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Customer Experience

Serving up customer relationships, not just food, at Fiesta Restaurant Group

It’s the story of two cult restaurants - one a radical patio dining concept in San Antonio, TX, and the other a fresh, healthy take on fast food chicken in Miami, FL. 40 years on and the cult following that powered their success as start-ups is now the basis for their national expansion as Fiesta Restaurant Group continues to make emotional connections with their customers. We caught up with VP of Guest Experience, Patty Lopez-Calleja, to find out the secret ingredients to their success.

Patty Lopez-Calleja’s career in customer experience started some 22 years ago when she graduated from college with a degree in political science and took her first job as executive assistant to the president of Miami-based restaurant chain Pollo Tropical.

Not the typical route many of today’s aspiring CX professionals will take, but it’s one that firmly planted the seed in Patty’s mind about how vital customers are to the success of a brand.

“Back in the day there were only two ways to contact a company,” she says. “You either called or you sent a letter. And everybody loves sending letters to the president!

“That’s how my career and passion started back then, responding to letters and calls from our customers. These are the people who make our brand and all they really wanted was for us to make their experience better, because they want to come back.”

A restaurant empire built from a 'cult following'

Pollo Tropical has been part of the Fiesta Restaurant Group since 2012, joining forces with Taco Cabana, a fast-growing restaurant chain based in San Antonio, Texas, that has grown to 176 locations since its founding in 1978.

For both chains, their shared roots in starting out with what Patty calls a ‘cult following’ is what makes them both so customer-obsessed.

Pollo Tropical began when brothers Stuart and Larry Harris set up a grill outside their father’s convenience store, offering fresh, healthy grilled chicken that was for many a welcome departure from other less healthy fast food options in the area.

“It was a gap in the market,” says Patty. “The product didn’t exist, and they just kept working on it, trying new things, new recipes, and they built up a very loyal customer base.”

Taco Cabana’s story is similar, introducing a new dining concept that perfectly filled a gap in the market and quickly built up a loyal fan base.

“It really started the patio dining concept,” says Patty. “You had kids coming back from parties and they weren’t ready to go home yet - they wanted somewhere to go, to get something good and fast, and that’s where it started.”

For many locals Taco Cabana became a central part of their youth, not just as somewhere to get food, but as a central meeting point and an essential part of any night out.

“We had a customer who passed away recently, “ says Patty. “And in his obituary, they recalled the customer spending time with his friends on the patio at Taco Cabana. I think that just shows how much of an impact the experience can have.

“It’s an emotional thing. There’s the food that reminds you of what your grandmother used to make and it evokes all those emotions; and then there’s all those milestones in your life you associate with being there, whether it’s feeding your kids or hanging out there with your friends.”

From hand-written letters to social media

Fast forward 15 years from Patty’s days responding to customers’ letters and she’s now VP of Guest Engagement at Fiesta Group, responsible for continuing to build those emotional ties between the brands and their customers.

The tools at Patty’s disposal have changed drastically in that time — gone are the handwritten letters, replaced by a CX program that combines not just solicited feedback from customer surveys, but social media data too, giving Fiesta Group the complete picture of how their customers feel.

“No brand can ignore social media any more,” says Patty. “Of course you have Yelp, Google Reviews, Zomato and all those sites but also you have people’s individual Twitter and Instagram feeds too — it’s really accelerated things.

“When things go wrong, they escalate quickly and we’ve all seen the impact of that in the news headlines over the years. But it’s also a huge opportunity to connect with our customers in ways we’ve never been able to before.”

Patty and her team have now added Online Reputation Management into their CX program, monitoring social media for mentions of their brand and tracking everything from topics of discussion all the way through to trends in sentiment, just as they do with their customer survey responses.

“It’s a game changer,” she says. “Because now I know what to react to. I can see everything, so I know if it’s one isolated experience — and of course I want to make it right and close the loop for that one person, but I don’t need to go and build out a whole new policy or procedure.

“So now we’re able to take care of the one-offs on a case-by-case basis, while in the background we’re looking for those broader issues that need to be addressed system-wide.”

Bringing X and O data together to improve the experience

A great example of system-wide changes comes from the group’s salsa bars — an incredibly popular concept at both Pollo Tropical and Taco Cabana.

When the team saw a large number of complaints about missing salsa in customers’ orders they assumed it was an issue at the drive-thru — after all, the huge ‘help yourself’ salsa bars inside the restaurants are unmissable, so customers there couldn't be missing their salsa, surely?

“When we looked at the data, 48% who said they had accuracy issues were take-out orders,” says Patty.

“They are literally waiting to get their food stood next to the salsa bar, and they think their salsa is missing — their expectation was that their salsa would be in the bag because it was takeout.

“So we needed to go figure that out, so we put various procedures in place, like writing it on the receipts ‘hey, don’t forget to stop by the salsa bar.’ It may seem small to some, but for us it was a big issue.

It’s that marriage of X- and O-data that has given Patty and her team those levels of insights — with O-data alongside the feedback, they were able to see that the issue was affecting an entirely different customer than they had been focused on, one that would likely still be waiting for their salsa had they relied on X-data alone.

Salsa bars aside, X- and O-data is the future at Fiesta Group as they look to continue to grow in a market that’s not short of competitors, and with new competitors springing up all the time, it’s never been more important to go back to their roots and rally around their cult following.

“The customer to us is more than a transaction,” she says. “We want to have relationships with our guests, and provide memorable experiences to them. We really want to be at the forefront of this and I think the link between operational and experience data is so important to that — it’s how we’re going to build those relationships and grow our business in the future.”

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