April 29, 2021 at 09:14PM

While many restaurant businesses struggled during the peak of the pandemic, consumers’ rapidly changing routines provided on opportunity for brands with the resources to integrate themselves into these new lifestyles to do so. Brands that were able to identify what consumers needed at these moments, and to deliver that to consumers (both figuratively and literally) had the opportunity to build a relationship with consumers deeper than their pre-pandemic connections.

Smoothie-based quick-service restaurant (QSR) Smoothie King, for instance, grew its sales by adding digital ordering capabilities, such as in-restaurant pickup, curbside, and an exclusive delivery deal with DoorDash, and by rolling out a range of health-focused menu items, deals, and promotions targeting consumers looking for feel-good options in the midst of this difficult time. With these initiatives, sales have continued to remain elevated, with the company announcing 18 percent same-store sales growth in the first quarter of 2021.

“Our focus on a healthy and active lifestyle really started resonating [in the] first couple months of COVID, when people were tired of the regular QSR out there … It’s not healthy for you. I think we’ve continued to ride that wave from last year,” Smoothie King Chief Information Officer Chris Andrews told PYMNTS in a recent interview. “Amazingly enough, before the beginning of 2020, you couldn’t order Smoothie King online … We pivoted, and were able to open up system-wide digital sales … all of that is part of the success that’s carried into a strong start for 2021 for us.”

A Crystal-Clear Brand Identity

Smoothie King’s health-centric initiatives were able to drive home the messaging that the brand’s smoothies could serve as a counterpoint to the malaise many have felt throughout the pandemic, as closures and contagion concerns made pre-pandemic habits harder to maintain.

“I think, just at a human level, you’re eating badly, or maybe you weren’t a big go-out-to-eat person and now you are frequenting some of the QSRs that are not that great for you —I  think you just kind of start feeling bad,” said Andrews. “Gyms were shut down, people weren’t eating as good … even personally, I saw with our family a swing to, ‘Hey, we’ve got to clean up our diet.’”

With menu categories such as “Get Fit Blends,” “Be Well Blends” and “Take a Break Blends,” the company was able to win over these healthy option-seeking consumers. Consequently, the chain has been growing its footprint, with new franchisees signing on.

“We’re clear on what it is we stand for, and we live it out,” said Andrews. “I think a lot of other brands dabble, and they don’t know their true identity, but if you … go into a Smoothie King, the message is going to be the same … You’re going to see that healthy and active lifestyle thread throughout everything that we talk about.”

Meeting Consumers Where They Are

Now that the chain has gone digital in all the ways that consumers have come to expect, Smoothie King is looking toward newer, more contextual ways to embed its digital ordering channels in consumers’ daily routines.

“We’re starting to expand a couple of different ways,” said Andrews. “We’re exploring not only voice commerce — so some of the AI around connected devices that you see with Alexa and Google Home — but we’re also exploring, SMS, which I think has made a resurgence in the past few years … So I think the thing for me is overall, making sure I have enough channels that are flexible enough that provide a consistent user experience, to interact with our guests.”

To that “consistent user experience,” Andrews noted that there is a risk, as the company adds new ordering channels, of losing the unified brand experience that he believes is so central to maintaining and growing Smoothie King’s appeal.

“So part of my job here,” he said, “is ensuring that we think about all those different channels and we get it as consistent as possible, because it’s very easy to design any one of those channels in a silo and have completely different journeys for your guests, and I think that that ultimately would frustrate guests.”

In terms of personalizing these channels to each consumer, Andrews explained that the most immediate priority is reordering.

“For this to be successful, to get the kind of penetration we want with our guests, it has to have ease of reordering,” he said. “I think that’s the key to start out any of those new channels is just making it easier for you to get your favorite smoothie again.”

Serving The Brick-And-Mortar Guest

For all these digital initiatives, Andrews is wary of shifting the focus too completely to the company’s online customers.

“There’s been a big swing, a big reaction, towards, ‘I’ve got to cater to my digital guests,’” he said. “You have brands before that were doing single digits or low double digits … of revenue from a digital perspective that are now doing 50, 60 percent, and … we still don’t know from a market perspective, if those markets in those percentages are going to maintain.”

He believes that, given the incipient return of in-restaurant dining, it would be short-sighted to think “I’m going to totally cater to this digital guest, because today they make up 60 percent of my revenue, but then tomorrow they’re 30 percent, and now, I haven’t swung that other way for my other 70 percent of my revenue.”

He believes that loyal brick-and-mortar customers should not be taken for granted, especially now, as the chain is beginning to see on-site dining coming back. At Smoothie King’s headquarters in Coppell, Texas, where Andrews is based, this is especially clear.

“I think we’re seeing that some guests are more willing to come inside now,” Andrews said.  “I’m seeing just anecdotally here, especially when the mask mandate got lifted, that a lot of the restaurants and the atmosphere and the experiences — it’s almost back to normal.”

 

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