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Chick-fil-A president Dan Cathy said his chain’s “second-mile service” is what steered the brand to sales growth in 2012, despite disruption resulting from a controversy over his remarks on “traditional marriage.” Chick-fil-A’s drive to differentiate itself through service has resulted in a 97-percent retention rate, he said.

“If you just want to give customers what they paid for, the first mile, it’s just a transaction,” he said. “They’re going to go next door for the discounted price. But if you’re going to have a relationship with that customer, you’ll have to give him the unexpected, and so we went to upscale restaurants to see what they do better. … We instilled in our people the practices and phrases you’d expect from a fine-dining experience.”

Kelly Baltes, chief executive of Cheddar's Casual Café
, similarly said the casual-dining brand aspires to “greatness” through customer service every day.

“It’s all about the people,” Baltes said. “Casual dining is a pure market-share game; you are either a taker or a giver. For us, we don’t typically do traditional advertising. It’s purely word-of-mouth. We’re as good as who we take care of today in our restaurants.”

The same is true for Corner Bakery Café, chief executive Michael Hislop said, which is why the fast-casual chain employs more people than in years past to constantly listen to and respond to guests in the restaurants and on social media. While the tactics by which Corner Bakery interacts with guests has changed, the core principles behind what makes a restaurant run smoothly largely has not for decades, he said.

“To me, it’s always been people, sales, profit and growth, and they go in that line,” he said. “People are the key. You have to have a general manager who can connect with the employees and then be able to connect with the guest. … A great GM is worth so many thousands of dollars a week.”

Training also has been the most important element behind the growth of Jersey Mike’s Subs, chief executive of Jersey Mike’s Franchise Systems Inc. Peter Cancro said. He noted specifically the training of new franchisees, who now work in an established Jersey Mike’s location for two and a half months — which coincides with the construction period for new restaurants — to learn all facets of operations.

What the new franchisees learn best of all during Jersey Mike’s training program is how to provide the genuine hospitality that makes customers feel that the appreciation they notice is real, Cancro said.

“Our motto when they come through the door is to ‘share the life of the customer,’” Cancro said. “I think people really love that about our company.”

The CEO Panel was sponsored by SurveyMini by SMG.

Contact Mark Brandau at mark.brandau@penton.com.
Follow him on Twitter: @Mark_from_NRN