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."