As the restaurant industry evolves to meet customer expectations and optimize operations, brands and restaurateurs alike are seeking innovative ways to drive steady growth. Sonny’s BBQ has successfully navigated the ever-changing restaurant landscape since 2020 by quickly shifting its business model and ensuring minimal disruption to the supply chain. Putting guests, team members, franchisees, and vendor relationships at the center of decision-making has not only impacted strong sales, as demonstrated by 18 percent comparable stores sales growth in 2021 versus 2020 but led to the development of new store prototypes and investment in technology. Immediate impacts of the guest and team member-driven approach included an expansion of convenient dining options and minimizing pricing impacts on guests.
“Our approach as a hospitality company and BBQ restaurant has always been based on improving experiences for two groups of people: our guests and team members,” says Billy Brewer, chief operating officer, Sonny’s BBQ. “Our commitment to evolving experience and service is a result of feedback from guests and team members across our organization from pitmasters to HR to servers and IT. In today’s climate, we need to be agile to stay true to the Sonny’s brand and the people that have trusted us with their time and support for more than 50 years.”
Dining Experience Evolution
For decades, Sonny’s BBQ successfully delivered a traditional, full-service dining experience, which accounted for nearly 60 percent of sales and hovered around 40 percent for takeout. Today, 60 percent of guests now take their meals to go. Sonny’s offers takeout and curbside pickup, a pandemic development that has lasting power based on the feedback and data gathered by the brand.
This shift to off-premise dining preferences is at the center of a new store prototype that puts an emphasis on meeting guests in their cars and homes. The first prototype opened in Clinton, Mississippi earlier this year. The Clinton location and all other new stores will have a smaller footprint, around 5,000 square feet, and seat no more than 120 guests; the design is anticipated to reduce initial building costs, but more importantly create a fuller dining room and a more inclusive dine-in experience for guests. There is additional benefit to servers and managers as the design makes it easier for servers to take on additional tables and increase their income while reducing staffing sizes in a competitive hiring environment.
Heavily influenced by Pitmasters, Sonny’s certified BBQ experts, the kitchen space and smokers have also undergone a transformation to create efficiencies and support the delivery of consistent, quality food at each restaurant. The kitchen space has become smaller and optimized to streamline the flow of food from the prep area and cooking spaces to dry storage and the server alley in order to provide a better experience for guests and team members. The smokers will move to a front-of-house location where guests, whether staying or going, can see Pitmasters skillfully crafting their signature BBQ.
The greatest impacts on the dining experience are expanded curbside and drive-through services. Store locations will have more dedicated space for curbside parking and enhancements to curbside ordering through a streamlined notification system inspired by big box retailers. The evolution in service has been fine-tuned through a communication loop between guests and the team members executing the systems and processes daily.
Drive-thru service has been reimagined to add efficiencies for team members while maintaining the ease and convenience expected by guests. Improvements will include dedicated take-out spaces and streamlined operations that also mitigate disruption for on-premise dining.
Personalized Experience Rooted in Data
The guest experience is further enhanced at each Sonny’s BBQ location through investment in CRM technology and advanced analysis of customer preferences. The brand invests in relationships with consumers to directly impact business revenue while strengthening customer loyalty. Sonny’s BBQ seeks to better understand the entire customer journey in order to effectively remove barriers and exceed expectations. It is vital for brands to connect with customers, and for Sonny’s BBQ, they firmly believe the best relationships are formed through connections with people. It’s foundational to their southern hospitality and the BBQ community.
“After growing our customer database over the pandemic, we’re now maximizing the value of that data for both the guest and our team members,” says Peter Frey, chief brand officer, Sonny’s BBQ. “We’re activating cutting-edge restaurant marketing technology to understand what our guests like, when they want it, where they want it, and where they want to eat it. In turn, we’re using this data to personalize each time they connect with Sonny’s whether it’s in person or online. We’re a people-first brand and we want our customers to feel that even with the advancement in our technology.”
Sonny’s BBQ leverages and organizes data that informs the brand on how to improve connection, targeting and guest experience. In order to grow guest relationships that last beyond a one-off transaction, Sonny’s BBQ is using enriched data to ensure that any message sent to a guest is informative, engaging and personalized.
Demonstrating the success of these efforts, ‘Q Crew, the brand’s email and text program, has grown 187 percent and captured more than 1 million total guests in a secure database. The team has leveraged behavioral data to understand how guests have interacted with Sonny’s BBQ in order to send tailored messages based on defined actions. By defining the customer lifetime value (CLV), Sonny’s BBQ can identify its most profitable guest segments and use that data to optimize guest experience.
Creating a positive and productive customer-brand relationship requires mutual affinity, so Sonny’s BBQ invests in personalized experiences to show how much they value and care for their guests. The personalization efforts have led to nearly doubling open rates on email campaigns compared to prior email marketing activities. This investment, along with innovation in restaurant design and consistent communication, drives strategic growth for the brand. While it will play a role in the future, Sonny’s will continue to double down on what is core to BBQ and its culture: southern hospitality.