Skip to main content

Harnessing Tech for Exceptional Guest Journeys

Executives from three leading restaurant brands -- El Pollo Loco, Dutch Bros Coffee and Panera Bread -- shared their digital engagement lessons during MURTEC 2024.
MURTEC 2024 panel on wowing guests
MURTEC 2024 panel on wowing guests
Advertisement - article continues below

During MURTEC 2024, Results Thru Strategy CEO Fred LeFranc sat down with three restaurant brands to talk about how operators can reach and wow guests at every stage of the journey. During his preliminary remarks, LeFranc mentioned how restaurants are judged by the emotional outcome of the guest experience and that it is incumbent upon restaurants to conduct an intentional approach to the guest journey. 

“Just because you’re in a technology role doesn’t mean you’re not able to find ways to add value to that guest’s journey and experience,” he reminded the audience. “Look for small ways to enhance how your employees can interact with guests and make them feel welcome and special.”

LeFranc went on to moderate a dynamic conversation with his three panelists: Jill Adams, SVP & Chief Marketing Officer, El Pollo Loco; Leigh Gower, Chief Technology Officer, Dutch Bros Coffee; and Chris Incorvati, VP, IT & Guest Support, Panera Bread. Here are a few excerpts from their conversation. 

Panera Bread invested tens of millions of dollars into technology, fired a lot of vendors, and decided to build their own tech stack. What impact did this have on the guest experience and are you continuing that type of innovation moving forward?

Incorvati: First of all, to all my vendor friends, I’m sorry if we offended you. For the record, we love you! But yes, all the technologies we brought in house was specifically so we could enhance the guest experience. We  have a custom POS, eCommerce, and more to make it easy for guests to order with a cashier, online, through a drive-thru, or via delivery. We’re always looking at new ideas an products and we’re able to move quickly and adapt because we’re an internal team.

Dutch Bros Coffee is very well known for their customer service. How does your company support the philosophy Will Guidara (author of Unreasonable Hospitality and the MURTEC keynote speaker) shared about being present and listening to what your customers are saying? 

Gower: There are two key ways in which we support it. We encourage operators to do whatever is necessary to create a memorable moment with that customer in that moment, such as remaking their drink until it’s right or if they’re having a down day, giving them their drink for free, whatever it takes. When it comes technology, anytime we roll out anything innovate always test it thoroughly. We pilot it at 20-25 locations, we listen to our customer feedback, chef feedback, employee feedback and we tweak it until it’s absolutely perfect before rolling out systemwide. 

Jill, can you share how your partnership with tech has made El Pollo Loco more successful?

Adams: I’ve had the opportunity to work at companies where everything has been 100 percent native and custom, and that experience required a strong partnership between marketing and IT. On the flip side, I’ve had the experience at El Pollo Loco with a marketing tech stack that leverages a lot of software and platforms – many of which are represented in this room today – and that also requires a strong partnership between marketing and IT. At El Pollo Loco, we make sure that we're aligned on our definition of the customer journey, how we are trying to impact how we want the customer to feel, how we want to make sure our experience is convenient, easy to use, unique to El Pollo Loco, and then how do we bring that to life through our technical stack. This alignment really enables our teams to move faster, feel supported and know that both my CIO and I have a shared vision. 

In 2022, Panera came out with a drink subscription. What role do these personalized offers and promotions play in driving digital engagement?

Incorvati: We've had great engagement with our customers. They can come in and they can get a drink quickly. So, for doctors, nurses (or anyone else) who doesn’t have a lot of time and wants a coffee, tea or some other drink, it’s really convenient. We have several hundred thousand subscriptions, and it’s helped build sales and revenue overall. We feel that it really gives us an edge in places where people might not be able to have that same experience. 

Dutch Bros has a very large focus on loyalty as well and your loyalty members drive a tremendous amount of your revenue. Can you share how that works?

Gower: This past year we revamped our loyalty program to put more into personalization and restructuring our promotions to be more of what our customers are looking for. In Q4 we hit an all-time high of 65 percent of our overall transactions, being attributed to loyalty members. And so, we consistently listen to their feedback, address what they're looking for and bring that forward just to make it a compelling program so that they continue to use it. 

Many people mistake loyalty programs for frequency programs. How does El Pollo Loco try to differentiate its loyalty program?

Adams: So many loyalty programs did start out as transactional programs, such as buy two get one free. There are still some companies out there [using that model], and it's unfortunate because if we look at loyalty as transactional, you're actually never going to build true customer affinity and customer loyalty. About a year ago, El Pollo Loco reimagined our rewards program and went from a transactional model into a surprise and delight model based on customer preferences, frequency and purchase history. We leverage a machine learning tool called Brightly. It allows us to look at large data sets and identify not only macro segments but also micro segments in our program so that we can send personalized messages. Because this platform does all the heavy data processing for us, we have the time to understand what are the relevant messages that we need to create and that then becomes the perfect intersection between technology, customer and brand. 

How does research help a brand deliver a better guest experience?

Incorvati: To make a connection with people you need to listen and understand exactly what they’re asking for. We do a lot of focus groups, we listen to people about what their experiences are, and then we pivot quickly if we fail, you can't be afraid to fail, try something new. For example, we tried curbside during COVID and it worked well for a time. But when it wasn’t as appealing, we moved away from it. We have a lot of insights from the guest perspective because they regularly call my team to give us feedback on products and programs. We have more than 50 million loyalty members and about 80 percent of those members call into guest care because they’re passionate about the brand. So, we get a lot of great feedback.

Jill, what did you learn from Will Guidara’s keynote yesterday about creating personal connections?

Adams: I was incredibly inspired by Will’s speech. It reminded me of when I worked for Mr. Carwash, the nation’s largest carwash company. Their business model is based on a monthly membership fee that allows members to wash their cars as often as they’d like. We had an in-house CDPS model we build and found that at a certain tenure, members were more likely to cancel their members. So we started writing handwritten notes to those members who were at risk of cancelling to let them know we valued them. It didn’t take a lot of time or cost a lot of money but it was personal and it had a huge business impact. But we couldn’t have done it without technology helping us. So, when I go back to El Pollo Loco, I’m going to ponder on how we can create personal connections and leverage technology to help us scale it. 

What’s Panera doing to anticipate future food and business trends?

Incorvati: We’re launching a new simplified menu in a few weeks, which means that some of our guests’ favorite items will no longer be on the menu. So we’ve built a custom recommendation engine to help guests find new favorite items. Additionally, we’ve noticed that 60 percent of our orders are modified. That’s a huge challenge for us operationally because our operators have to constantly be looking up at the KDS screen to see how each order has been customized. 

Dutch Bros allows for any drink to be customizable. Customization can be really difficult for some brands, so how do you balance that interaction with the customer?

Gower: We use technology. As an example, Dutch Bros. is 32 years old. Some of our drinks were created and named before some of our baristas were even born. So, a customer might come up and ask for a drink that our barista is necessarily familiar with. But the barista can find that drink’s recipe within the POS so that they can make it for the customer. Additionally, if a customer comes in and doesn’t see a drink on the menu that they’re drawn to right away, they can tell the baristas about the flavor profiles they like and the barista’s can search for those flavors in our recipe catalog and make recommendations and modify a drink to delight the customer. Our baristas are phenomenal. They're our brand ambassadors, they're our number one marketing tool. They know the menu inside and out and they know, based on customers they've met before, what might be a great offering for a new customer who's trying at the shop for the first time. And if they don't get it right first time, they're empowered to remake the drink until they get it right.

More Great Content from MURTEC 2024

This is just one of the dozens of though-provoking sessions at MURTEC 2024.

You don't want to miss the MURTEC 2024 keynote featuring Eleven Madison Park's Will Guidara, author of Unreasonable Hospitality.  

This ad will auto-close in 10 seconds