Chain Reaction

How Major Engagement Changes are Impacting Multi-Location Restaurants

Restaurant chains have enjoyed a long reign at the top for many years, holding that coveted space with customers as the “safe option” that provides a familiar dining experience no matter where the restaurant is located. The food service industry has had several new developments that have disrupted the classic model, and many chains are feeling the pressure as the market sees new penetration, not only by new chain brands, but also new modes of delivering a customer experience. Here are 5 growing trends that are having a direct impact on chain business in 2019.

Spotty Service

According to a report published by the National Restaurant Association in 2017, 37% of their members stated that properly staffing their locations was their biggest obstacle to growth and success. This was a 15% rise in the issue from just two years prior.

For a chain restaurant, the issue is exponentially more complicated as they try to retain a certain amount of uniformity and standardization of service expectations in a wide variety of different markets. Building a training program that is both robust enough to create a unique brand experience across multiple locations and simple enough to be quickly consumed by the endless line of new hires due to turnover is a huge undertaking.

Once you have an effective and properly trained staff, the goal should be to help them perform at their best. That means eliminating issues that directly impact your team’s ability to provide a positive customer experience.

“Our servers are very, very busy. They have a lot to do. They don’t have time to be fixing furniture and leveling tables,” says Bradd O’brien, President & Co-Owner of Howl at the Moon.

Feeding FOMO

The big driver for the new generation of shopper is experience. They are powerfully driven by FOMO (the Fear Of Missing Out), and have a desire to share all of their photo-worthy experiences with their social community. Many chains recognize the power Instagram, Pinterest, and other photo-based social media channels have to influence traffic at their locations. It requires that they create a front-of-house experience that is exceptional, unique, and “post-worthy.”

In an article published by Restaurant Dive earlier this year, David Portalatin, VP and food industry analyst at the NPD Group, explained,

“Differentiating on experience can be a lot of different things. In some respect, it’s that Instagrammable or Snapchatable moment… but in some cases, it can just be simply better service, better quality of execution in the restaurant.”

As an example, Buffalo Wild Wings redesigned a trendy new restaurant concept that pays tribute to the chain’s sports bar history. The new concept highlights lots of photo-worthy interior design features—like sports-themed custom furniture and bleachers for television viewing.

Even Starbucks, which has enjoyed one of the best dwell times of any chain, is currently redesigning a new concept that will open in Chicago and Tokyo this year. The new design will include a much larger lounge area, art galleries, and a cocktail bar.

Creating a better experience for customers that drives them to share your brand with their social media followers is the new “word of mouth” and is still one of the best investments for a chain. These new concepts need to ensure that décor, service, and furniture are all in perfect harmony to the customer’s expectations.

Sustainable Solutions

Restaurant chains have become an area of focus for environmental organizations that see the mass usage of plastic products by these businesses as a threat to the health and sustainability of the planet. Many saw the widespread “straw ban” of 2018 as a clear directive from their customers. Brands like Shake Shack have made public statements that they will be working towards the complete elimination of straws in their stores in 2019.

The issue isn’t just with straws, however.

More and more customers are aware of the environmental impact every decision a restaurant is making has on their community and the planet at large.

From plastic cutlery, Styrofoam containers, and non-recyclable packaging options, customers are becoming more selective as to where they will spend their dining dollars.

Waste is also a big deterrent for customers. They are aware of wasteful practices in restaurants and want to see positive change. Issues like sugar packets, coasters, or napkins wadded up and shoved under a table to keep it from wobbling are not only unsightly but are also a huge waste of resources. Customers are noticing these kinds of things, and they are not impressed.

Dine-in Disruption

One of the most impactful changes to customer behavior over the past few years is the trend towards take-out and delivery. This means that more customers are undervaluing, or disregarding, the dine-in experience many chains have invested in providing. More diners are choosing to pick up or have meals delivered for the convenience of not having to dress up and being able to enjoy the comforts of home while dining.

The NPD Group research group stated that currently 50% of dinner meals purchased from a restaurant are now being consumed off-premises.

That’s a huge change in customer behavior, and one that has a great deal of impact on chain restaurant models. Many chains, like Panera Bread, McDonalds, and Wendy’s, are embracing the change with robust mobile ordering systems and self-service kiosks in their stores.

The concern is that losing the engagement of the customer within the store environment—which has been designed to provide a specific and positive experience—greatly limits the brand equity a chain can develop. If service and environment is eliminated from the customer experience, then the chain’s brand will become commoditized and potentially irrelevant.

Defending against this sort of brand erosion means a reinvestment into the front-of-house experience. By creating a positive and warm dining experience—while eliminating poor service and dining annoyances—a chain can create an opportunity to stand out in an industry being driven into the sea by convenience.

Brand Conscious

Another area where customer expectations are growing is their unwillingness to spend their disposable income with brands that don’t have a socially relevant stance. Chain restaurants have also been impacted, both positively and negatively, by customer’s growing expectation that every dollar they spend has a positive social impact.

A study conducted in 2018 by Cone Communications found that 79% (nearly eight out of ten) of Americans are more loyal to brands that are driven by a positive social purpose, and 73% are much more likely to defend those brands.

These expectations also directly impact the dining experience at each of a chain’s restaurant locations. Customers are more aware than ever of how a business is facilitating all customers within their front-of-house. With actions like the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) becoming stricter, chain restaurants are having to take a hard look at their dining room layout and furniture choices to insure they are providing a welcoming and safe environment for all guests. Designing a dining room environment that is quickly and easily adjustable for any guests should be a major consideration for any chain executive team.

Restaurant, bar, and nightclub chains are seeing unprecedented change in their businesses. Customers are savvier and have more options and choices at their fingertips than ever. Creating a great experience in your locations is going to be a critical part of retaining your brand’s value and relevance in this changing market.

One thing you can’t allow to degrade your investment into the future is a poor customer experience. As their options have grown, customer’s expectations have risen, and their tolerance for poor experience have fallen drastically. Having this paired with new technologies and channels for customers to share their poor experience can be a recipe for disaster for even the biggest and most reputable chains in the market.

Issues like wobbly and misaligned tables can completely destroy the work you and your team have done to provide a positive experience for customers.

It doesn’t matter how good the food, how knowledgeable and professional the staff, or how perfect the ambience might be—if a customer is left to deal with a wobbly table, they won’t care!

FLAT® wants to partner with restaurant chains to alleviate this problem. Using either our self-stabilizing FLAT table bases—or our FLAT Equalizers for repairing existing tables, we have a range of products that can quickly and effectively resolve this issue so you and your team can focus on more important things in your business.

Chains can request a free restaurant trial of FLAT products at

To learn more about the full line of FLAT Tech products, or to schedule a personal demonstration, please contact us directly. One of our professional team members will be happy to assist you in any way.

Contact us and learn how FLAT® can help you create the best table experience for all your guests and visitors.