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08/03/2021

How Cunningham Restaurant Group Leverages Customer Feedback

This restaurant group with 15 different concepts and 34 locations has streamlined how it tracks and responds to customer reviews and manages its SEO.
Anna Wolfe
Senior Editor - Restaurants
Anna Wolfe  profile picture
a group of people sitting at a table in front of a brick building
Cunningham Restaurant Group operates 15 concepts including the upscale casual dining concept Bru Burger.

Online restaurant experiences matter more than ever, as consumers − and potential customers − spend much of their time online, not only ordering online but also researching new restaurants, checking menus and reading and posting reviews.

In the past two years, Indianapolis-based Cunningham Restaurant Group (CRG)’s use of customer-facing technology, has “evolved immensely,” said Carissa Newton, Director of Marketing at Cunningham Restaurant Group

Newton, who joined CRG in 2018, identified some bottlenecks. The company’s Aloha POS, she says “does come with some barriers for us... For example, my email marketing was limited because I didn’t have a direct link into our loyalty database of our guests.”[Updating existing POS systems is on trend. According to HT's 2021 POS Software Trends report, 65% of restaurants plan to add new functionality/modules to their current POS software this year.] 

When she arrived at CRG, Newton witnessed how the company responded to customer reviews on social media. “It was a very manual process prior to my arrival,” she explained. “Our team was going out to the internet, gathering all the reviews, putting them into a spreadsheet and then sharing them with the stakeholders at the various restaurants. They might go to that individual platform – Yelp, Google, OpenTable – and then respond.” But there wasn’t a consistent process for responding to reviews. And the process – monitoring, tracking and responding –  was a time hog.  “Marketing team members would spend the better part of a day cut and pasting reviews into an Excel spreadsheet,” Newton explained.   

“Reviews were appreciated but often not viewed with a seriousness,” Newton said about her early days at CRG. In addition to the highly manual and hit-or-miss response to customer reviews, the restaurant was using secret shopper programs for guest feedback. 

the inbox
The Birdeye inbox. In January 2020 CRG started testing Birdeye, a customer experience and review software for multi-location businesses.

“I said, ‘There has got to be a better way.'” Newton started looking for aggregator technology.  “At the same time, we were managing business listing manually and making sure restaurants were accountable for responding to those reviews.”  

In January 2020 CRG started testing Birdeye, a customer experience and review software for multi-location businesses.

Trying to sell it up the ladder met with a bit of resistance.

“Wouldn’t it be awesome to be consistent in responding to customer reviews? Updating listings? Better presence for SEO for all of our restaurants?,” Newton asked as she tried to sell it up the ladder.  “They were a little leery of it,"  but they agreed to a test.

CRG and restaurants coast to coast were shut down in March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.  “The Birdeye team was very helpful,” said Newton. Birdeye helped CRG’s 32 restaurants at the time shutter their websites, turn off their business listings and furlough their teams.  As restaurants started to reopen for carryout and then dining rooms, Birdeye helped update the restaurants’ listings, manage the hours open and respond to reviews.

The Good, The Bad & The Ugly

Newton is a big proponent of responding to all customer reviews. “Reviews are free,” she says. “Reviews are the gift that you are getting from guest experience. If we provide phenomenal guest experience, and we respond to their review, not only do we have guests who are wowed in that process, Google and all these search engines see it as favorable. They rank you better, they rank your websites better, and rank your listings better if you are responsive.” 

“If we can be 100% responsive to our reviews, whether they are good, bad or indifferent, we are going rank better for SEO and wow the guest in the meantime. And we’re going to be 100% accurate in those business listings.”

CRG went live with Birdeye across the enterprise as it reopened for carryout and as it opened locations in different capacities, our reviews got better and better. And we started tracking our net promoter score, so we were able to see the growth and the improvements along the way.

“That technology became a critical part of our business,” said Newton.  “We got rid of the secret shopper entirely.”  

Deploying Digital Ordering

CRG also added online ordering during COVID. It was a big leap for the restaurant group known for its upscale casual dine-in and finer dining concepts, and its leadership “didn’t think customers would embrace it,” Newton said.  “It was one of our saving graces during the course of doing carry out,” she said.

Operators were concerned how technology would impact the guest experience and how customers would perceive it. In the back of house, there were concerns about how online orders would impact the queue of phone orders. “One thing we were able to do, is that online orders come into the mix, and they arrive like any other order, and they stay in the queue of how they’re handled in the system,” Newton explained.  

The restaurant added NCR's Aloha online ordering, quickly incorporating it into its websites, and the QR code technology. Operators were able to see the bottom-line impact. “They were able to see that it works, and they were able to see it brings in additional sales,” she said.

a plate of food and a glass of beer on a table
CRG is looking at adding tablets and contactless payment via QR code in the future at its 15 casual and finer dining concepts.

Adding QR Codes

“As a marketer I’ve spent many years saying QR codes are dead,” recalled Newton.  Not anymore. “We added QR codes as a way for our guests to be able to read our menus, be sanitary and be able to adhere to COVID practices at the same time,” she added.  

[QR Codes: One Solution to the Post-COVID-19 Dine-In Problem]

CRG added QR codes to laminated cardstock and then upgrade to synthetic cards that have Microban technology for additional sanitation. The QR codes have been widely accepted by customers across CRG’s concepts. “In many of our restaurants we are moving away from having the book-and-board  concept of having physical menus,” Newton said.  “We are utilizing QR codes wherever we can.”

CRG uses the web-based QR Code Generator – which allows Newton to see how many times each QR code is viewed.

“One restaurant operator said, ‘They’re not going to use QR codes.’ We came back to them and said we have tracking their use. We have more than 1,000 views at one restaurant. Guests are using them. Guests are asking for them,” she said. 

CRG is looking at adding tablets and contactless payment via QR code in the future. Online ordering too is poised for a refresh; Newton plans to update the online menu with Instagram-worthy images of each brand's dishes.

[Contactless Transactions Are Here to Stay]

And bringing it full circle, guests started praising CRG’s use of QR codes and online ordering in their reviews. “Guests were appreciative of what we were doing and saw us as a leader during COVID using QR codes and online ordering technology,” said Newton. “So that was amazing to see.”

“From the restaurant operator perspective, introducing all these new technologies and being able to do them successfully and have them embraced by our guests and by our teams, it just showcased very quickly how nimble we could be and how we co really make a better guest experience at the end of the day,” said Newton.