The rise of the upscale burger chain continues, but it’s getting quite crowded in the space. Entrenched brands like Five Guys Burgers and Fries and The Counter jockey for position as chains like Carls Jr. and In-N-Out Burger begin to straddle the line between fast food and fast casual.Soon, the craze may reach its breaking point, and some brands are going to get smacked hard.
With the crowded industry growing and changing at such a quick pace, chains need any advantage they can get. One important space is technology, because nobody wants to be left behind.
One chain that’s determined to maintain its position near the top of the heap is Smashburger. Founded out of Denver, Colorado in 2007 by fast food veteran Tom Ryan, the chain has managed to ride the gourmet burger wave.
It’s growing rapidly, having doubled its stores to around 200 in 2011, and it’s on a path to reach 500 or 600 in the next few years. Right now, it’s in 26 states, and the chain recently opened its first international stores in Kuwait and Canada.
So what’s Smashburger doing with tech to improve its stores? A lot of it revolves around digital menu boards.
“One big area it helps is the store atmosphere,” says Jeremy Morgan, senior vice president of marketing and consumer insights at Smashburger. “They look great and they make the stores look modern.”
Smashburger has done a lot with digital menu boards over the past 12 months. All of the chain’s corporate stores now have digital menu boards in them, and several large franchise groups have them as well.
It’s fundamentally important that the physical stores fit with the Smashburger brand, explains Morgan, but those signs aren’t just there to look pretty. The signs also provide the ability to test new things and make changes quickly.
“A concept like ours likes to be quick, likes to be nimble,” says Morgan. “As a new brand we’re constantly trying to test new food, test new products, test new offerings. Having the ability to make those changes and not have to print new material is really helpful.
“There’s an element of control. We’re able to control the content of all menu boards, we’re able to control change, and we’re also able to really do different things in different stores at the push of a button.”
Price changes fall into that bucket as well. Even though Smashburger doesn’t do a lot of price changing, it gives the chain’s executives comfort that they can change the price without having to pay for the paper materials every time.
It’s important for Smashburger to embrace the technology so that they don’t get left behind. Other brands have started to embrace them, but they’re still not the industry norm.
“You’re probably more likely to find the newer chains and newer brands that have them,” says Morgan. “It’s a little bit easier to get your head around the cost of new builds, versus retrofit.”
You’re also more likely to see them in upscale chains rather than in traditional fast food restaurants. McDonald’s, on the other hand, has made the step of adding digital menu boards for its McCafe drinks, but most stores haven’t fully converted.
Smashburger uses two different types of digital menu boards: large, 47-inch panels behind the counter, and register display screens in front fo the cash register.
These screens are placed right in front of the register and face the customer as they’re ordering. It increases security and speeds up the line.
“We use it to up-sell — add a coke, add fries, add a milkshake,” says Morgan. “We use those for order accuracy.”
It’s also important for Smashburger to analyse all the data that’s coming in from these menus. For that, the company uses Empathica — a customer experience management (CEM) firm that uses reporting technology to set “focus areas for improvement” so that managers don’t have to dig through data.
On the digital side, social media is very important to Smashburger.
“Our concept was launched using social media,” says Morgan. “We still pay an awful lot of attention to it. We sign each message with that person’s name so that they know it’s not some random, unknown face.”
Smashburger is a bit different from most fast food chains in that it has localised Twitter handles instead of just one.
It does this to make sure that it can deliver all the local content needed to satisfy its customers, “whether that’s having half-off shakes because the Twins won a game in Minneapolis or talking about the fact that we’re opening our latest and greatest store in Miami,” says Morgan.
Smashburger has one national Facebook page it uses to reward its fans with coupons. Most of the couponing Smashburger does is to get people to try different parts of the menu, and promote the new things that it’s offering.
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