Consumers are calling the shots more than ever.

Nobody is going to confuse Outback Steakhouse with Amazon. The same could be said, of course, with any restaurant, especially in full service. But the correlation isn’t as far-flung as you might think, says Gail Seanor, VP of digital with Outback parent company Bloomin’ Brands.

Perhaps jumpstarted by the pandemic, consumers today demand the same access and convenience they expect from the ecommerce giant. Online ordering. Mobile. Loyalty. Seamless payment. Fast delivery. All of it, plus an in-store experience that separates sit-down dining from the food-as-fuel world of the past.

Seanor, who previously worked at TGI Fridays and AOL/Time Warner, calls these “Uber-like experiences.”

“People want access to more information,” she says. “I feel like, historically, the restaurant industry really made the experience about the restaurant. And now, we all have to adjust and make it about the customer.”

In July, Outback rolled a new app design that lays the foundation for what it believes will be “cutting-edge features in the casual restaurant industry.” Currently, the app allows for an easier ordering experience and fully integrated Dine Rewards. Coming later will be enhanced curbside with push messaging and order updates; modern menu viewing with easy-to-use add-ons; and guest suggestions based on previous orders.

Beyond the changing face of consumer expectations Seanor mentioned, Outback’s four-wall and off-premises business have set aside past realities. In the second quarter, digital sales accounted for 20 percent of the company’s domestic business, a COVID-ignited 318 percent jump over 2019 levels. CEO David Deno said in July Outback’s app would ultimately “showcase substantial investments we made to digitize and streamline the carryout experience,” and “accelerate our very attractive carryout channel.” For whatever pros and cons restaurant chains associate with third-party delivery, especially this past year, carryout remains the golden egg of off-premises, thanks to its margin-friendly structure, the ability to control experience, and how it saves brands from asking whether or not they need to pass along added costs to consumers.

Bloomin’ generated more than $275 million in off-premises sales last quarter. Of that, $100 million belonged to third-party delivery (Bloomin’ also has in-house delivery). And, importantly, profit margins in off-premises are approaching those of Bloomin’s in-restaurant category. “It’s a gigantic part of our business,” Deno said of carryout.

CFO Chris Meyer added Bloomin’s new online ordering platform led to higher add-on sales. In turns, it’s brought up check averages a bit.

All said, it’s not surprising to see Bloomin’ place its app and digital capabilities at the forefront of innovation. Outback’s off-premises sales tripled during COVID as guest needs changed in light of lockdowns. With dine-in returning, the “need” has evolved into “expectation.”

Through the first four weeks of Q3, Bloomin’s two-year U.S. comp sales tracked 15.2 percent higher as it maintained nearly $71,000 in weekly average-unit volumes in what was traditionally a slower time of the year. The key, in addition to pent-up demand filling seats: off-premises proved sticky even as in-restaurant volumes improved. This past quarter, the company averaged $21,000 per restaurant, per week in off-premises. That was only down $2,000 per week, quarter-to-quarter, despite significantly higher in-store traffic. “We want the off-premises volume to be a big part of where we go as a company,” Deno said.

Outback launched phase 1 of its new app on July 6. It arrived with online ordering and loyalty management, as noted. These were straightforward features, Seanor says, but options guests continued to ask for. “From my lens, I like to think it’s more intuitive,” she says. “We’ve had a couple of conversations where somebody asked me, ‘are we going to have to train our customers?’ From my view, if our field has to train our customers, then we haven’t done our job right.”

So far, it’s been well received, Seanor adds. More recently, an update tacked on waitlist and pay-at-the-table functionality.

Outback App Screenshots

Outback Steakhouse New York Strip Steak

Outback’s new app presents a more logical, intuitive experience.

More conceptually, Outback’s aim is going to center on providing textual experiences, whether that’s on- or off-premises. “That younger customer is not necessarily the one that’s going to look at email,” she says. “There was something that I pulled for our organization six to eight months ago that was talking about how people like to receive their information. And it identified that the Baby Boomer generation as definitely willing to open an email, but that younger millennial, Gen Z, that’s just not how they interact with a brand. And so, I think all of these things are going to force us to go down a different path to stay relevant.”

Observed through a COVID filter, a lot of restaurants today face a technology crossroads. Do they continue to shift investment, prepare for an equilibrium, or pull back on IT spend, as Savneet Singh, president & CEO of PAR Technology Corp, recently asked?

In Singh’s opinion, the “cat’s out of the bag” with consumers, meaning the experience they received during the pandemic is one they’ll count on for good. They might not always seek it—say, if they’re looking to spend two hours reconnecting with family over a meal—but the more convenient options will always have a place. A guest might look for it on a different occasion, one they banked on over the past 18 months. Whether that’s takeout on a Thursday or delivery on a Friday night.

Singh compares it to the long-term shift seen from retail to online. Once commerce hit mainstream adoption (Amazon), it never stopped.

It’s a clear point—the digital footprint is as important as the physical one today for restaurants. Even with digital sales representing the minority of transactions, they require the same focus to remain relevant to guests. The past trade-off, where guests accepted friction to gain convenience in their digital ordering, was left in COVID’s wake.

Another way to look at is something brought up by Olo CEO Noah Glass in August. Delivery remained just 8 percent of the restaurant industry’s overall transactions in Q2, per The NPD Group.

Digital as a category mixed 17 percent. But “digital delivery” comprised just 6 percent. So where is the other 11 percent flowing from? You can call it “non-delivery digital.” Ten percent belongs to takeout and, for the first time in sector history, 1 percent stemmed from “digital on-premises”—options such as QR code and at-the-table kiosk service. It might not sound major, but it’s 1 percent of a 60 billion yearly transactions pie.

The present challenge at hand, Seanor says, is to meet guest expectations while also empowering a company’s marketing and operations layers. “We also want to make sure we’re articulating to an individual or internal folks why we think these things matter,” she says, “or how to look at some of these things differently. We’re all in this together.”

Put differently, COVID has shifted the digital culture of restaurants. “There’s a lot of foundational pieces we had to change to get where we are,” Seanor says. “But it was worth the change.”

Today, Bloomin’ has the flexibility to evolve and shift as it holds conversations about its long-term path for digital experience. Before, using the app as an example, it was really about just checking a box, as was the case for retailers sector-wide. Apps are in? We need to have one, with little to no concern about leveraging it down the line.

“I don’t want to do technology for the sake of technology,” Seanor says. “But what I’m really looking for is how do you hide the technology and really let the team member be the focus and the customer be the focus?”

Seanor says she’s a big believer restaurants (and other app developers) have to earn the right to be on somebody’s phone.

According to emarketer, the average smartphone user spends three hours and 10 minutes each day using their device. About two hours and 51 minutes is spent on apps, with apps accounting for roughly 90 percent of smartphone usage. And research showed there were 80-plus apps installed on the average smartphone. However, the average person used just nine of those on a daily basis and 30 each month. Per Statista, 25 percent of apps are used only once after being downloaded, and then are relegated to smartphone purgatory.

“You’re going to compete against games. You’re going to compete against social media,” Seanor says. “And from my lens, you really have to make it about them as opposed to about us. … Finding another way to relate to that customer is really how I think all of us need to start looking at it.”

COVID also put some prior conversations around transaction cannibalization to rest, she says. What restaurants found, Seanor adds, is they’re getting incremental events they probably weren’t before. Zeroing in on Bloomin’s virtual brand, Tender Shack, the company said in February that 80 percent of its customers for the concept had never ordered from any of Bloomin’s legacy restaurants (Outback, Carrabba’s, Fleming’s, and Bonefish Grill).

Even in fast casual Chipotle’s case, when dine-in flowed back, the brand saw overlap in the 15 percent-plus range in terms of guests who ordered digitally and in-store, leaving the door open for a lot of incremental business. It essentially signaled the on-premises visit was a different one. A similar point emerged with delivery and order-ahead. Guests weren’t trading them off with consistency. “But the ability to have access to both is really powerful,” Chipotle CEO Brian Niccol said in July.

The way Seanor approached this is by shifting mindset. Fewer questions and more observations in how customers react to restaurant experiences. One learning is more people are having occasions at home, which is helping define new ways for customers to interact with family and friends. And for restaurants, how can brands play a role?

Outback’s new app was designed to provide a more logical journey for guests. The brand added more visual cues. For instance, in the past, side items would say, “mashed potatoes.” Now there’s pictures for every option. “Encouraging the customer,” Seanor says. “Sometimes, they don’t really know what they want to have.”

Outback is trying to appeal to consumers’ emotions. “Often in those experiences, it’s the little things that make a big difference.”

The curbside enhancements are coming toward the end of the year, she adds. It’s customer driven, but there’s also care paid to employee experience. “And I’m not even talking about labor costs when I say this. I’m just talking about potentially not having to not run back and forth to a to-go room multiple times,” Seanor says. “How can we make it an efficient process for them that surprises and delight the customer?”

“Those are things that we’re exploring,” she adds. “I don’t want to do technology for the sake of technology. But what I’m really looking for is how do you hide the technology and really let the team member be the focus and the customer be the focus?”

Casual Dining, Chain Restaurants, Feature, Bloomin' Brands, Outback Steakhouse