Daniel Lee of Flamebroiler on COVID-related restaurant changes and why he believes they are here to stay
The pandemic has brought changes to the restaurant industry that no one could have foreseen. Franchise systems have many moving parts and communication is key to get franchisees and the franchisor on the same page.
Flame Broiler, a healthy Korean-inspired rice bowl restaurant focused on honest, simple ingredients, has over 170 locations across the United States. During the pandemic, they ideated and implemented many different innovations and promos to see what their customers responded to best.
QR Codes and Online Ordering
To address the contactless ordering obstacle, the company initially created a unique QR code kiosk where customers could scan a poster from a parking spot in front of the restaurant and safely order their meal without employee interactions. Considering this was the first time the brand executed a “remote” form of technology to place and fulfill orders, they first chose to test the platform at corporate-owned locations to ensure the process went smoothly from scan to completion. This technology then evolved into online ordering, which is currently available at over 70 locations.
“We just launched online ordering at the beginning of January,” said Daniel Lee, Head of Brand and Technology. “The pandemic has motivated us, as a brand, to embrace these innovations and shifts much sooner than we originally planned. While we enjoy serving our customers in the restaurant, it is important to protect our guests and employees. Online ordering was the next logical step in getting our healthy bowls in the hands of as many people as possible.”
Reimagining Restaurant Design
Lee believes that it is important for franchises to keep looking forward and search for ways to improve either their menu, packaging or dining space. With restrictions still in effect around the nation, Flame Broiler has repurposed its dining space to create a larger pickup area. Dedicating more space has allowed the restaurant to make it more convenient and efficient for guests to swiftly get in and out with their orders.
“The look of restaurants is changing. While some adjustments are temporary, others will be permanent,” said Lee. “Major brands that have the resources have begun to design completely new restaurants with extra drive-thru lanes or expanded their kitchen into what was dining space. For smaller brands, it is necessary to look at how a restaurant’s indoor real estate can be adapted to create a more profitable layout without breaking the bank.”
In addition to expanding its order pickup area, the brand has also reimagined how they place posters and information surrounding deals on the walls and windows. Factoring in that people aren’t spending time sitting at tables to eat and are just popping in and out to grab their food, cards that were previously put on tables to announce new menu items or promos are now ineffective. The placement of marketing materials needs to be put in new areas to make the most out of the short amount of time customers are in the restaurant.
Lee also suggests that franchisors closely review trends and what people are eating. For example, spicy chicken and chicken sandwiches continue to be extremely popular. Flame Broiler recognized the in-demand food and put their own special twist by adding a Korean-inspired spicy chicken as a limited-time offer (LTO).
Testing out a new menu item for a limited amount of time at select stores gives the franchise the opportunity to get feedback and make adjustments. It allows for flexibility in deciding if a certain offering should be a seasonal offering, a one-time-only item, or added to the menu full time before extending it to all locations. LTOs also have the added benefits of producing some buzz in the community and creating an opportunity to bring in new and returning customers to try the latest dish.
“It’s always nerve-racking to release a new menu item, but with the entire nation severely impacted by the pandemic, it is even more so,” said Lee. “Before releasing an LTO, it is important to research and test out the item internally. Our spicy chicken went through numerous taste tests before we put it on the menu at select locations. You only have one chance to release an LTO, and you want it to be successful.”
Lee says this same advice applies to permanent menu items. Along with the spicy chicken, Flame Broiler announced the launch of Kimchi at the beginning of January. The Kimchi is sourced from South Korea and was also extensively researched and tested before offering it to franchisees.
“We want to ensure we are only offering the best products to our franchisees,” said Lee. “Whether it is online ordering or new menu items, as the corporate side of a franchise, we have to ensure that our franchisees are given only the best options for their restaurants.”