Customer satisfaction scores are rising as broad changes set in.

Red Robin has been climbing a customer satisfaction hill since 2016. That’s when the burger chain’s scores started to slide and lag the industry, CEO G.J. Hart said. As the story’s been told, things got exponentially worse in 2018 following the call to remove bussers and shift labor structure to save on rising costs.

For Hart, a former Texas Roadhouse, California Pizza Kitchen, and Torchy’s Taco exec, he saw the rebound firsthand after joining the board in August 2019. But the front-line journey really began in January 2023 when he unveiled a five-pronged “North Star” plan after deciding to come out of retirement and assume the CEO post the previous summer.

Hart told investors Wednesday the comeback “has not been easy, but what we’ve accomplished to date has been substantial.”

The brand began fiscal 2024 with negative same-store sales of 6.5 percent (notably, this comped against a strong industry-wide Q1 last year where Red Robin posted growth of 8.6 percent), revenue decline of $29.3 million to $388.5 million, and net loss of $9.5 million compared to negative 3.3 million in the year-ago period.

More recently, however, Red Robin turned positive over the first five weeks of Q2 at 0.3 percent, Hart said, which it did despite a 200- to 250-basis point headwind from the removal of virtual brands last year.

MORE: Get Ready to Hear About the Resurgence of Red Robin

Hart added the brand is beginning to reap top-line benefits from what’s been an exhaustive stretch of changes over the past 18 months. Broadly, it’s showing in a few places.

Starting with the guest satisfaction point, Hart said Red Robin gained throughout 2023. But in Q1, the brand reached parity to the industry—something, as noted, it hasn’t done in some eight years.

Looking at guest surveys, overall satisfaction climbed throughout the past year and a half and is now in line with sector averages, Hart said. It’s been led by an improved pace of experience, including reduced wait time (in 2022, 10 percent of guests said they were waiting 15 minutes to dine), and more frequent management engagement with guests. Also, across Google, Yelp, and TripAdvisor, Red Robin’s overall satisfaction score increased 13 percent versus Q1 2023. The attentive staff metric jumped north of 30 percent.

Encouragingly, Hart said, Red Robin witnessed first-time guest ratings even higher than repeat diners. These debut customers rated the brand better on things like “taste of food” and “overall value”—a sign the chain’s wider efforts are making a solid first impression.

Lastly, the number of guest relations complaints declined by 19 percent, year-over-year, and 79 percent against Q1 2018, when Red Robin began tracking the metric. “Delivering a great experience to our guests is the single key to improving the performance of our business,” Hart said.

As a refresher, Red Robin’s North Star blueprint centers on transforming to an operations-focused restaurant company; elevating the guest experience; removing costs and complexity; optimizing guest engagement; and driving growth in comparable restaurant revenue (same-store sales) and unit-level profitability, while delivering on financial commitments.

Last year was a backbone calendar of sorts to the multi-year effort. Red Robin spent the majority of 2023 improving operations and rerouting some of the past year’s setbacks, namely with labor. Red Robin added servers so they could focus on fewer tables. It also put bussers back, which took table-cleaning duties off server’s plates and helped reduce wait times that were bottlenecking because of it. Red Robin tacked on a dedicated expo and returned more than 250 dedicated kitchen managers.

To put into perspective how this labor conversation has ascended in Red Robin’s priority ranks, the brand made the decision to maintain levels in January and February despite adverse weather events, CFO Todd Wilson said. While it created near-term margin pressure, he explained, Red Robin wanted to ensure customers who did come in got the experience they were expecting.

A vital change took place in the kitchen last year as well. Red Robin was using a conveyor-belt style piece of cooking equipment to make burgers—something you’re more likely to see in a fast-food flow. They’d go on, roll through, and get finished on a charbroiler. Flat tops were tested in Q1 2023. A full, systemwide rollout began that April and fully covered the system midway through the year. It happened in a 90-day window.

The result was a 20 percent larger (better yield), juicer burger that unlocked Red Robin’s ability to unveil more than 20 improved burgers prepared with higher-quality ingredients in October. Last February, Hart brought over Brian Sullivan as VP of culinary and beverage innovation, to spearhead the changes. Sullivan had spent 34 years at one of Hart’s old shops, California Pizza Kitchen. Alongside the burger revamp, new entrees, like Whiskey River BBQ Ribs, appetizers that weren’t all fried (think Crispy Parmesan Brussels Sprouts), improved salads, and an upgraded bar layering in higher-quality, recognizable brands while also improving margarita mix with fresh lime juice and agave, joined the update. In all, some 85 percent of the menu was involved.

Red Robin through this effort was also able to zero in on who it wanted to be, Hart said. Its “Bottomless” positioning, for instance, was an equity many customers associated only with fries. That platform expanded to include 30 options guests can keep ordering.

Once diners realize the scope, Hart said, Red Robin is receiving “great feedback,” both from existing and new consumers.

Data showed 79 percent of guests appreciate the option and want to use it, he added. And of those, if Red Robin is executing, say, 84 or 85 percent take level, it’s seeing overall value scores “go through the roof.”

“I mean, substantially through the roof,” Hart said.

The satisfaction when Bottomless is executed is 84 percent and, in turn, value scores come in at 60 percent, which is high for the brand. “And as you know,” Hart said, “value is probably what they rate the toughest on. So we’ve seen really, really good numbers here. It’s telling us our guests want it. They’re surprised—significantly surprised—that there’s 30 items that are bottomless, which I don’t think we’ve done a good job in the past communicating.”

In terms of overall messaging, this is a category Red Robin is ready to lift the lid off after putting in 2023’s foundational work—it is already.

The brand in March began rolling a fresh marketing approach focused on reigning visit frequency from loyal customers, new guest acquisition, and improving guest engagement capabilities. Red Robin began by promoting the competitive breadth and value of its 30 Bottomless options and highlighted the upgraded ingredients, which have spanned everything from mayonnaise to bacon to switching to a fresh chicken breast that’s hand-battered in-restaurant.

Just this month, a “Leave Room for Fun” campaign reached the market hoping to reinforce Red Robin’s “ownable position as the most engaging and fun experience in casual dining,” Hart said. It’s a new tone and contemporary design.

The initial “Fun Guy” ad, featuring an adult hanging with the child version of himself, eventually ending in a Red Robin, generated more than 1.5 million views the first week.

Hart said the brand measured improvement of perception after people watched the ad. There was 15-percentage point jump in “brand is better than it used to be,” a 6-percentage point lift in “intent to visit in the coming four weeks,” and a 9-point increase in “high-quality ingredients” being used.

In March, Red Robin began testing a marketing heavy-up pilot in five DMAs. Hart said initial results show about a 200-basis-point improvement in traffic versus a control set.

Ahead in Q2, Red Robin will pilot a reconfiguration of its media mix to double down on digital streaming TV and video, including platforms such as Hulu, Peacock, and YouTube TV.

Another lever in Red Robin’s plan to connect (and reconnect) is its loyalty platform, one of the industry’s oldest having launched in 2008.

CMO Kevin Mayer, a former BJ’s Restaurants marketing chief with a long history in automative marketing, came over last May and has been working on finding a way to better deploy the platform and its nearly 14 million members. Red Robin saw the base grow about 10 percent in the past year, with members boasting average checks $3 higher and 3X frequency compared to non-loyalty guests. Additionally, new users are visiting Red Robin with much greater frequency than before. In 2023, Hart said, only 8 percent of enrollees made their second visit in the following 12 months. This year, 8 percent already made a third trip in the first 90 days. “That gives you a lot of reason to believe,” Hart said.

And, Hart pointed out, this was despite the format, not because of it. Red Robin on May 22 introduced a refaced Royalty Program that now features “bottomless rewards.” Under the deal, guests earn a point for every dollar spent. After collecting 100, they get a $10 reward that’s redeemable for dine-in as well as online orders within a 90-day period.

Previously, members earned a free entree for every nine purchased. A good deal of people never got there or didn’t see value that far out. Red Robin sends new sign-ups a welcome email now that tells them about the program as well.

The recent structure’s data capability also enables more personalized communication and offers and will allow Red Robin to reward its “best guests,” Hart said.

The broad goal: make it a driver of the business rather than just another discount program.

“Through the continued execution of our team members in operations, utilization of our new marketing strategy and the relaunch of our loyalty program, we believe we have the levers in place to drive sustainable long-term growth and return this beloved brand to prominence in our industry,” Hart said.

Casual Dining, Chain Restaurants, Feature, Finance, Red Robin