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A fast-food restaurant can only sell burgers or fried chicken so many ways. And if they've been selling those same products for 60 or 70 years, it really increases the degree of difficulty.

To stay relevant these restaurants, sometimes labeled legacy brands, are constantly working to update their offerings, sharpen their designs and innovate how they serve customers. 

"They're always developing," said Jan Rehberg, who along with her husband Denny, owns the Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen franchise in Montana and the Burger King at Grand Avenue and 15th Street West. 

And while many of those changes are crafted at the corporate level, it's up to local franchisees to make sure they're implemented successfully. 

When the Rehbergs bought the Burger King on Grand Avenue a few years ago, corporate had just rolled out an updated design for its restaurants. Rather than try to remodel the old building they decided to just rebuild. 

"We tore down the old one," Jan Rehberg said. 

The new building looks sharp and modern, and its design allows for many of the innovations Burger King has developed to more efficiently prepare food and serve customers. Those innovations wouldn't have worked well in the old building, Rehberg said. 

"The building will last 20 years," she said. "You can update it again but it gets harder to make it work."

McDonald's is in the process of doing the same updating work. Across Montana, McDonald's corporate and its local franchisees will spend approximately $29 million over the next 18 months updating or rebuilding restaurants. 

In Billings, the two McDonald's along Grand Avenue have already seen some work. The building at Grand and 11th Street West underwent extensive remodeling earlier this year. The store at Grand and Rehberg Lane was torn down and is now in the process of being rebuilt. 

The goal is to make the restaurants more comfortable. Younger customers might be more apt to order meals through an app on their phone, which the newly updated restaurants accommodate. Older patrons may be more comfortable with table service, a new feature that allows people to order and then wait for their meals to be served where they're sitting. 

"Essentially, we are giving our customers choices — from the way they order, to the food they eat, and (we're) empowering them to enjoy a McDonald's meal in any fashion that suits them," Lindsay Kirsh-Rainey, McDonald's field brand reputation manager for the Pacific Northwest and Rocky Mountain region, said by email.

"In an ever-mobile world, where people are always on the go, we want to ensure we are meeting them wherever they are," she said. 

Menu items, building design, uniforms and even advertising are all designed at the corporate level and mandated by the company. Franchisees are left to make them work. 

That doesn't leave a lot of room to be flexible, said Jan Rehberg. But the trade-off is access to deep pockets.

Corporate has the resources to research and test what designs will work, what innovations will make running the restaurant more efficient and what will bring in the widest range of customers. 

"It's going to be a pretty sophisticated analysis," she said. 

That analysis touches every aspect of the restaurant's operations. The appearance, quality and flavor of the food, and the look of the buildings and the employee uniforms have to be the same whether a customer orders a Whopper in Morgantown, West Virginia, or Billings, Montana. 

"They're very particular that you follow the look," Rehberg said. "People recognize it."

And while shiny new buildings tend to attract new customers, Rehberg believes it's good advertising — more than updated design or remodeled lobbies — that ultimately brings customers through the door. And it's something in which franchisees invest a lot.

Local owners pay corporate a royalty fee to use the brand and they pay an ad fee that supports the development and production of advertising. And for the most part it works — except when it doesn't. 

Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen is running an ad campaign right now that targets customers in the southeast part of the country, leaving owners in places like the Rocky Mountain West scrambling a little to adapt. 

"Owning a quick serve restaurant is a challenge," Rehberg said. 

Ultimately, owners of legacy brand restaurants hope the mix of smart advertising and updated buildings will be enough to keep them relevant and appealing across multiple generations. 

McDonald's partnership with UberEATS and its emphasis on mobile technology is a broad pitch to appeal to younger eaters. At the same time, its move to create friendlier interactions between staff and customers inside the building is a move to keep older guests from feeling alienated. 

"McDonald's caters to all demographics," Kirsh-Rainey said. The recent changes "ensure that all of our customers from any age group feel comfortable and welcome inside and outside of our restaurants."

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Business Reporter

Business Reporter for the Billings Gazette.