May 28, 2020

PART 3: Transparency in Demand

Trust is a new currency. Many experts have expressed and studied the importance of this declaration, and current social and economic distress has validated the burgeoning sentiment. As the restaurant industry is the middle of opening post-COVID 19, we have come up with several ideas that can give some fresh angles. We discussed the safety promotion for the customer and employee, and brand narrative discussion. We are now discussing transparency that is in demand within our industry. Please stay tuned for the last conversation to conclude this conversation that will touch the importance of customer service and technology in our industry.

Millennials and Gen Z's affinity towards brands has driven the significant demand to push transparency. These generations influence us as a society to demand honesty and an explanation of what, why, and how we need to engage with the brand. Interestingly enough, perfection is not mandatory; but the best intentions are.

For restaurant brands, transparency is even more crucial. The culture of clean eating, sustainability, and sourcing knowledge have shaped the market. Customers demand to know what they are eating and why the ingredients were chosen. In a time where questions are encouraged to improve personal and public safety, showcasing transparency in an experience fosters trust in brand engagement. We ought to leave the "brand mystery" and old fashioned service proposition behind, and turn transparency into a brand experience in the form of strategic communication and physical and theatrical engagement.

Restaurants have a new meaning for Millenials and Gen Z. These generations have established restaurants as a cultural hub for their social needs. Although COVID is going to influence the socialization game, we are all aware that the concept is here to stay. We are social beings, after all. How should we create an experience that can embrace transparency, and take it to the next level? How can we benefit from transparency to earn the most trust in the brand? We have explored some ideas.

Gain Multi-Dimension Trust by Providing Stellar, Safe Food Theater Experience

For foodies, I vouch that nothing can beat the night street food market's vibe in Asia. The lively atmosphere created by the theatrical relationship of a food maker, seller, buyer, and diner creates an exciting and memorable experience. This sums up the whole idea of a successful dining experience: great food prepared in front of you and served for you to enjoy.  We are too often mesmerized by the spectacle of this interaction to notice imperfection: cleanliness and operational professionalism might not be the best in class, unfortunately. 

With the addition of a high level of safety precautions to a genuine, honest, and transparent food theater, we can achieve solid, multi-dimensional brand trust. Adding feature items like chef tables within an open kitchen environment, and revealing food prep activities to customers, will create an emotional attachment and brand activation that builds trust. Just like a Theater: every part and piece should be perfectly prepared, trained, and rehearsed to create a good production.

Enhance Customer Journey by Using Visual Merchandising and Branded Communication

Popular fast-casual spots such as Sweet Green, Modern Market, and Cava have demonstrated that great visual merchandising of fresh ingredients promotes the assurance that everything we eat is fresh and handled with care. Showcasing the raw ingredients, inventory, and kitchen tools as visual merchandising tools to engage customers is a hard proposition to an operator. Still, the magic of the outcome of such an effort will result in deeper trust. 

This approach, traditionally used in retail settings, can be harder to integrate into a restaurant operation. Visual merchandising setup and maintenance are not native skill sets  in the restaurant business. However, formulated and simple and strategic systems can be applied to solve this issue. The keys to success? Avoid difficult presentations. Make visual merchandising elements and upkeep as natural as possible. Keep it simple!

Customer Journey, another retail term that guides customer experience within the store, must be carefully thought through. It must incorporate the freshness presentation. Create touchpoints to engage with the brand by showcasing restaurant operations, and enhance it with visual merchandising and graphic/media communication to promote engagement with the customer. The most exciting thing is, by opening the kitchen as part of this journey, we will have more opportunities to engage with our customers. Eventually, that will promote the openness, transparency, and brand trust we seek.

Social Media Interactivity Within the Store

In the world of Tik Tok, Instagram, and Zoom meetings, social media interaction is part of customer experience. Having a strategy for those Instagrammable moments can elevate them to the next level. Realness is the new word now. Sharing part of customer's restaurant live experience with friends and family, enabling them to engage virtually, should be curated as a natural brand experience. For example, Buffalo Wild Wings has recently installed a table top tablet ordering system that allows a self curated entertainment experience and virtual connection to the outside world. How about extending this technology to allow interactivity between restaurant diners and their friends and family using countless flat screen TV’s that they already have in the store? Privacy issues aside, making that experience part of brand transparency strategy will spread the brand trust as it becomes part of daily life culture.

Thoughtful Strategy and Full Execution of Transparency Strategy

So many brand initiatives have been explored during this desperate time. We have witnessed that diversifying the brand channels will be required for a restaurant to survive, and eventually, these initiatives will be naturally integrated into the brand business plan. Integrating the initiatives of choice to the overall brand, and placing them as meaningful touchpoints within the customer journey transparently, will be necessary for the brand to gain trust from their customer. We heard the news about the “ghost restaurant” operation that stem from Chuck-e-Cheese andApplebees. If this great survival and business expansion is done in a strategic transparent manner, it could be highlighted more positively as an innovation act rather than a negative PR hassle.

Full commitment has to accompany transparency strategy. For example, if a high-end restaurant is able and chooses to keep delivery and to-go service to diversify their business, they should let their customer be aware of the why and how. In addition, they need to think about logical extensions of the idea such as white-glove and concierge service, allowing connection and transparency to merge into the restaurant culture better. Special packaging and virtual connection to the chef and concierge will be available perhaps?


Transparency is now a requirement for the restaurant business to succeed. It is mandated by the customer, but it is tough for the operator to express. Infusing retail thinking to strategize how we should showcase transparency is an effective opportunity for a restaurant to explore. The key is to commit 100% if we choose transparency as our means to build trust. Again, perfection is not mandated. However, honesty is! Respect for humanity is the base of it all!

About Tobias Harris Tobias’ 15+ years of leadership in Human to Environment Interaction design demonstrate his proven expertise in brand narrative curation and experiential design for global brands. His unique approach to creating a memorable physical and emotional brand experience is based on his deep love of the art of living life, where aspiration is balanced with reality to achieve greatness.

His passion has led to success stories for major national and international companies and retailers such as Coca-Cola, Hilton Worldwide, Samsung, Serta, Target, 5/3 Bank, McDonald’s, KFC, Chick-Fil-A, Pizza Hut, Busch Worlds of Discovery-Dubai, and Hershey Chocolate World.

The love for food culture has naturally led Tobias to have a personal passion in restaurant and foodservice. He extended his love by creating Huit Group, a restaurant creativity lab that has birthed several start-up concepts under their wing. The sensitivity to restaurant and foodservice business has made him a better designer that understands every aspect of the restaurant/food service practice that needs to be considered in the design and its process.

Tobias is a board member of RDI New York Chapter. His inspiring speaking engagement for Sim Varejo 2017 - Popai Brasil as well as the Food and Wine Classic mark his accomplishment as an industry leader, visionary expert, and trendsetter.

Perspective 03/26 : Are we saying goodbye to Community Tables?