FORT LAUDERDALE, FL, June 13, 2012 — Sixteen years ago, Paul Barron coined the term “fast casual” to describe a new kind of restaurant. Today it’s a $500 billion dollar market segment. Panera Bread, Qdoba, Chipotle, Noodles & Company, Panda Express are all household names.
When I wanted to know what was next for restaurants, I naturally turned to Paul for his insight. He is consistently one or two steps ahead.
Paul formed DigitalCoCo, a digital agency that quickly became a leader in the restaurant industry. His knowledge of social media, mobile and restaurants are intriguing to say the least.
1. What were you noticing in the industry when you identified Fast Casual?
In the mid 90’s we as an industry were experiencing a shift of the consumer and a need for the restaurant industry to begin to introduce new options. Technology and how consumers were gaining information about food and restaurants were changing.
It was a time when consumers were beginning to experiment due to the introduction of the Food Network which was born in 1993. For the first time food knowledge was making its way to the masses.
2. What is the future of the restaurant industry? What will we be talking about 12 months from now?
The next evolution for the industry will be customizing the experience even more than it is now. Think gourmet level Fast Casual, not celebrity chefs but close to that level with local and regional concepts.
The creation of micro brands that have turned into power house brands like Chipotle are just the beginning on how experience will change everything we know about the restaurant business. Think in terms of how Apple redefined an old standard, one where they thought change would never come, the record industry and the mobile industry.
Steve Jobs changed the experience and created a new evolution of a consumer expectation that is now seeping into so many new channels as a consumer culture, including the restaurant business.
3. How closely do you watch consumer behavior trends?
Consumer science is how I discovered Fast Casual in the first place, the only difference is that now I have tools like social media and advanced technology that is ramping up my discovery of trends and event shifts in consumer behavior much faster.
In just the past few years my idea of mapping the global restaurant consumer through the use of big data is beginning to pay off with understanding and identifying trends well before they become mainstream. Locally sourced and the health halo, food trucks and mobile dining, mobile food interaction and ethnic are just a few that have already made their way into my book “The Chipotle Effect” drafted over two years ago.
4. Is there a specific restaurant chain we should pay attention to more? Why?
There are several players that could grow very fast in the coming years, the sandwich segment is showing signs of a power house coming, the burger segment has a player that could re-define what the better burger segment is doing in Burgerfi. I really like Wow Bao in Chicago, Sweet Green in D.C. and Piada in Columbus, OH.
The fact is that Fast Casual is set to re-map the restaurant business with choice, style and value. The new social, mobile foodie consumers are in for a nice surprise.
5. Name a chain that is using social media correctly. Why?
Red Mango is one that really understands this shift. Social Media is not marketing but instead a new way of thinking in regards to all things customer.
They have a great brand leader in Dan Kim and he is one of the few execs that not only gets it, but is doing it with a fraction of the budgets that Starbucks and McDonald’s have pushed into social.
The style in which they convey the brand via social is spot on with extending the brand beyond the four walls. Not as marketing but as an extended consumer experience. This is special, and every restaurant business has this ability if they can just see past the obvious coupon spinning.
6. What are the keys to success you have learned over your career?
Embrace change, it really is that simple. Change is hard but understanding its power and ability to position you or your business to be in the right place at the right time is so critical today.
Change has always been there, only now we have to be able to handle change in light speed. This is where trend watching and social science and big data analytics will become so critical in the future of any business.
Because it’s coming at us so fast we must use big data and vertical focus to move our business to the next level.
7. What is next for DigitalCoCo?
We are really focused on the idea that we can map the global landscape of the restaurant industry.
Our recent partnerships with the National Restaurant Association, Technomic and several key international partners positions our technology and big data to set us apart as the company who understands the global restaurant brand and their consumers.
Social media is just scratching the surface of how consumers are interacting, mobile is another space we are developing as well as full digital solutions for the restaurant business in social, local, mobile and web.
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