An illuminating stat is Firebirds’ frequency. The brand was a roughly six-times-a-year brand for customers pre-virus. Today, it’s 10-plus times a calendar, Kislow says. Firebirds gave diners more reasons to engage. Family meals. Feasts. To-go. “None of those things are taking away from the core dining experience,” he reiterates. “They’re still coming just as many times for that, but now, they’re coming for different reasons as well.”
For instance, a guest who tapped Firebirds for takeout when they had no other option during COVID came back to the dining room once they could. But they also now had an experience in their back pocket they might not have realized existed before. Semantics aside, Firebirds introduced itself though more means than ever. And those threads aren’t slipping away.
All along, Firebirds never lost sight of its dine-in equity. The brand looked at a pay-at-the-table device in 2019 but decided against it because “the devices looked like big, oversized calculators,” Kislow says.
“And even that, to me, it just didn’t feel like a polished experience,” he says. “… We’ve resisted in a lot of ways because I think the moment a computer comes to the table, it’s guest facing. I prefer those things to stay happening in the background, whether it’s Flybuy or OpenTable [the platform Firebirds uses for reservations].”
All of this isn’t to suggest Firebirds hasn’t paid heed to where the tech puck is headed. It’s collecting data and finding ways to leverage it, like others. But it’s always cognizant of guest experience. “It’s creepy for me to know you have a Basset hound, but it’s cool that I know you like Manhattans,” Kislow says, speaking to a writer who does, indeed, have a Basset hound. “So is there a way to get the right data to utilize, and then how do you teach the employees how to use it correctly?”
Firebirds’ Inner Circle program promises customers a chance to become “a Firebirds’ insider.” It informs of events, promotions, new menu items (like an upcoming summer menu, etc.), and exclusive offers. What it doesn’t do, Lorusso explains, is discount. “We’re up to 1.3 million people who are highly engaged, and we don’t offer them anything other than information,” she says. Still, each time Firebirds sends an email to this base, it sees a spike in sales and traffic. “It’s the most loyal and engaged guest we have,” Lorusso says. Firebirds wields data like a key to a VIP vault. It doesn’t need to pulse deals through the funnel because its loyal customers favor experience over value-seeking. That latter cohort isn’t Firebirds’ core user to begin with.
“It’s never been about discounting or rewarding to us, it’s been about recognition,” Loftis says. Firebirds segments its audience, on the marketing side and within restaurants. Ultimately, that means having a guest profile where the brand understands preferences and can deliver. “We know he’s a Manhattan lover,” Loftis says. “His wife’s a vegetarian. His birthday is next week. We cater that experience to you and your family. That’s the goal for us.”
Firebirds is also in the process of redoing its website and revamping online ordering. It will allow the brand to save order history and streamline steps; reduce clicks to checkout and, similar to Inner Circle, provide a customized approach that feels intuitive.
Many of Firebirds’ efforts are being driven by guest feedback. Lorusso and Jordan Jennings, the brand’s marketing coordinator, mine Sprout Social as a listening tool and monitor engagement across all platforms. “I try to respond to every one,” Jennings says of reviews. Even if it’s negative (or insensible), she’ll offer a response with a way to get in touch.
Growth lights up
In late March, Firebirds announced a sale to Garnett Station Partners, a 2013-founded firm that manages roughly $2 billion in assets. Other F&B investments include Authentic Restaurant Brands (Primanti Bros., Mambo Seafood, and P.J. Whelihan's), Kona Ice, and the world's largest Burger King franchisee, Carrols Restaurant Group. It marked the second time in four years Firebirds came under new ownership. J.H. Whitney Capital Partners revealed in early 2019 it acquired a majority interest in Firebirds. At the time, the brand had 48 restaurants. J.H. Whitney bought the company from Angelo, Gordon & Co., who owned Firebirds since 2011 when it had 18 stores in eight states.