The entire category is undergoing a reinvention — if you believe the breathless business analysts enamored of the niche concepts currently being launched. Here’s an easier, better alternative.

Commentary:  Re-thinking fast-foodIn a recent analysts’ conference for investors, Steve Ells, chairman and co-CEO of Chipotle Mexican Grill, outlined some ideas he proposed as alternatives to “the old model” of the fast-food industry.

Ells, who has been lionized in the business press for years as “the guy who’s rewritten the rules of fast food,” noted — correctly — that traditional fast-food business operations are driven by high volume, low costs and cheap labor. In that scenario, customers demand the lowest possible prices, and they’re willing to sacrifice virtually any other consideration in return — service, quality and consumer choice.

As a result, the franchise operators put all their energies into driving down raw material costs, keeping a lid on wages and battling their competitors to see who can lower their menu prices further.

“The old fast-food model . . . requires cheap ingredients, lots of processed food and lots of mechanization to keep things consistent,” Ells was quoted as saying.

He said he believes consumers are no longer interested in processed foods, limited-time offers and other marketing gimmicks. As a result, Chipotle has pioneered a system that features what the chain touts as “sustainably raised ingredients,” a higher quality menu and the ability to fully customize one’s order. He’s also leading an effort to revamp two fast-food sectors, both of which would benefit from some reinventing, by launching Pizzeria Locale and ShopHouse Southeast Asian Kitchen.

The Pizzeria Locale features made-to-order pizza that can be prepared in only two minutes in customized spiral ovens, while, Southeast Asian Kitchen’s menu offers Asian-style rice bowls that customers can personalize with various fresh, local ingredients and “natural” meats.

Gee, just like Chipotle, only served with rice instead of beans.

The quick fix

Most business analysts consider the Chipotle model to be appropriate only for certain upscale market segments, and thus unsuited for application to the nation’s numerous burger, chicken and pizza chains. Maybe so, but here’s another idea — which doesn’t requires reconstructing the supply chain or reinventing the operational model — that that would improve the service, quality and customer experience at fastfood stores across the country.

It’s a simple change that would dramatically improve the perceptions about fastfood customer service.

What happens when you walk into a typical burger chain or chicken chain restaurant? You likely know what you want, and your goal is to place your order, pay your tab and either sit down and start eating or collect your order and be on your way, right?

But what happens (most of the time)? The clueless person at the register takes your order, punches a bunch of buttons, and swipes your card. Then you stand there like a dolt, holding your useless receipt and you wait. You wait until someone else hands you a bag or a tray and quickly departs, leaving you to mentally inventory what’s you’ve just been given or start rummaging through the bag to make sure your got what you paid for.

If you got shorted a bag of fries, or you asked for sweet and sour dipping sauce, and you ended up with ranch, too bad. The cashier, already three customers down the line, hasn’t a clue what you ordered. The employee who handed you your order is off dumping fries into a bin, or hauling some frozen sack of food out a freezer somewhere, and even if they’re standing right there at the counter, it’s still quite a process to get them to verify your order, double-check what you were given, and then tell yet another employee to go get your missing fried or scrounge up the condiment you initially requested.

Here’s how you fix that situation.

First, you take the best employee on the payroll, the person who’s the smartest, friendliest and most customer savvy and you put them in front of the counter. Kind of like a concierge or a restaurant hostess. They’re equipped with a headset to talk to and to listen to the people in the prep area, and their job is includes:

  • Greeting customers
  • Pointing out the specials or promotions
  • Examining and confirming coupons or freebies the customers intends to use
  • Answering questions about prices, serving sizes, nutritional facts or product availability.

When it’s not busy, the concierge can either swing behind the counter to help with staging orders, provide optional condiments or other extras or — don’t be shocked — actually circulate through the dining area or even the drive-thru line to do what every decent chef or headwaiter routinely dies at any halfway decent restaurant: Engage with the patrons.

And maybe clean up here and there, make sure high chairs or booster seats are properly stored (or deployed) and in general use their customer service skills to enhance the dining experience.

Perhaps most importantly, this person would be empowered to “make good” any customer complaints on the spot. No questions, no arguments, no “Let me talk to the manager” tap dancing. A customer has a problem? The concierge fixes it right then and there.

Personally, I’d be shocked if any of the duties listed above were taken seriously by any employee at the various fastfood stores I’ve visited over the years. Granted, fastfood stores operate on thin margins, but they also depend on volume to create the efficiencies needed to stay profitable.

Driving traffic is key, regardless of any other menu expansion or ingredient sourcing or high-end marketing. And all those tweaks cost more money than merely hiring a competent floor manager, paying that person appropriately and taking a giant step ahead of the competition on the one aspect of the restaurant business that is horribly undervalued by fastfood operators.

In a word: Service.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.