by Sanjiv Razdan
SVP Operations Applebee’s USA
In many ways, times have never been tougher for casual dining restaurants. Changing demographics, fresh competition and digital disruption, all stacked up to a lot of pressure on the segment and an unprecedented need for change, innovation and differentiation from brands.
At Applebee’s, we are under no illusion that these trends won’t continue to have a big impact again this year and beyond. Put simply, our consumers’ expectations are changing, they have more options than ever to choose from and we’re going to need to be focused in order to maintain our leadership role.
In my view, there are three key trends that are going to be crucial for the casual dining restaurant industry in the next year.
1. Differentiating with design and products
In 2016, a key part of our continued strategy at Applebee’s will be on breaking out from the ‘sea of sameness’ that has come to define our industry. In today’s world, a fresh look is a requirement of our guests, and this will continue to shape the industry in the coming year.
Over the last 5 years, virtually the entire Applebee’s system has been given a facelift. Our restaurants are more contemporary, innovative and attractive for our guests. Our major bar revitalization project is designed to modernize and evolve Applebee’s bar offering, focused around the elements of people, products and innovation. We have developed a custom training program for all bar staff, to ensure consistency and quality of service across all restaurants and to ensure that our customers know that they will get quick, experienced service in a great atmosphere.
We are also testing an entirely new restaurant building concept this year. This new prototype will see a significant redesign of both the interior and exterior, planned to simplify, modernize and refresh the entire environment.
2. A focus on quality
Bringing new, interesting menu items in that can appeal to a range of dining tastes and occasions, and making sure those dishes use interesting, quality ingredients and cooking styles is what lies at the heart of a good innovative culinary strategy. This will be more important than ever in the coming months.
It’s not always about trying to be the newest and most original style of cooking, but keeping things fresh, while maintaining quality at all times. At Applebee’s, for instance, our classic bar-and-grill menu items – using higher-quality ingredients and premium preparation techniques – remain at the core of what we serve. Today, we are building upon this heritage and further differentiating Applebee’s to maintain the brand’s position at the top of the casual dining segment.
We are set to build on innovations from the last year, such as The Pub Diet and All-In Burgers, by bringing to market an entirely new platform, without peer in our category, in 2016 which will have quality, innovation and culinary expertise at its core.
3. Integrating technology into the guest experience
Today, the restaurant experience goes well beyond the ‘brilliant basics’ of food and service. We know that technology and the modernizing of systems is playing a bigger role in the overall guest experience.
This is definitely one trend that will only gain more momentum as we move through this year. Guests want convenience, immediacy and options tailored to their needs.
Additionally, guests increasingly are looking for ownership of their experience. They want to be able to walk into a restaurant, order when ready, request that second drink when desired and pay when they want to pay. Applebee’s tabletop devices allow this.
The future? Applebee’s is already working on advances in geotracking technology to enable a more tailored and streamlined service experience to be put in place before a guest even walks into the restaurant. We’ll be looking at many more ways to innovate and make a completely transformed guest experience the reality.