Thinking of Buying a Fast-Casual Franchise? Read this report first.

Outside Insights | By John Drinkard

Mother Knows Best
Convenience, fresh food, and healthy options for kids were just some of the things a group of surveyed moms wanted from the restaurant industry.
Moms have simple, yet legitimate criteria with regard to what makes a restaurant attractive to families.r

Business insights take many forms, and the more you’ve got, the better. In today’s difficult economic climate, marketing insight has to be a top priority for all of us. If you look at the businesses that are making it and those that are not, the ability to sell themselves to their clientele, whatever the industry, often makes the difference.

When it comes to marketing, insight includes the ability to generate new products and profit centers. It enables you to accurately amend your product mix and build customer loyalty. But, most of all, it tells you how to become and how to remain as relevant as possible to your consumers.

In the current economy, such insights become even more valuable as tighter budgets and streamlined staffs make hitting the mark on key marketing programs the first time that much more critical. You need to have a confident grasp of where to concentrate your resources and where the value lies.

Marketing insight and core business values are not always the same thing; they don’t always agree. But when it comes to knowing your customer base, both must agree. In fact, all our senses should emphatically proclaim that our consumers are everything to our business and that we must listen to them as much as we can. Their needs, behaviors, and emotions need to figure prominently in our decision-making.

As the director of marketing for a global restaurant franchisor with 300-plus corporate and franchised quick-service locations spanning 37 states and six countries, we understand that women with families are our key constituency. That’s why we decided to gather a group of influential “mommy bloggers” to really find out what they think about issues surrounding our industry. What drives their purchase decisions? What do they feel is missing from restaurants in general? What do they consider healthy and/or fresh? As you would expect, we got a lot of interesting feedback. Much of what we heard was unexpected.

We expected that buzzwords such as "health” and “value" would have been uppermost in the minds of these mothers, but we discovered that "convenience" was a much more highly sought-after offering.

Also, a drive-thru salad concept was offered as a great idea and something that moms would love to see on the quick-service front.

In the landscape of kid’s meals:

• Children’s tastes have evolved significantly and the standard mozzarella sticks, chicken fingers, or mac and cheese are not always intriguing to children anymore. Half- or quarter-portion versions of adult meals would be welcome options.

• Breaking the kid’s meal into age categories, such as 2–5 and 5–12, would help, perhaps retaining the standard options for younger children. Meanwhile, 5–12-year-olds would have choices that were a bit more sophisticated.

• There is great interest in meal executions that would appeal to children, such as chopped salads, increasing the number of dips and sauces available, and character-shaped foods.

• Children are conscious of the fact that "healthy eating" is something that they should be trying to do.

• Healthy-eating messaging for children should center on ideas such as “it will make you big and strong,” “you will be able to run faster,” or “it will help your hair grow long and beautiful.”

• Children are asking questions to parents about whether what they are eating has a lot of fat, sugar, etc.

When the mommy bloggers were asked what “fresh” meant, answers included “homemade,” “made-on-premises,” and “made fresh daily”—anything that lets mothers know the product is not a prefabricated item that is simply defrosted and put up at point of sale. Mothers are looking for something that was made from scratch with fresh ingredients and cooked at that location.

Mothers are looking for something that was made from scratch with fresh ingredients and cooked at that location.

Naturally, we value every insight that was gained through this meeting. Where it is practical, the plan is to implement many of the suggestions right away. Where a given suggestion would be difficult or even impossible to execute, finding out what is truly important to mothers helps us immensely. It allows us to understand the interests, needs, and desires of this vitally important decision-making consumer.

As for the next steps, I think adding a pick-up and delivery component to our local full-service locations is something we can readily achieve. I plan to sit down with my R&D department to see what we can do about creating child-size portions of adult meals. At our quick-service locations, child-size smoothies and chopped salads appear to be very practical and attainable.

Another important conclusion is that we need to develop messaging at our quick-service locations that more clearly and explicitly communicates our on-premise “fresh” food preparation commitment.

I have every confidence that the insights gained through this exercise will support and enhance our current profitability and will lead us in new and exciting directions for the future. It won’t be the last time we sit down with our key demographic groups.

So the next time your mother, or anyone’s mother, gives you her opinion, I’d advise you to take note. Even if it’s not the validation you were looking for, it will, most likely, be a viewpoint well worth considering.

John Drinkard is the director of marketing for Villa Enterprises Management, parent of Villa Pizza/Villa Fresh Italian Kitchen, Green Leaf’s, Banana’s, South Philly Steaks & Fries, and Casa Java.