Pei Wei, Kizuki, Curry Up Now discuss the challenge of showing up in unbranded search

| by S.A. Whitehead
Pei Wei, Kizuki, Curry Up Now discuss the challenge of showing up in unbranded search

Three fast casual Asian-centered restaurant brands took to the stage Monday afternoon at the Fast Casual Executive Summit in Seattle to talk about the  digital landscape that most diners occupy today during those hunger-panged moments before deciding where to eat — the unbranded search. 

Whether the diner-to-be is hitting the internet to find the best Indiani restaurant or just the nearest chain with a great burger, this method of restaurant selection is "where it's at" when it comes to winning and losing customers in today's digital environment. 

Represented on the panel, moderated by Yext Head of Industry Lee Zucker, were:

  • Curry Up Now co-founder/CEO Akash Kapoor.
  • Kizuki Senior Digital Marketing Manager Janet Brooks.
  • Pei Wei CMO Brandon Solano.

The discussion included many thoughts about how smaller brands can still be players in this complex game of unbranded search when competing against larger corporate brands that can, and do, employ substantial IT departments to handle the technological challenges unbranded search presents on a daily basis.  

But this trio of restaurateurs said their brands are definitely in the ring competing hard, and here we share some of the discussion beginning with Zucker's query into what each brand has put their dollars behind this year and what they plan to put bucks into in 2019. 

At Pei Wei, Solano said the brand's first priority since splitting from its partnership with fine dining brand, P.F. Chang's, has been to really establish an e-commerce presence that has the brand standing on its own two feet. "For us getting e-commerce up and running has been critical and we launched a new e-commerce platform in 62 days," Solano said. 

Meanwhile, Kizuki partnered with Yext, which Brooks said has given the brand much quicker responsiveness and even the gift of time, since Yext controls many of the tasks once fulfilled in-house. 

"We partnered with them to allow them to control the information online about us ... and that gives us live-time control for our restaurants," she said. "For example, we had a power outage (at a chain location) and we were able to go on right away and relay what was happening. ... Then in 2019 we'll be investing in CRM and loyalty more."

In meeting the challenges of unbranded search with delivery customers, Kizuki realized great benefits when the brand aggregated its technology. 

"So we just went through and got everything all set up with an aggregator," Brooks said. "Now they're all working from one tablet for live-time orders as they come through. .... I think in 2019 we'll be looking at our website to redefine that and delivery will be a huge part of that."

But the name of the game in unbranded search is making your brand not only appear, but appear relevant to that so-called "hungry searcher." Along that vein, Zucker asked the brands how customers ultimately do come to find out about their brands. At Curry Up Now, Kapoor said he does a practice he "learned from my dad - catch-and-grab." 

He explained that the brand "catches" customers by doing a lot of online conversation and blurbs about school-related and community activities. He said as the brand expands to new areas, they're also starting to expand this practice to those communities. 

But at Pei Wei, Solano said he still thinks that capturing a presence online begins with the customer experience in-restaurant since that generates good reviews that appear online, as part of unbranded searches. 

That brought the conversation around to each brand's practices as they relate to their franchisees. Zucker wanted to know how much or how little control each restaurant chain afforded their franchisees via social media and other online channels. The answer to that question, like what these brands do in day-to-day practice was basically, "It depends."

"I don't think there's a right or wrong here," Kapoor said. "We launched an in-restaurant review thing called 'Tattle' a couple of month ago and it gives the immediate response from a guest and we opened that up to some of the managers (in the event they received) a bad review and it got very personal very quickly." 

At Pei Wei, Solano said one particularly dicey experience jolted him into instituting the chain's current practice of keeping the lion's share of control in corporate hands. It occurred after a franchisee made a political endorsement on social media, which prompted laughs and a few gasps from restaurateurs in the audience who could certainly relate.  

"So I really don't like them having access to our social media channels," Solano said. "We do let them respond to reviews, but in general ... the power of social media really magnifies it when you have a misstep. ... so you can run into a lot of trouble."

The Fast Casual Executive Summit has been taking place this week in Seattle, Washington. It wraps up this afternoon. 

Photo: iStock

Topics: Customer Service / Experience, Fast Casual Executive Summit, Marketing / Branding / Promotion

Companies: Pei Wei

S.A. Whitehead

Award-winning veteran print and broadcast journalist, Shelly Whitehead, has spent most of the last 30 years reporting for TV and newspapers, including the former Kentucky and Cincinnati Post and a number of network news affiliates nationally. She brings her cumulative experience as a multimedia storyteller and video producer to the web-based pages of and after a lifelong “love affair” with reporting the stories behind the businesses that make our world go ‘round. Ms. Whitehead is driven to find and share news of the many professional passions people take to work with them every day in the pizza and quick-service restaurant industry. She is particularly interested in the growing role of sustainable agriculture and nutrition in food service worldwide and is always ready to move on great story ideas and news tips.

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