The 6 Keys to Building a Great Hospitality Program

iStockphoto / YinYang

It doesn’t take much to make a customer’s day.

Something as simple as a complimentary ice cream or a warm greeting might be enough to turn a casual customer into a loyal one. And operators say that even in the limited-service arena, where speed and accuracy can seem paramount, customers increasingly crave that extra touch.

It’s no wonder that executives and managers have implemented an array of strategies to make the experience in their restaurants stand out in the ever-competitive restaurant space—whether it’s a few extra power outlets for smartphones, a surprisingly robust craft-brew selection, or an extra level of tableside service.

If you want to build a great hospitality program, follow these six tips from the operators who do it best.

1. Sweat the details

At Pal’s Sudden Service, every single guest is greeted warmly.

“And it has to be every customer, every time, without fail,” says David McClaskey, president of Pal’s Business Excellence Institute, which teaches the regional hamburger chain’s management and customer service strategies to a variety of business leaders. “At Pal’s Sudden Service, every customer is to be delighted every time without fail. No excuses. And we know of very few businesses that have that standard.”

That means managers even sweat the tone in which team members greet guests. “Everybody might say ‘hello,’” McClaskey says. “But how many people specify the tone with which you say hello and enforce that with how each and every customer is greeted?”

That mandated greeting isn’t scripted, because customers in Eastern Tennessee and Southwest Virginia would find that insincere, he says. And though the drive-thru-only stores operate in the heart of Dixie, you won’t hear a “y’all” at the speaker box. “It has to be in proper English,” McClaskey says of employee etiquette. “We don’t allow colloquialisms.”

Managers might like to think some employees are just better suited at hospitality than others, but McClaskey doesn’t buy that kind of thinking. Pal’s views hospitality as a core job responsibility—no different than flipping burgers or wiping down the counters.

“You’ll find [something] like 95 percent of people can do it. Hospitality is a set of behaviors; it’s not a personality characteristic,” he says. “People mistake it for, That person is friendly. What we sense is a set of behaviors that we interpret as friendly. They could be feeling very friendly to you or not.”

Pal’s obsession with hospitality doesn’t come at the expense of other industry demands, McClaskey says. Employees are tasked with three non-negotiable charges: greeting each customer warmly every time, getting the order right, and getting it out in a reasonable amount of time.

“You fail in any one of those areas, your customer is not going to be delighted,” he says. “Therefore, they won’t be back as often.”

2. Give customers a choice

Many customers are delighted when restaurant employees go out of their way to offer a friendly greeting or strike up a conversation. But many others value a more transactional, even human-free, experience in the store.

That’s why Saladworks has tried to offer two distinct experiences; customers can either go through the line and have team members explain the sourcing of the butternut squash and which ingredients would fit into a paleo diet, or they can order online or at a kiosk and quickly retrieve the salad at a designated space.

“People like to be served in different ways,” says Saladworks CEO Patrick Sugrue. “Regardless of what you like, we can deliver it—high-tech or high-touch.”

The “rapid ordering” platform first rolled out to get customers through the line quicker during busy lunch and dinner rushes. But management soon realized it offered an in with millennials who don’t always crave the same kind of human interaction as older customers.

The new platform also has the added benefit of synching up with customers’ constantly changing diets. It can automatically gray out any ingredients that don’t meet a vegan or vegetarian diet, for instance, or it can calculate exactly how many Weight Watchers points a certain salad would rack up.

Saladworks’ recent rebrand has revamped stores to include communal tables, individual seating, and extra charging stations. The décor is less institutionalized, Sugrue says, and company executives are more open to considering nontraditional store locations that feel more local and unique.

“The days of having a cookie-cutter restaurant where literally every store looked the same—I don’t know that that’s as important as it was only a few years ago,” Sugrue says. “[Customers] like the good locations that a chain typically can get. They like the confidence of a chain knowing that they’re probably getting access to the safest, best ingredients. But I think they’re looking for a restaurant that shares some of the commitment to the community, has a passion for the food and the customers, and sweats the details.”

3. Don’t skimp on labor

Since labor is one of the few controllable expenses in a restaurant, it’s become a target for operators looking to cut costs. But cutting staff to the bone can prove shortsighted, says Brian Wise, a partner and COO at HCI Hospitality, which operates 24 Freddy’s Frozen Custard & Steakburger restaurants, as well as a handful of independent full-service concepts.

“Our view around this is, Let’s have the right number of people in the building to help the guests,” Wise says, “and then guests will come back more often because they’re getting a consistent, memorable experience.”

At his Freddy’s stores, managers craft memorable experiences by regularly circulating throughout the dining room. But their presence goes well beyond a simple table touch. They greet guests, clear dirty tables, and help baseball teams or church groups push tables together. Managers are encouraged to over-prep certain items like Oreo ice cream sandwiches to give away as free treats.

At one of HCI’s stores in Kansas, Wise says, he recently walked in to see managers giving away small cups of custard topped with a dog treat to guests who pulled up to the drive-thru window with a puppy in tow.

“I didn’t even know we were doing it. It wasn’t something they had to get approval on,” he says. “We call them random acts of kindness they can do to make the experience special.”

This relentless focus on hospitality has had an unexpected result: Employee turnover is down significantly. Team members have more fun interacting with guests, and they’re not overworked on understaffed shifts.

Of course, the basics of speed and order accuracy remain just as paramount as customer service, Wise says. But he believes consumers increasingly want that special touch. “I do think people nowadays are starting to crave a consistent, memorable experience—a place they can come relax and know what they’re going to get,” he says.

4. Strategically build a unique experience

Your Pie helped pioneer the fast-casual pizza space, but the category quickly became crowded with competitors. That’s why the brand leans heavily on a robust craft-beer program to set it apart from the pizza pack. Stores partner with nearby breweries to offer local beers; some Your Pie locations have as many as 20 beers on tap. They regularly host “tap takeovers” and roll out LTOs that pair new pizzas with craft beers.

“A lot of times consumers don’t expect fast-casual places to have a great craft-beer program,” says Your Pie founder Drew French. “When they do come in, it’s kind of a surprise and delight.”

French says the craft-beer program has required a lot of work from managers, who have had to build connections with their local breweries over time. “It’s not something you can do on day one,” he says.

Diners aren’t drinking the night away at Your Pie. But it’s not unusual for customers to stick around for a beer or two after they finish their meal, French says. He credits that to Your Pie’s careful integration of the craft-beer program into the concept. Seating is purposefully comfortable to encourage customers to relax for a bit. Stores compete among each other to see who can sell the most craft beer. And the restaurants are designed to put those local beers front and center for customers.

“If you just have a few bottles of craft beer at the register and it’s an afterthought, and if your seats aren’t comfortable and you don’t have a welcoming layout and design, it doesn’t make a lot of sense,” French says. “But we’ve really built it into our layout and design. It does provide a different experience, if the guests want it.”

Your Pie delivers food to the table, like many fast-casual concepts. But employees also check in with diners to see whether they’d like another beer and to ask about their meal. French believes that extra table touch helps elevate the customer experience.

“To us, being best in class in food is kind of the blocking and tackling,” he says, using a football metaphor. “And then the guest experience is kind of what separates our stars from our non-stars. That’s really where you’ve got to focus on developing a team. We invest heavily in our teams, because we know they’re the ones that are going to provide that great experience and that great food.”

5. Take a hint from full service

Fazoli’s was once known for serving the fastest Italian food in the industry, says CEO Carl Howard. But over the last few years, the brand has traded its utilitarian paper plates and disposable foil trays for real dishes and silverware as it has incorporated some elements of a full-service restaurant into its dining rooms.

Now, team members deliver food to the tables and offer extra helpings of hot breadsticks. They bus dirty dishes for guests. And they even offer grated parmesan cheese tableside.

“We’re trying to be the brand that provides the most service at our price point,” Howard says. “We always say no one provides the same service after sale as Fazoli’s at a $7 price point.”

He says a gesture as simple as tableside parmesan has vastly improved the experience for customers. The extra table touch gives team members another chance to catch any mistakes and offer an extra layer of service.

“It adds a service component that the guests like. And it kind of keeps our employees engaged at the table for another 30–60 seconds,” Howard says. “We’re not dropping off the food and taking off. There’s more social interaction. It allows us to make sure everybody’s got exactly what they want.”

Even with the service upgrades, Fazoli’s hasn’t lost sight of its place in the industry; Howard says he still considers the brand firmly in the quick-serve segment, not the fast-casual arena.

“The consumer really says who you are as a concept,” he says. “We really look at ourselves as a premium [quick-serve] brand. Our consumers are heavy [quick-serve] consumers, and they use us as an alternative to Olive Garden.”

Recent store remodels have freshened up the design, adding WiFi bars, community tables, seating for individual diners, and plenty of power outlets. Those features may not matter to the brand’s base today, but they will matter to customers of the future, Howard says.

“Right now, that’s not really our consumer,” he says. “Things change so fast, so we have to be planning for the change that’s happening now and continue elevating the brand and ensuring it speaks to the next generation of consumers.”

6. Pay attention to the aesthetics

The days of the hard plastic booths and a stark red-and-white color scheme are slowly vanishing at Dairy Queen, as the company continues to update and build new stores under the DQ Grill & Chill banner.

The new concept, originally rolled out in 2001, broke the dining room into several smaller areas. Originally designed to emphasize food over the brand’s iconic frozen treats, the new stores put kitchens front and center and push the ice cream to the side—all of it in an attempt to enhance the hospitality quotient.

“If you didn’t know Grill & Chill, you would look at this facility and think, ‘That kind of looks like a restaurant. It looks like a place that has food,’” says Eric Lavanger, vice president of design, architecture, and construction for International Dairy Queen Inc.

The company will require most franchisees to transition to the new store design, which moved away from fluorescent can lighting and added upholstered seats, outdoor patios, and high-top tables.

“It’s much more warm, welcoming, and comfortable,” Lavanger says. “But we also took a crack at really elevating the table-service experience for someone who walked into our Grill & Chill.”

The transition seems to be paying off; stores have reported double-digit same-store sales growth after upgrading to the new design.

Aside from the stores featuring glossier aesthetics, Lavanger says, staff commit to going above and beyond, seeking “wow opportunities” with fans of the brand. The customer service focus includes everything from clearing dirty tables inside to making sure the parking lot remains tidy—or “the basics of customer service,” as Lavanger puts it.

With the number of consumer options growing faster than the number of consumers themselves, he says, those small efforts can ultimately make the difference with customers.

“It becomes a game of theft,” he says. “I’m going to steal someone else’s customer, and I’m going to deliver them more than they expected to convert them.”