BJ's Restaurants debuted its mobile app today, and with it comes a new capability in the casual-dining industry: the ability to place food and drink orders for dine-in before stepping into the restaurant.

Other functions of the app are mobile pay, the ability to view the wait list remotely and hop on it, and order-ahead for curbside take-out orders.

BJ's president and CEO Greg Trojan spoke with FSR yesterday by phone as he drove into New York City via the Lincoln Tunnel. He is a fan of innovation in the casual-dining industry and wants the industry to meet guests' needs—whether BJ's is the first to do it or a competitor seems to matter less.

"I think casual dining is in need of innovation overall, and some forms of technology—whether it's tabletop or our choice to go mobile—will work in some concepts better than others, but I think [the industry innovation] is all good for the guests and growing our business," he says.

Trojan notes that casual dining is a difficult proposition for guests who are in a rush, those who perhaps need to get back to the office before lunch hour ends or make it to a movie. The goal of the app is to remove the negative experiences of full-service dining, such as having to wait too long to place an order or, alternatively, lounging around for the check at the end of a meal because a server is wrapped up.

By answering these challenges, BJ's competes more directly with the hot fast-casual segment, offering fresh-cooked food in a time-sensitive manner.

“We're not trying to duplicate an express lunch where you're on super-speed time, and the great thing about those two functionalities within our app [Dine-In Order Ahead and Mobile Pay] is that they do speed up the experience greatly, but you almost don't notice it,” Trojan explains. “You sit down, have a relaxed conversation, and think: that was a 35-minute experience, not a 55-minute experience, and that's great.”

Move Over, Tabletop Tablets

Acknowledging that most competitors who are innovating in casual dining lean toward tabletop tablets—Chili's announced yesterday it had completed its rollout of tablets at all 824 company-owned locations, and Buffalo Wild Wings and Applebee's are following suit—Trojan says he considered tablets a possibility, but had a gut feeling that a mobile app would remove excess technology from the dining experience.

"We're all on our phones and tablets and desktops way too much during the 24 hours in a day," he explains. "There's just something in me that felt like it would be cheating that experience for an occasion like ours, to make that another part of your day when you had to rely on technology."


With the BJ's app, guests can add themselves to the wait list, order ahead, if that suits them, and at the back end of the experience, pay in under a minute using their phones. Trojan appreciates that "you're not relying on technology to be ordering and interacting during the dining experience; that felt better to me, given our brand and our occasion," he says.

BJ's developed its app internally in about half a year, with the proposal coming up in the fourth quarter of last year, and a soft launch of the app rolling out earlier in 2014.

Trojan, who was president and CEO of Guitar Center before taking over at BJ's in February 2013, says e-commerce was at the front of his mind when he returned to the restaurant industry (he previously served as CEO of House of Blues Entertainment as well as California Pizza Kitchen). At Guitar Center, Trojan says the team worked hard at stitching together both the online and the brick-and-mortar experience. "When I came back to the restaurant industry, I thought: why would the restaurant retail experience be immune to any other parts of retail, in terms of how technology will impact the fundamental experience?"

A Paradigm Shift in Casual Dining

The order-ahead function does pose a couple of questions for the guests who choose not to use it at BJ's. If a family of four, for example, places an order on the app, they are automatically placed on the wait list the moment their order is received. As the family jumps in the car and drives 20 minutes to the restaurant, other guests who arrive in the restaurant are placed on the wait list, which becomes a mix of guests waiting in the restaurant and those on their way.

Will guests who have been waiting for 15 minutes feel slighted when that family of four shows up and is instantly seated? "That is an opportunity for us to educate," Trojan says. "We're used to TSA pre-check (going faster for first-class passengers in airports) and all the ways to speed your services all over the place, so I don't think this will be received any differently. I think people will just be curious and say, 'Hey, how can I do that?'"

Trojan also acknowledges that mobile pay creates a paradigm shift, one people aren’t used to yet. “When you say mobile pay, guests think, ‘I’m just going to use my phone to pay instead of pulling out a credit card,’ when the key benefit is: you can pay when you’re done ordering, whenever you want. You don’t have to wait for the check.”

Asked how the innovative order-ahead capability translates into BJ's becoming a trailblazer in casual dining, Trojan says he doesn't get caught up in who's doing what first. "We're just trying to address a real need out there," he says, adding that the casual-dining space has been traffic-challenged for years, and this was an opportunity to grow BJ's business and make guests happier.

"It is the first responsibility to innovate and make this experience more accessible, not just in terms of great food and great service—which is the most important—but also by looking for ways to add and making it more efficient.”

By Sonya Chudgar

Casual Dining, Chain Restaurants, Industry News, Labor & Employees, Technology, BJ's Restaurants, California Pizza Kitchen