Addressing the Challenges of Managing a Nationwide Fast Casual Chain

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While the fast-casual sector of the restaurant industry may have experienced a slowdown in growth over the past year or two, it’s still expanding at a rate of 6-7 percent annually. And it’s more competitive than ever, with new and ethnically creative quick-serve concepts popping up on what seems to be every street corner. This means that urban diners can choose from a far wider range of options on their daily lunch break: Whether they’re looking for a custom-made salad or indulgent burger and fries, there’s probably a chain walking distance away that serves just that.  

While fast-casual brands could formerly survive on the novelty and tailwinds of the sector’s creation about a decade ago, this is no longer an option. In order to remain successful in today’s rapidly changing landscape, fast-casual restaurants must offer a stronger differentiator than their competitors – and then back it up with the operational prowess and technology that brings the vision to life. In other words, the restaurant’s core concept must be manifested consistently across locations in both the diner experience and the food itself. 

This brings us to our key point: The best performing fast-casual brands have locked down an operational strategy that keeps them at least two or three steps ahead of the game. It’s a strategy that prioritizes facility maintenance and asset management, an arena that businesses shouldn’t be underestimated given the technological advancements many restaurants have recently incorporated to enhance the diner experience. And, of course, brand uptime still reigns supreme for restaurant chains regardless of size or business model. 

We recently spoke with Roger Goldstein, Executive Director of Facilities for Panda Restaurant Group, about what he sees as the core challenges facing the fast-casual sector today and how best to overcome them. Read on to find out how the Panda family of brands has continued to grow and succeed on a global scale by leveraging ServiceChannel technology. 

Work Order & Maintenance Visibility

Every fast-casual chain’s goal is to serve great food, every time, at every location. But unless grills, fryers, refrigerators, ovens, and other critical kitchen equipment is properly maintained, food can’t even be prepared – and in many cases, if one of these core assets fails, the restaurant will have to close altogether until it can be repaired. This leads to missed customer opportunities and substantial monetary loss, especially if the failure takes place during a lunch or dinner time rush. 

For Panda Restaurant Group, gaining visibility into work order status was a core priority when the organization began searching for a facilities management solution. They were also, of course, interested in managing costs and getting a grip on maintenance spending across what was (at the time) a portfolio of nearly 200 restaurants. 

“We would not know that a store had something broken and that a vendor repaired it until we saw the bill, when it was time to approve the invoice. That lack of visibility was not a very good place to be. [The stores] just had a need and they would get it done anyway they possibly could, and then maintenance was just tracked on spreadsheets,” Goldstein explained. Clearly, this system wasn’t working for the chain, which was rapidly expanding across the United States at the time. 

Goldstein also knew that Panda was spending more than necessary on certain work orders. Without clearly defined work order processes, restaurants would occasionally get maintenance done unnecessarily or call in a vendor when the problem could have been resolved for free under warranty. 

Now, having implemented the ServiceChannel Work Order Management system, Goldstein remarks on the positive changes his organization has seen: “It allows you to start troubleshooting and avoiding service where a store may be calling for something to be repaired that a quick phone call would get it taken care of. And you’re collecting data the entire time. So, you can always go back and look at your average spend for those services. Is there an opportunity to evaluate the vendors and see if I can get a better value out of this? By knowing what you’re spending on it, you can plan for your budgeting from those spend reports and data analyses.”

This knowledge is key for a fast-casual chain like Panda Express that prioritizes quality and efficiency. For all restaurant businesses, however, work orders need to be handled more strategically than in other non-food service businesses. Many assets – from refrigerators to hood vents and grease traps – require mandated servicing and inspection by municipalities, cities, and states in order to uphold regulatory compliance. If just one of these assets fails an inspection, the location may be temporarily shut down.  

On this topic, Goldstein noted, “It becomes very complex. There are a lot of services that absolutely have to be done. They’re not, ‘I want to do it.’ You have to do it. So, having a tool like ServiceChannel obviously helps us manage to make sure nothing’s slipping through the cracks.”

Diner Experience

Anyone who has ever eaten out at a quick-serve or fast-casual restaurant knows just how quickly a dirty bathroom or un-swept floors can ruin your meal – and your impression of the brand as a whole. In fact, 60% of people read online reviews before going out for a meal, and a substantial 75% of consumers will skip a restaurant with negative reviews about its cleanliness, according to our State of Restaurant survey. For nationwide chains, therefore, maintaining consistent standards for cleanliness and overall ambience (a.k.a. brand uptime) is absolutely critical. 

Getting a preventive maintenance schedule nailed down is particularly important for restaurant chains that are managing a mixed portfolio of facilities that vary significantly in age and size. “Panda now has over 2,200 locations,” Goldstein explains, “and our needs continue to grow because the problems you have managing facilities grows exponentially with the number of stores. It’s not really linear, right? Your problems get further apart and then you have an aging portfolio. So, you’re now dealing with 20-year-old stores and one-year-old stores.”

Even seemingly minor facility problems, such as those due to age or basic wear and tear, can ruin the impressions guests take home with them. A partially-lit sign outside the building, an “out of service” sign taped to a bathroom stall, or even a humid, too-warm indoor environment (caused by an aging or poorly maintained HVAC system) will subconsciously downgrade guests’ impressions of a restaurant and make them less likely to return. Older stores, therefore, may require a little extra attention to keep them looking fresh. 

Panda Restaurant Group’s Roger Goldstein agrees that, for fast-casual dining success, atmosphere is everything: “No matter how well all that cooking equipment is working, you got to have a comfortable environment for the guests. So, HVAC is critical to have a cool enough or a warm enough comfortable environment to sit down and enjoy your meal. We’ve got to have great working equipment in the kitchen that’s reliable and we have to have good HVAC.”

Keeping critical systems and assets working as they should requires plenty of foresight. Panda Restaurant Group uses ServiceChannel’s Planned Maintenance Manager to automate the scheduling of routine maintenance, cleaning, and safety inspections. The tool helps them keep tabs on maintenance frequency and costs, assigning a set of pre-approved service providers for each trade. This way, restaurant managers and staff can focus on the most important aspects of customer experience rather than wasting time on emergency maintenance issues.   

Case Study: Panda Restaurant Group

Watch the rest of our conversation with Roger Goldstein, Executive Director of Facilities for Panda Restaurant Group, as he discusses some of his favorite ServiceChannel features. 

Final Thoughts

Fast-casual restaurant chains are now being squeezed to perform at a higher standard than was expected when they first came into being, some ten or fifteen years ago. Competition is heating up, and a truly scalable fast-casual concept requires serious perfectionism carried through each element of operations. After all, fast-casual diners – especially the urban corporate lunch crowd – are willing to pay a little extra for an experience that is consistently excellent (read: good food, a clean and inviting environment, and friendly, efficient service). 

Yet many restaurant chains are still behind the eight ball when it comes to formalized FM processes and work order management, operating via a messy string of phone calls, spreadsheets, and paper invoices. This was the case for Panda Restaurant Group, owner of global chain Panda Express, prior to their investment in ServiceChannel’s Service Automation software. The platform revolutionized Panda’s ability to keep their 2,200+ locations clean, comfortable, and functional year-round by improving work order visibility, providing access to critical FM data, and automating their planned maintenance schedule. 

“It was when the ServiceChannel team came in and those changes started to happen, that’s when we saw a more rapid elevation, more capital, more ability to grow quicker, more resources to bring in the manpower and the brainpower that we needed to grow.”

Ready to take your restaurant maintenance and operations to the next level? Schedule a demo with the #1 facilities management platform.