Friday, June 25, 2010

It's the service, stupid

Industry savants often tout better service as casual dining’s best defense against challengers like fast-casual chains and retail food outlets. Certainly it’s now the front-and-center strategy of dress-down dining’s biggest and perhaps savviest combatant, the parent of the Red Lobster and Olive Garden chains.

Darden Restaurants explained to investors yesterday that service enhancements will figure prominently in near-term efforts to boost the sales performances of Red Lobster, Olive Garden and the company’s starched-linen concept, Capital Grille. But the initiatives vary greatly in their focus and what aspect of the customer experience they aim to improve.

Olive Garden, for instance, will try to do a better job of estimating and minimizing the wait times for a table. You can infer that part of the mission is sparing guests the teeth-gnashing experience of waiting an hour for a table that was supposedly 20 minutes away from being reset. But the overriding goal is serving more customers during peak periods.

Red Lobster’s program, called VIP Service, is more focused on the customer, judging from the description served up by Darden president Drew Masden. The objective there is discerning why a party is dining with the chain on any particular night and adjusting service accordingly.

That customized approach is similar to the strategy Brinker International set for its Chili’s chain in a recent service overhaul. As Brinker executives explained beforehand, sometimes a couple is rushing to make a movie and appreciate speed of service more than anything. Other times they’re kicking back and looking to enjoy a few drinks and a leisurely meal, with no sense of urgency about rescuing the baby sitter. The art is catering to the guest’s state of mind.

The emphasis on attitude-reading might be termed the Danny Meyer Method, after the famed New York restaurateur. His servers say they’re coached on deciphering the body language of customers to discern who’s in a rush, who’s hunkering down, who’s ready for the check, and who needs another drink.

Different still is the program being undertaken by Capital Grille, Darden’s Eden for meat eaters in suits. The objective there, explained chain chief Gene Lee, is alleviating unpleasant surprises for the chain’s top 10,000 customers. Step One, he indicated, is identifying who those patrons are. Phase II is making sure they have a consistent experience as they dine in Capital Grilles throughout the world.

That initiative might be a tip of the hat to Morton’s, a direct competitor that’s renowned for its consistency, to the point of being dubbed by some as the McDonald’s of steak.

Lee also cryptically cited an effort to communicate with those VIP customers in the ways they prefer. Without saying as much, he strongly suggested that their reservations would be confirmed through methods like e-mail or texting, rather than a phone call.

The execs comments came in yesterday’s conference call with analysts, as reported in a transcript provided by

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