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The love affair between American consumers and fast casual restaurants shows no signs of weakness. Research by Technomic found that fast casual chains grew their annual sales by almost 13 percent to $30 billion in 2014, and that the growth rate was nearly twice the next-largest increase from any other restaurant segment. The outlook is equally rosy, with double digit-growth forecasted in the next 5 years, while the rest of the restaurant industry is predicted to move at the glacial pace of half a percentage point.

I recently had the pleasure to attend the Fast Casual Executive Summit 2015 in Miami, to introduce the One2Team for Retail solution at the premiere North America gathering of fast casual restaurant executives.

Given the industry prospects, it is not surprising that the single, most mentioned priority among the summit’s attendees was indeed “growth”. Almost every talk I listened to and every conversation I had at the conference were centered around the strategies that fast casual executives implement to achieve and sustain growth: adding more restaurants, serving more customers, hiring more employees.

It was a very stimulating two days, with leading brands, entrepreneurs and managers sharing a multitude of approaches. Three overarching themes stood out as something that a lot of companies in the industry are focusing on to drive growth:

1. Identity,  People and Culture

I was struck by how critical the topics of identity, culture and (self-)expression are today. Consumers are empowered by mobile and social technology. They share photos of their meals on Instagram and voice their customer service complaints on Twitter. Fast casual executives understand that authenticity, quality and a positive, wholesome connection with food are what people are increasingly looking for and strive to deliver it.

Blaze Pizza Presentation slide

Customers are increasingly looking for experiences they can enjoy and share beyond the quality of a meal. They are looking for brands that express a sense of purpose and values they can associate with.

That is also true of organizations. A shared direction, backed by strong values and a clear vision, increases employee engagement, staff quality and overall retention. Author, speaker and former CIO at Red Robin, Chris Laping, in a recent interview at our San Francisco office, called it the “why“, the common purpose and goal that glues an organization together.

When people have a common view of why they should do something, it accelerates their ability to be fast. – Chris Laping, author, “People Before Things” and former CIO, Red Robin

That also means that since restaurant staff are such a vital part of the customer experience, empowering and compensating well employees is a key strategy to offer a whole “product” customers will love and want to consume again. The example of Illegal Pete’s Living Wage Initiative resonated with many folks at the summit. Founder Pete Turner’s 2015 initiative to raise employee’s wages across the board — equivalent to a $3,000 raise for each employee — resulted in a net bottom-line impact of +2.25%. It also created a shared sense of loyalty and appreciation for the brand among employees and customers alike.

Illegal Pete's Living Wage Initiative slide

2. Technology and Innovation

In part to appeal to Millennials and to increasingly digital-savvy customers, fast casual brands are investing heavily in enabling digitalization. Digital signage, television screens, self-service touchpads, mobile ordering, mobile payments, cloud POS are just some of the innovations that are finding their way into restaurants.

Eatsa customer interacting with digital delivery

An extreme example of the use of technology to overhaul the entire consumer experience comes from Eatsa. At Eatsa, all is automated. Customers order their meals on iPad station or in advance on their phones. There are no servers. The food is delivered in glass compartments. And it is good! (We have actually tried it in San Francisco).

Fast is the name of the game at Eatsa, where lunch arrives via a super-swift automated system. – Timeout Magazine

Extreme examples aside, a technology-enabled, convenient customer experience steers more and more consumers away from traditional options and towards fast casual restaurants. Jim Melvin, CEO of Guest DNA, identified five key technology trends:

  • Payments – Counter payment vs. table payment, POS, encryption, tokenization, EMV…
  • Digital Signage – Regulatory compliance, menu boards, POM displays, alley displays…
  • Mobile Ordering – Off-premise, on-premise, branded apps, customer decision journey…
  • Guest Engagement – Loyalty, big data, segmentation, personalization, contextualization…
  • Learning & Culture – Mobile learning at the point of need, bottom-up assessments, social sharing, remote training…

3. Simplicity by Design

 Chic design of fast casual restaurant interiors

To achieve aggressive growth targets, fast casual chains must attract a growing pool of franchises while reducing time to market and keep healthy margins. One of the key challenges is to meet consumer expectations of fresh concepts, current technology and branding with personality, while maintaining the economic fundamentals that have so much contributed to the growth of fast casual: low operating costs and high-volume throughput.

  Complexity is our worst enemy. – Jim Mizes, President of Blaze Pizza

To achieve that, simplification and speed are paramount. That means, in some cases, simplifying the menu so that customers are not confused. It means simplifying the restaurant format, with smaller footprint and a simpler design so that the investment a franchisee needs to make to open a restaurant is lowered. It means testing and tuning concepts continuously to reduce rollout risks.

Blaze Pizza vision slide

Why One2Team and Fast Casual?

One2Team is the cloud project and collaboration solution designed for the restaurant and retail industry. It makes a lot of sense for us to partner with Fast Casual, one of the premiere industry organizations. At the summit, I had an opportunity to share how One2team is the new way to work to reduce time-to-market of new concepts, new developments, new product launches and merchandising campaigns.

If you’d like to check out more information about the Fast Casual Executive Summit and about One2Team cloud collaboration & project management solutions for retail, check out our Fast Casual Executive Summit event resource page or scan twitter for the hashtag #FCsummit.

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