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At Boxing Rock Brewing Co.’s Beer School in Shelburne, N.S., participants learn about beer styles and food pairings.handout

Whether it’s pick-up, delivery or dining in, Canadians have high expectations when it comes to restaurant experiences these days. And who can blame them? With food dollars stretched thin, a poor experience can be a proverbial fly in the soup. As food service providers grapple with their own cost pressures, they need to pull out the secret sauce: listening to what their customers want and responding accordingly.

“If you fail to listen and adjust to your customers’ needs, your business will fail,” says Philip Goudreau, chief operating officer of Toronto-based Pizza Pizza Limited, which has more than 700 Pizza Pizza and Pizza 73 locations across the country. “If the order is one slice of pepperoni pizza or a $500 catering order, every customer counts.”

In considering feedback from customer satisfaction surveys, Goudreau says it’s clear people want ease of ordering, convenience, value, and “to be treated well.” Even though 50 to 60 per cent of Pizza Pizza orders come through digital channels, its two call centres are staffed by real-live humans who will pick up customers’ calls within 10-15 seconds should they have questions or want to change their orders.

An intuitive tracking system also allows customers to see exactly where their order is, while letting franchisees know when their contract delivery drivers will arrive. “Nine out of 10 times the drivers don’t even have to knock on doors as the customers are already there waiting,” says Goudreau.

In addressing inflation concerns, the company has committed to a fixed pizza rate of $16.99 for an extra-large, four-topping pizza for the rest of this year. “We’re selling an average of 50 of those per location per week and the feedback has been really positive,” says Goudreau. “With so much out of [consumers’] control these days, this is something we can do that’s great value for our customers.”

At Ontario-based vegan fast-food chain Odd Burger, co-founder and CEO James McInnes says providing regular promotions is par for the course these days as consumers look for value. “They still want to eat out and indulge, but they’re also more cautious,” he says.

Last August, the company launched its own mobile app – where customers get points on purchases towards discounted or free menu items – which now accounts for half of all digital sales. “We’ve seen a lot of customers migrate to that and it’s a way we’re getting our customers to come back and remain loyal to our brand,” says McInnes.

Odd Burger, which has nine stores and another 11 slated to open before the end of this year, has invested heavily in technology to improve efficiencies, quality, and ease of ordering for customers. During the pandemic, all stores switched to cashless operations with self-checkout only, while implementing elaborate, pre-programmed cooking systems to ensure consistency in food quality. “The most important thing, certainly in our sector, is consistency,” says McInnes. “The reason you go back somewhere is because it was great the last time you went.”

As more food providers move toward automation, especially in the fast-food sector, research shows consumers are receptive. According to The Future of Commerce: 2023 Edition report from Square, 61 per cent of North American consumers say they prefer to use a kiosk to order food at fast-food restaurants and 66 per cent prefer automation over live staff in at least one aspect of their favourite restaurant experience. “The way I see it, leave the cooking to the machines so we can shift staff to focus on customer service,” says McInnes.

While fast-food restaurants focus on convenience and value, mid- and higher-end eateries hoping to fill seats must provide a dining experience that will keep customers coming back, even in difficult economic times, says Vince Sgabellone, food service industry analyst at The NPD Group. “In the early days, people were just happy to get out with family and friends without restrictions,” he says. “Now a restaurant meal is very much a form of entertainment, too.”

For restaurant operators, that means making the food itself entertaining via unique ingredients or tasting menus, says Sgabellone, or by hosting theme nights and implementing new technologies that keep things exciting. “Picture a tablet on your table with a live feed to the kitchen so you can watch your food being prepared like on the Food Network – that’s entertaining,” he says.

It’s a recipe that’s working for Boxing Rock Brewing Company, which has become a favoured destination for beer-inspired experiences in Nova Scotia. “When we launched the business 10 years ago, we just wanted to be a manufacturing facility,” says co-owner Emily Cowin. Early on, however, it became apparent that people wanted to visit the brewery in person. “So, we quickly adapted by offering tours and building a patio to make the space more welcoming.”

Today, in addition to its production facility and a retail store with a small-batch brewery, Boxing Rock has another location with a taproom (equipped with a kitchen) where groups can sign up for experiences. A popular one is Beer School where participants spend an hour or so learning about the brewing process and sampling charcuterie boards of tasty beer pairings. For those wanting more adventure, there’s axe throwing outside, complete with guided instructions, a tournament, and beer afterwards. During the winter, the brewery hosts beer dinners once a month and has even offered “yoga, brunch and beer” experiences.

“When people ask me what I do now, I don’t say I make beer but that I make craft beer experiences,” says Cowin. “It’s become a passion to help people learn about beer and how to enjoy it as a complement to whatever they’re doing.”

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