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Guest satisfaction scores among foodservice establishments are narrowing, and for many establishments, ambiance — the look and feel of the service environment — has emerged as a critical factor.

This was one of the findings of recent research presented during a session at the recent National Restaurant Association Show in Chicago that should concern all foodservice operators.

Mike Archer of Houlihan’s and Roz Mallet of PhoneNext Hospitality agree on the important role of the GM in foodservice success. Photo Credit: Elliot Maras

The session, titled, “Big Brands Aren’t Dead, But Mediocre Performance Is,” presented research by TDn2K, a provider of foodservice industry analytics and insights.

The company studied the attributes of the best- and worst-performing foodservice operations over a recent 3-year period. The company identified top-performing brands as those in the top 25 percent in year-on-year sales growth.

Service versus ambiance

Wally Doolin, chairman of TDn2K, said the research indicated that top-performing, limited-service brands are more service focused, whereas leading table-service brands (those with waitstaffs) focus more on ambiance.

Among limited-service brands, top performers focus primarily on customer wait times for food and staff attentiveness; secondly on ambiance — how the establishment looks and feels, including cleanliness; and thirdly on value, which refers to things like food portion size and quality in relation to price.

Among table service brands, the attributes that most differentiated top performers were firstly ambiance; secondly beverage service (a full bar and drink menu); and thirdly, service.

Ambiance: Independents hold the advantage

Ambiance is one area where independent competitors are giving the table service chains a run for their money, the panelists agreed. Panelist Mike Archer, CEO of Houlihan’s, admitted that his primary competitors today are independents rather than other chains, much of which he attributed to the ability of independents to create a culture that caters to their clientele.

Although much of the panel discussion focused on ambiance, the single most important success metric is the retention of general managers, Doolin said.

Archer agreed that GMs set the culture in a restaurant, and that culture influences ambiance. Ambiance and culture are especially important today due to an unprecedented crisis in trust, driven by negative news.

Asked what GMs in his chain are held accountable for, Archer said Houlihan’s GMs are responsible for controlling the area 10 square feet around them. The company also focuses on how the GM guides staff to create experiences as opposed to following a set of rules.

“It is about expectations and driving that level of performance on a consistent basis,” Archer said.

Panelist Roz Mallet, CEO of PhoneNext Hospitality, which operates several foodservice brands, also agreed on the importance of GMs based on her own company’s experience.

“The GM is that one human being you have to look in the eye and hold accountable,” Mallet said. “You have to have a relationship with your GMs. You can’t take for granted that [they know] you appreciate what they do.”

Staffing: The ongoing challenge

The problem of understaffing came up in the discussion as the industry’s biggest challenge. Mallet said that understaffing is forcing many establishments to reduce operating hours.

To this point, Doolin commented that the bar at the Fairmont Hotel in Chicago was closed at 9:30 p.m. due to insufficient staff.

Doolin asked the panelists whether foodservice has a sense of purpose today that extends beyond making money. Mallet said that passion about doing a good job is an important factor in making a company successful. She said that Buffalo Wild Wings in Atlanta instills this in its employees by measuring the number of positive customer comments.

Archer agreed on this point, saying that restaurants that celebrate the “little things” are the best performers.

Doolin said research also indicates that the companies that perform the best pay the best.

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