. Even worse, it actually made for a quick but terrible experience inside the restaurant (I’m looking at you haphazardly placed mobile pick-up shelves). The most successful restaurants will be those that strike the right balance between convenience and human connection. But let’s not forget what determines the success or failure of both – experience. In a competitive landscape where consumer expectations are constantly evolving, brands must differentiate themselves by offering distinct experiences that resonate with their target audience. At ChangeUp we look for insights that can connect with what your brand can uniquely offer.

While full-service restaurants are having their heyday right now, it’s inevitable that the preferences of consumers will change. And who will be the brands that remain on top? I would start by looking at where guests are benchmarking their experience. The heavy-weight brands Starbucks and Chick-fil-A have each carved out a unique position in the industry that continues to shape the landscape. Whether it’s through innovative technology, exceptional customer service, or a strong sense of community, these industry leaders have set the standard for success in the restaurant industry. And what they both understand is the magic happens in the experience. 

Crafting Distinct Experiences

Yes, experience is still king. How you show up for your customers is ultimately what resonates with them on both a practical and emotional level. For Chick-fil-A it isn’t enough to create an efficient drive-thru, they took hospitality to another level with canopies and heaters to benefit both customers and employees. By prioritizing human interaction in their restaurants, they have cultivated a loyal customer base that extends beyond the food itself. It is my son’s first choice, every time and with their thoughtful consideration of all things family-related it’s “my pleasure” to oblige him when we need a quick bite.

Similarly, Starbucks has revolutionized the industry by taking a convenience-driven approach, while still committed to fostering a sense of community in its stores. They look at their portfolio of stores as one of their greatest assets, with an aggressive remodel program that has positioned them as one of best restaurant experiences, while being just number two in the world for number of stores. Starbucks is synonymous with the term “third place”, a place that facilitates social interaction outside of where you live and work. It is the north star of each location, from the Roastery to the store on the corner. The orchestration of the right materials, seating, lighting, and consideration of the surrounding community creates a truly distinct experience. It is evident in their most recent inclusive café, which takes that thoughtful, human approach so both customer and employee feel considered.

It isn’t just the top restaurants that can achieve a distinct and meaningful experience. We recently visited a new local Mexican restaurant, and it may soon upend Chick-fil-A as my son’s number one spot. From the moment we walked in the door my children were immediately captivated by the bold, neon murals on the walls. Selecting their favorite became the entertainment as we waited for our food. My daughter’s was a flying burrito and my son’s was a lizard that scaled the entirety of one of the walls. For my husband and I we enjoyed the tableside guac, made to our preference, and the artfully constructed margaritas. Then came the employee making balloon animals for the kids, which got all the adjacent families talking. And as we finished our delicious meals, the lights turned down for the late evening crowd, the murals became more brilliant, and a glow-in-the-dark figure came out dancing! Over-the-top? Maybe. But it was memorable and an experience my kids are still talking about. And though I spent more than I had expected, there was an inherent value in our experience.

Those that will succeed don’t rest on their laurels in hopes that making a great cup of coffee is enough or that an efficient drive thru will keep their guests coming back for more. As we embrace the future of dining, let us remember that behind every meal is an opportunity to connect, to create memories, and to savor the simple pleasures of good food and good company. So where should you focus? Yes, be convenient and connect with your customer, but do it in a way that is distinct, meaningful, and damn good!