How fast casual PDQ continued to serve quality to customers

In the past, new menus could take a year to launch, with every item in every medium checked and rechecked. But the pandemic changed everything. Fast casual chicken concept PDQ launched a new menu just days after the WHO announced the pandemic, deleting certain items to focus on operational efficiency, while continuing to deliver quality to their guests quickly and safely. Without enough time to change their menu boards, the brand used white paper and painters tape to block out no-longer-offered menu items.

Blocking out menu items with painters tape may not be a long-term best practice, but it is an example of the customer-centric, flexible response needed in today’s ever-changing environment. And it is cost-efficient—taking a nimble approach allowed PDQ to experiment with optimal product offerings before committing to wide scale menu changes.

“Much of our reaction to COVID-19 has been to understand the guest journey and get that right,” said Frank Rappa, PDQ CMO. “These days, it’s not just how our guests react to our brand, we also have to consider their literal journey—how are they coming to us differently now—and solve from there.”

In just a few days, PDQ had optimized their menu, offering a slimmed-down selection of items and added a ‘Family Coop meal deal.’ (A past dinner promotion, the Family Coop is intended to serve a family of 4+ and includes tenders, salad, and choice of sides.)

The result was positive – PDQ has seen 40% growth in drive-thru sales since the start of shelter-in-place orders.

This past week, we had a conversation with Rappa, PDQ Vice President of Media and Public Relations Jeffrey Kamis and RMS VP Dora Furman about their approach to business in this new environment, key learnings to date, and how data is shaping their decisions.

Key Learning 1: Create a new menu, fast.

Once dining rooms were closed, PDQ understood they needed to keep serving customers but do so without negatively impacting quality or food. “We kept items that are great on execution and flavor to make a streamlined, greatest hits menu,” said Rappa.

That refining also led to some tough decisions, said Kamis. “We know from our data that zucchini fries are a fan favorite.” But the brand also knew given decreased levels of staff, the fries were operationally too complex. “So we removed them from the menu, temporarily,” he noted.

  • RMS insight: After nearly 6 weeks of the limited menu, RMS’ POS data analysis revealed that the removal of popular, higher-priced items had a negative impact on check. PDQ is using that data as it takes additional menu changes throughout recovery.

Key Learning 2: Retool offerings based on time of day and channel.

Rappa noted that after menu trimming, they modeled all of their offers and promotions to push to the three different dayparts: lunch, mid-day and dinner.

For lunch, that meant a two-for-$12 meal deal; during the usual 2-5 pm lull, they offered $1 small milkshakes; for dinner, PDQ ran a BOGO on tender platters. Rappa says here again, the goal was to maintain brand quality while maximizing profit. The generous BOGO platter (total of 50 tenders) was intended to appeal to ‘stockpiling’ attitudes and relief from the burn-out of at-home meal preparation. PDQ also provided reheating instructions for guests so they could enjoy leftover tenders at a later time.

Key Learning 3: Be where the customer is (which may be where you haven’t been before).

Besides sharing offers via their PDQ fan club and on social media, Rappa and Kamis communicated its new menu, offerings and promotions on a very localized level. In Gainesville for example, Kamis said, “We posted our offers on Gainesville websites, on Facebook Mom pages, and any local media news lists.”

PDQ also worked with community partners to give back to the community. In Tampa, PDQ has been feeding hospitals and first responders since the COVID crisis began. Their efforts earned radio, TV and print coverage. These collaborations were communicated in the respective partner’s external communications, creating additional exposure to the brand.

Key Learning 4: Change, as needed; then optimize.

Pre-COVID, drive-thru accounted for about half of PDQ’s business; today it makes up 65%, says Rappa. Third-party delivery had always been available but Rappa says given how steep the commissions are, the brand has pushed only one promo to that channel.

PDQ is betting that the drive-thru business will persist, even when dining rooms reopen. “I don’t think the comfort level around dining in will be where it was before,” said Kamis. In response, he says, PDQ will retain a limited menu for drive-thru and to-go orders, one that’s optimized for speed of service.

  • RMS insight: Data will indicate shifts in spend since the start of the pandemic, including changes in check by revenue channel (delivery vs. drive-thru); party size, menu mix shifts, and item attachment. With an understanding of how the behavior shifted, PDQ can guide the marketing strategy and product development accordingly. For example, while delivery has grown, it’s still a relatively smaller part of the business and is expensive for the brand. But shifts in party size to larger occasions may warrant keeping promotions such as the Family Coop as part of PDQ’s strategy.

Key Learning 5: Communicate and collaborate.  

PDQ understands that their customers go beyond the person at the drive-thru window. They are talking with store Operating Directors several times per week to communicate changes and listen to what’s happening in the stores. “We had to listen internally to our operators. Their voice is important,” Kamis explains. “We explained what we were going to do as a company, laid out the plan, and then in three days, we held a checkpoint Zoom call to get their feedback based on how each location fared,” he says.

An appetite for business

As Florida begins to gradually reopen, PDQ has reopened its dining rooms with the recommended seating capacity limited to 25% of the total. When asked if they felt it was worth it, Kamis was positive: “There is absolutely an appetite within the state for us to open. We are here for our guests and people first; we have a right and obligation to serve them, as long as we are following guidelines and keeping distance, we will do it.” In the meantime, PDQ is gaining valuable insights and making changes that may end up sticking around after the industry emerges from this crisis.

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