Engaging all senses for epicurean experiences

 Image credit: Amanda Garbutt (The Hot Plate)

Image credit: Amanda Garbutt (The Hot Plate)

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How epicurean experiences turn infrequent diners into devoted customers

It's a jungle out there! Consumers are consistently faced with a myriad of choices on where and what to eat. With new venues increasing year on year in their thousands, businesses have to be more creative in order to survive and grow. 

Research from Allegra (now MCA) shows that consumers are continually looking for 'wow me' experiences and the reason for eating out 'as a treat' remains the primary motivator, exceeding the desire for healthy, worthy options. As loyal consumers spend 16 per cent more on dinner, understanding the elements of the dining experience that make customers return is crucial for increased sales and profit. 

The desire for more adventurous but authentic cuisines

The UK sees itself as a nation of' foodies', with 66 per cent of adults saying they are passionate about food and drink and 'totally adventurous' in terms of cuisine according to Trajectory research. Although the top 4 national cuisines (British, Italian, Indian and Chinese) are preferred for out-of-home dining, there are a number of other cuisines which are beginning to make their mark. South East Asian cuisine, Thai in particular, is set to see the strongest growth in the branded restaurant market segment, with average annual turnover of 17 per cent forecast for 2015-2018. For more traditional operators, a different way of responding to the increased diversity in the UK population, yet in line with the wish for a more adventurous option, might be to bolt on other cuisines to their offering. For example, some pubs have kept their British lunch offering but added Chinese, Indian or Thai dishes to their menu. This can be very successful, but the 'partner' cuisine needs to be authentic if it is to appeal.

Taste adventure

Many of these 'new' cuisines tap into the customer desire for stronger, bolder flavours. Brands, including Busaba Eathai, Giggling Squid, Koh Thai Tapas and Thaikhun, are growing rapidly as customer tastes evolve. MCA research describes these consumers as 'passionate diners looking for adventurous experiences in all formats and price points.' For restaurant owners who chiefly serve British cuisine, there may be opportunities to incorporate some flavour changes in the traditional menu by giving favourites a 'twist'. The 'premium' burger businesses which have seen double digit growth now offer 'Persian lamb burgers' or South American 'Salvador' burgers on their menu. More importantly, this trend is expected to continue with industry sources envisaging a 29 per cent increase within the premium burger segment over the next 3-5 years. The customer experience can also be enhanced with an emphasis on 'sharing'.  Tapas doesn't just have to mean small plates from Spain, but can offer a variety of exciting tastes and flavours which generation Y in particular is keen to try. 

Introducing theatre

Customers have always appreciated a little 'theatre' in their dining experience. So whether it is the mixologist wowing a crowd with creative cocktails, the extroverted chef who occasionally leaves the kitchen to mingle with his audience and get some feedback on his dishes, or the 'sizzling' platter being served at the table, restaurants and bars need to keep upping the ante to provide customers with a reason to return.

'Open' kitchens are already becoming established in casual dining restaurants so that customers can see how their meal is prepared and even influence and customise what is served. At another level, the 'chef's table' at top London restaurants offers an experience where diners can watch innovative dishes created right next to them. This is an exclusive experience that doesn't come cheap, but food service operators can learn from the consumer desire for getting up close and personal. One-off events, cookery demonstrations, food festivals and classes allow for engagement with customers in a meaningful way.

Making the experience memorable can also be achieved by the decor and the music. The STK restaurants always have a central bar and DJ to achieve the right 'vibe'. This emphasis on informality and making the dining a fun occasion is not just to create goodwill - the enjoyment drives repeat business.

Technology as a partner

Restaurants and bars are now beginning to exploit the many ways in which the digital world can create better experiences for increasingly savvy customers. It is vital that operators optimise their sites for mobile viewing as almost 80 per cent of consumers consider only 2 or 3 places before they decide where to eat, according to Trajectory's research. Decisions are primarily made about the type of food on offer and the restaurant's location, but reviews from recent visitors are influential and should be incorporated in digital applications developed by operators.

Modern technology can also solve some of the issues that consumers raise about the amount of 'wait' time at the end of the meal before they can pay the bill and be 'released' (CGA Peach, Zonal). Generation Y in particular is frustrated by some eating out experiences. 75 per cent of this group identify problems such as having to wait too long for a table or waiting to pay. Automated payment systems, for example, using a smart phone app, could be a solution - and particularly so for London customers. Although it is a significant investment in a fast-changing environment, operators should trial some of these digital opportunities to ensure they don't get left behind.

It's the delivery that counts

Restaurateurs know that to achieve success they have to cover the basics. Friendly service and consistent food quality are given. However, on their own these are not enough. Today's customers do not wish to abide by old-fashioned 'rules'. Kitchens that shut at 10 at night or 2.30 in the afternoon fail to recognise that (quite literally) mealtimes have changed. Those such as Wetherspoons who did make the transition to all-day dining have reaped the benefits.

The other major challenge for delivering great customer experiences is providing innovative and exciting menus. 31per cent of consumers mentioning this as an issue this year, as opposed to 14% previously, says Allegra. Menu NPD could be simple seasonal rotation or more complex, but it has to be ongoing. Today's foodie customers are willing to try new cuisines or types of outlets - for example 'street food' is seen as the next major new format by industry observers. The desire for healthy options will also drive NPD, but it is important to remember that 'worthy' is not necessarily a winner!

Giving customers great experiences will inspire them to be brand advocates and drive the elusive 'word of mouth' to bring in new diners. Building and nurturing the relationship through every element of the dining experience is costly, but fail to do so and the cost is far greater. It is a sobering thought that in 1980 there were 69,000 pubs in the UK but now there are only 48,000. The reasons for this are many, but it is clear that those pubs that survived have responded to the changing needs of modern consumers. They have created experiences, often incorporating strong food offerings, which keep bringing customers through their doors, again and again. It is indeed a jungle out there. "Eat or be eaten” are the rules and only the strongest survive.