4 Things Fast-Casual Brands Need to Know as Office Workers Return for Lunch

September 22, 2021

By Ross McNab

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While COVID-19's Delta variant has delayed some companies' plans for going back to the office, the renewed energy for the vaccine rollout suggests the hybrid model is still more of a matter of "when" than "if" for this fall. In fact, according to a recent LinkedIn study, 64 percent of workers are already heading back in on some days. This means office workers will again patronize their favorite lunch spots after 18 months of largely making their mid-day meals at home. And that's good news for fast-casual brands.

As the economy reopens, the lunchtime crowd will have new expectations for their dine-in experiences. Here are four things for fast-casual brands to consider as tables fill up.

Help them overcome sticker shock


After a year and a half of home-cooked meals, office workers may not be ready for the cost or sticker shock of an in-restaurant meal. Restaurant brands should be providing a cash-back loyalty program to attract new customers and encourage repeat visits while helping folks save money at the same time. Some brands are ahead of others with cash-back offers via mobile platforms, including Subway (5 percent), Shake Shack (10 percent) and DoorDash ($5.50 per order).

Other restaurant marketers should follow suit. A 2021 Fast Casual Dining Survey found that nearly half of respondents would like to see more loyalty programs from restaurants. Where office workers eat for lunch often becomes a habit, and restaurant brands' loyal customers should be rewarded.

Since cashback rewards programs provide a positive gratification loop which can replace the negative feelings consumers have during the payment process, the last interaction with your brand won't be the sticker shock — it will be the cashback reward. And that kind of immediate gratification fosters brand loyalty.

Use cashback to alleviate staffing problem


As news outlets have reported, restaurants are having a hard time finding help. As such, fast-casual brands need to be smart about their promotions. If they drop a traditional coupon into next month's mail circular, the brand will receive a huge temporary spike in visitors, a lot of whom are just glad to see that their favorite lunch spot they were going to eat at any way is going to give them a discount. Restaurants wind up paying their loyal customers to come in and exacerbate the staffing challenge.

A strong digital platform can help them target the right guests at the right time with 5 percent or 10 percent cashback offers like Subway and Shake Shack are doing; therefore, the lift in demand is lower but persistent and comes from only the customers the marketer wants to pay to try you out. Further, a savvy restaurant brand might also offer cashback only when customers order online for pickup/delivery to alleviate the staffing problem.

Relieve them of virtual fatigue


Virtual fatigue is the feeling of growing exhaustion after spending so many months in front of digital screens and taking a lunch break at a restaurant can be an antidote. And with the Delta variant, restaurant brands should continue to offer outdoor dining. Dosh, a Cardlytics' company, found in its 2021 Dining Report that more than 60 percent of restaurants offer outdoor dining, and 70 percent of those restaurants began offering outdoor dining in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. These statistics highlight the way restaurants were able to adapt to new challenges and also take advantage of them by increasing sales volume with additional outdoor tables.

Pent-up demand for lunchtime dining experiences will help restaurants recoup the costs of setting up outdoor dining spaces for those that didn't offer the option pre-pandemic. Fast-casual brands should capitalize on virtual fatigue by promoting their outdoor dining, which looks like it could be here to stay in various locales even if the pandemic completely subsides in 2022.

Focus on innovation


Right now, there is a labor shortage; therefore, fast-casual brands need to innovate with how they manage their operations. They should consider installing self-service kiosks whenever possible, taking some burden off customer service clerks and enabling managers to focus on kitchen staffing rather than worry as much about having enough people in the front of the house.

When restaurants do hire, they should look to make the job as easy as possible. This situation makes another case for introducing a card-linked offer loyalty program. Card-linking programs do not require extensive training or point-of-sale equipment purchases, which makes them the perfect marketing partner for restaurants seeking an easy-to-integrate, loyalty program. Not to mention card-linked offers drive loyalty and provide a frictionless customer experience for busy office workers getting their lunch.

After 18 months, the lunchtime crowd is returning to work. Yet, since most of these office workers will still work from home part of the time, to maximize sales, fast-casual brands need them to be loyal during the one to three times a week they do commute in. To do that, fast-casual brands need to consider the impact of sticker shock, the opportunities with cashback and virtual fatigue and offer innovative customer experiences.

The views and opinions expressed in Marketing Maestros are solely those of the contributor and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the ANA or imply endorsement from the ANA.


Ross McNab is President, North America Advertising at Cardlytics.


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