Why Restaurant Chains Are Leaning into Menu Personalization


Menu customization is certainly nothing new in the restaurant space. Subway and Chipotle long ago perfected an assembly line model focused on customization, spawning a host of imitators.

However, as consumers become more attached to their cellphones, customizable controls have become easier to create and demand has increased accordingly. The last quarters of Starbucks bear witness to this. During the coffee chain’s third quarter earnings call in August, CEO Howard Schultz said, “Customer demand for specifically personalized cold coffee beverages is so strong that cold beverages now account for approximately 75 % of our total beverage sales at company-operated stores in the United States. Increased personalization, he added, helped drive record average weekly sales in the quarter and the chain will continue to answer the call for such orders.

“We’re in the early stages of the cold drink platform in terms of what we’re going to bring in terms of innovation and the modifiers and customization give us a significant competitive advantage,” Schultz said.

The trend has become so prominent that Starbucks is now rolling out a proprietary system, called the Siren System, designed to meet the growing demand for personalization of hot and cold beverages and hot foods. In the test, the Siren system reduced the process of making a Grande Pink drink from 52 seconds to 24 seconds, the company said.

Starbucks isn’t the only brand rushing to meet this growing demand. Saladworks announced a new promotion this week allowing customers to customize their salad, cereal bowl or wrap with the choice of five ingredients and 16 dressings. The company notes that this menu customization allows customers to accommodate dietary restrictions, cater to individual preferences, and experiment with new flavors and combinations.

“We’re excited to offer menu choices and personalization to Saladworks guests to close out 2022. Our goal is to inspire healthy eating and adding this creative element makes it even more fun for our guests, and even for us”, Chief Brand Officer Lauriena Borstein said in a press release.

In September, MOD Pizza launched a new “FUNdle” promotion, featuring four pizzas, a mega salad, and four cakes. In a statement, MOD CMO Mark Shambura said the promotion fits the brand’s customizable model.

“Families have always been drawn to MOD, where it’s easy to cater to everyone’s tastes with individual, personalized pizzas and salads. With MOD FUNdle, there is now another convenient option for the whole family to enjoy together,” Shambura said.

A few months ago, IHOP introduced a new Choices menu, also aiming to give customers more choices throughout the day. The chain also tinkered with its app and website to make it easier for customers to customize their orders from the new menu. According to the channel’s internal market research, over 80% of orders that pass through its system are personalized.

Burger King has a personalization page on its app and website and just launched a new “You Rule” campaign focused on “celebrating customer individuality.” The brand has long embraced its “Have It Your Way” stance, and in a statementPresident Tom Curtis said his new campaign elevates that position “beyond pure product personalization.”

Expectations of having more choices are unlikely to fade – at least not anytime soon. Recent research from McKinsey & Company finds that 71% of consumers expect companies to deliver personalized interactions, and 61% are frustrated when this doesn’t happen. Research from the University of Florida supports this data, adding that smartphone use leads to more consumers towards personalization.

Because of this driver, restaurant brands are not just embracing menu personalization. In September, for example, Panera evolved its MyPanera Rewards program by allowing customers to choose the rewards they receive. Also in September, Caribou Coffee launched a new app that allows customers to save their favorite customizable drinks for easy ordering.

Yet giving customers what they want through intensified personalization is a greater challenge than ever, as the restaurant industry grapples with persistent labor shortages and more control channels. We’ve seen these pressures play out across the industry as Starbucks employees at McDonald’s beg customers to stop ordering complicated drinks and meals.

Subway, a pioneer in personalization, recently took the opposite direction with its Subway Series line in an effort to simplify operations. The company says the change helped drive record sales, including average unit volume records set in 2012. It should be noted, however, that the Subway system has closed thousands of stores in the United States in recent years, which is also likely to create healthier sales. Time will tell if its customers begin to miss its customization model, or rather if its new curated sandwich line offers a point of differentiation.

Contact Alicia Kelso at [email protected]


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