A Winning Bar Experience: What One Chain Learned About Personalization

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Independent operations can learn a lot about the guest experience, brand loyalty and visit frequency from their chain counterparts.

As an example, look at TGI Fridays. The brand opened its first restaurant in 1965 in Manhattan. Leap ahead in time 54 years and that single unit has grown to almost 500 across the United States. There’s a reason they bill themselves as America’s Bar & Grill. Globally, TGI Fridays—90 percent of their restaurants operated by franchisees—has over 900 units in more than 60 countries.

No operation can sustain that sort of expansion without understanding the guest experience and its role in loyalty. TGI Fridays has learned the importance of delivering a unique yet consistent bar experience to increase visit frequency—the serve around a half-million guests every day across the world. It comes down to personalization.

Two of TGI Fridays best—Anna Krone, director of bar and beverage innovation, and Sherif Mityas, chief experience officer—shared what the chain has learned at the 2019 Nightclub & Bar Show. It can be tempting for some independent operators to give into their knee-jerk reactions and dismiss insights from what can be mislabeled a faceless corporate behemoth. That’s a mistake.

TGI Fridays has obtained decades of experience serving drinks to millions upon millions of people all over the world. They’ve seen technologies and trends come and go. That means they’ve gained valuable knowledge about what consumers want, how to deliver on those desires and expectations, and how to serve guests consistently and effectively in a manner that’s authentic to their brand. TGI Fridays has learned that personalization is crucial whether a brand operates one bar or 900.

“I know it may seem funny talking about personalization coming from a chain bar and restaurant, right? How do we personalize anything given we have almost a thousand locations around the world? But we think about personalization very differently at Fridays because we think about where we started,” said Mityas. “We think about that first restaurant, that first bar, in Manhattan back in 1965. And we think about that first interaction between bartender and guest. And we think about, ‘So how do we replicate that in today’s world?’ And obviously we have the benefit of technology. We have the benefit of great people. But how do we create that one-to-one engagement again so that people don’t think about, ‘I’m going to Fridays,’ people think about going, ‘I’m going to my local bar. I’m going to my Fridays.’ And they think about that personal connection with Mary behind the bar, not some faceless brand.”

Mityas told the audience that TGI Fridays has been studying personalization for the past few years. One thing the chain has learned is that technology is valuable but shouldn’t replace team members. Instead, tech should be used in a manner that enhances guest-team member and guest-bartender interactions, improving engagement.

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“What we’ve found, really, is that personalization really matters whether you’re a 900-unit brand or whether you’re a one-unit brand,” said Mityas. “That personal connection with a guest every night across the bar with every drink is what really separates you from the competition.”

Challenges & Opportunities

TGI Fridays isn’t unique in the realm of challenges. All operators in this business face the challenge to “stay on someone’s three-and-a-half-inch screen,” as Mityas described it. An operator needs to make their bar or restaurant so relevant that when someone wants to grab a drink, they think of their venue first.

Krone and Mityas don’t see TGI Fridays as being in battle with other bars or restaurants for guests. The real fight is grabbing consumers’ attention. The challenge is to be relevant when a consumer is on or off their screen and gets hungry and thirsty.

The solution is for a brand to grab share of mind. Consumers need to think of a bar or restaurant just as they would any social media channel, YouTube, Tinder or the myriad other digital distractions they have access to in the palm of their hands.

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To do this, Krone says TGI Fridays has a very specific approach to the experience they provide guests. They solve problems by looking at them differently than some other brands. For instance:

  • The industry wants to put butts in seats. Fridays wants be perceived as the best corner bar in town.
  • The industry is floating in a sea of sameness. Fridays strives to push innovation in relatable ways. “Root yourself in who you are and reach for innovation,” says Krone.
  • Whereas the industry is focused on food, Fridays is focused on food and beverage. Krone says that food drives most people to visit a restaurant, but Friday’s says, “Yes, and let’s get a drink into their hands.”
  • Many operations in the industry train once, at hiring. Fridays conducts annual re-validations. Most operators would say the bartender who has worked for them the longest is the best on their team. However, Krone says, “My experience has been a little bit different. The people who have been their the longest are usually the ones who have formed the bad habits. Now they’re passing those bad habits onto other people.”
  • The industry provides dinner and drinks, then shows customers the door to turn tables. Fridays delivers dinner, drinks and a show.

Each of those differences set TGI Fridays apart. Their unique, innovation-driven mindset gives them an edge because it paves the way for personalization. The Fridays approach involves engaging with their guests on a personal level:

  • Recognize the individual guest and engage them. Mityas says the days of targeting Millennials or soccer moms or people from certain ZIP codes is over. It’s time to understand and engage with individual guests.
  • Save and respect each guest’s time. “We’re always busy. We’re always late. We want to move faster,” says Mityas of everyone’s time. Operators need to respect guests who want to be in and out quickly, and they need to respect those guests who want to linger. That means recognizing a guest’s occasion and engaging with them differently.
  • Reward guest loyalty in fun, easy ways. According to Mityas, Fridays has found that if an operator provides great service on the first visit, there’s a 40 percent chance for a second visit. If that same level of service is provided on the second visit, 40 percent change of a third. Provide that same level of great service during the third visit and there’s an 85 percent chance of another, meaning you’ve created loyalty. It takes three visits during which consistently great service is provided to build loyalty.
  • Treat guests as though they’re “insiders.” Everybody wants to be treated as though they’re a VIP.

The Pillars

“It all starts with remembering who you are,” says Krone. For TGI Fridays, that means bringing their corner bar mentality to 500,000 guests around the world every day. They started as a corner bar (and claim the title of first singles bar in America as well) in Manhattan and embrace that legacy to this day.

That legacy has informed TGI Fridays’ “Beverage Pillars,” also known as their method of “Setting the Bar.” The brand’s personalization and guest experience are supported by four pillars: Innovation, Marketing, Hospitality and Execution.

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During their presentation, Krone and Mityas expounded on each pillar:

  1. Cutting Edge Innovation: Continue to be on the cutting edge of innovation in the bar and grill space. Be the leaders in beverage innovation in our industry sector. For example, TGI Fridays has used shimmering dust, flaming elements to Tiki drinks, and color-shifting butterfly pea in their beverage programs. While those may not seem innovative to some independent operators, they really stood out to casual-dining guests.
  2. Strategic Marketing: Implement strategic beverage offerings, point of sale, and local promotions. Get people in the door and coming back for more with the right mix of beverage offerings, POP, and promotions. The message that you’re sharing with guests outside your four walls must match the message they receive within your four walls. “If people hear it one time and then they hear something different, you’ve lost them,” says Mityas.
  3. Genuine Hospitality: Welcome guests with genuine hospitality and engagement that enhances the experience. We must create an environment that is warm and engaging to ensure the guest has a memorable experience. TGI Fridays gives team members who are deliver outstanding service recognition pins and call them out in front of the rest of the team to help foster the ideal environment. “You get way more buy-in when you recognize good behavior than when you punish bad,” says Krone.
  4. Flawless Execution: Serve flawlessly executed beverages to reinforce our bar heritage. We must set the standards for high-quality cocktails and execute to those standards in every location, every day, for every guest. It doesn’t matter how great a drink recipe is if the entire bar team can’t execute it. Serve one bad drink to a guest, says Mityas, and you’ve lost them forever. Krone says TGI Fridays has the best bartenders in the world—partially because they test things like free-pouring every day. Krone also orders a sample of sour mix when she visits a unit because Fridays makes theirs from scratch. If it’s off, she knows 70 percent of the drinks are off.

The Takeaways

  1. Ask yourself the three questions every time: Is it right for the guest? Can we execute it? Can we make money with it?
  2. Celebrate your talent at every opportunity. Have a people-first mentality. Again, Fridays uses recognition pins to recognize team members on the spot.
  3. Embrace your niche. Being all things to all people means you’re nothing to everyone.
  4. Innovate constantly. Ask you and your team what’s next. Krone asks her team that question every week. Take TGI Fridays’ AI-driven robot Flanagan, for example. Fridays could have gone with a secret menu program but veered off into artificial intelligence. Flanagan has learned essentially every cocktail recipe, what alcohol types go together, and what flavors and flavor profiles go well together. Based on what a guest is doing that night, their mood, their preferences, and their dietary restrictions, Flanagan will create a one-of-a-kind drink for them. Flanagan is currently available only on iPads in test units, but the goal is to push the app to consumer’s phones. That bespoke cocktail can be shared, encouraging their friends to join them at the bar. (Trivia: The name Flanagan comes from the movie Cocktail. Tom Cruise’s character was based on a TGI Fridays bartender and the actor was trained for the role by a Fridays bartender.)
  5. Personalize the guest experience. A guest-led experience is just as important as your food and beverage, if not more so.

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