Nearly half of all Americans live with dietary constraints or food allergies. Many restaurant chains have responded with special menu items, but few appear to be proactively using their reward programs to learn about and better target personalized offers to these individuals. That’s a big missed opportunity.
People take their food “rules” very personally, and restaurants should as well. More specifically, operators of restaurant loyalty programs should use their members’ special diet requirements as opportunities to personalize.
There are plenty of opportunities, after all. Lactose intolerance, gluten sensitivity, FODMAP, veganism—more than 40 percent of Americans follow some kind of dietary restrictions, and 10 percent have a food allergy.
Many of the people who follow these diets are not only committed and passionate, they feel defined by their food choices. Quick-serve and fast-casual restaurant chains that don’t make dietary expertise their niche, via rewards programs, may as well be whistling past their outdated nutritional listings.
Rewards programs are the most effective tools for gaining that expertise at the customer level. An estimated 47 percent of diners use at least one restaurant rewards program, and 69 percent of members say they return to specific restaurants because of these initiatives.
But if a rewards program does not cater to particular dietary needs, and a competing program emerges that does, that first program is vulnerable to member pilfering.
Can Dietary Data Help? Yes, Yes, and a Side Dish of Yes
Plenty of food-service chains, including Starbucks, Panera Bread, Red Robin, and Chick-fil-A, have adjusted their menus to accommodate a range of dietary demands. Purchase information, inventory management and saved favorites likely helped inform their choices, but only reward programs can serve to both gather specific member-level insight and then use it to engage them. Here are five ways.
Take the Customers’ Orders at Enrollment
Reward programs are designed to better know the customer, so know this: Nearly 85 million U.S. consumers avoid allergens when shopping for food and beverages. Look, if American Airlines allows me to pre-order a special meal while booking a flight on my frequent flyer app, then restaurants can do the same at program enrollment by structuring their forms to ask about dietary preferences. Upon enrollment, eateries can send new members coupons for the menu items that fit the bill. These insights can regularly be updated via voluntary surveys, with gift certificates or coupons as a thank you, or reward.
Test-Kitchen New Items
Member data can reveal clusters of populations that adhere to specific diets. Nevada, for example, actually has the nation’s highest percentage of vegans per capita (942 per 1 million). Yet there are just 14 vegan restaurants per 1 million people. New Jersey, meanwhile, ranks sixth but counts 29 vegan restaurants per 1 million. National chains can test new items at select locations in such markets by inviting reward members to exclusive tasting events in return for providing feedback about taste, price and selection. When Burger King introduced its “Keep it Real Meals” (free of 120 artificial ingredients) in September 2021, it offered the meals to members of its recently launched Royal Perks program for $6. Restaurants can request this data with a quid-pro-quo proviso, such as: Tell us your dietary preferences so (1) we can determine menu additions or changes based on overall customer preferences, and (2) notify you if we’ve made changes that meet your needs.
Send Special-Order Rewards, and Support
Those with food allergies or restrictions are not likely to need incentives to follow their diets, but program rewards should be specifically geared to acknowledge their needs. Offers should include and/or reflect the items they have ordered. This is Rewards 101, yet even mature reward programs send members offers for items they have not once ordered. Some of these food choices, unlike throw-caution-to-the-wind purchases, can have harmful consequences. If I regularly order (and pay the upcharge for) non-dairy milks for my drinks at Starbucks, I expect follow-up offers for those kinds of items, not the latest dairy-rich concoction. Another reward is helpful information: Program menu apps that can track the carbs, sugars and other ingredients in member’s orders.
Make the Menu Easy to Follow
There’s a reason Chipotle Mexican Grill is so popular with so many. In addition to its ingredients page, the fast-casual burrito chain features online menus that break down its offerings by both allergens and special diets. A customer can check to see which menu items are dairy- or sulfite-free as well as vegan, paleo or Whole 30 (fajita vegetables are a sweep). The online menus also offer helpful guidelines and tips (for example, customers can ask employees to change their gloves before they order, and that the corn tortillas may contain trace amounts of gluten). This level of expertise pays off: Three years after launch, Chipotle Rewards counts 27 million members.
Anticipate the Next Course(s)
Household dietary needs, and preferences, shift. Babies are born, middle age hits (dairy, I miss you so much), someone is no longer following keto. Restaurants that want to be ingredient experts should regularly analyze their reward member database to detect changes. Are vegetarians showing signs of becoming “flexitarians” or vice versa? By tracking these changes, restaurants can price out ingredients and forecast costs, for more profitable menu decisions. Panda Express may have done this in September 2021 when it tested a meat-free version of its popular orange chicken using Beyond Meat. The dish sold out in test markets, so Panda Express tested two additional meat-free dishes in early 2022 (the dining jury is still out).
Take an Order: Data is the Key Ingredient of Engagement
Restaurants are continuously concocting menu items to attract new and repeat customers, while the secret sauce to knowing exactly what these customers want exists in their loyalty program data. When what they want is defined by allergies or health guidelines, that information takes on a premium.
Dining out should be fun. The menu should be fun. But dietary restrictions should be taken seriously—nearly 130 million Americans think they should. Member data can spoon-feed restaurants what they need to know, as soon as they open up to it. Reward programs can fare better.
Jenn McMillen, nationally renowned as the architect of GameStop’s PowerUp Rewards, is Founder and Chief Accelerant of Incendio, a firm that builds and fixes marketing, consumer engagement, loyalty and CRM programs. Incendio provides a nimble, flexible and technology-agnostic approach without the big-agency cost structure and is a trusted partner of some of the biggest brands in the U.S.