Monica Watrous 

MENLO PARK, Calif. – There are two types of restaurant customers, according to researchers at Quantifind, a data analytics firm based in Menlo Park. There are cravers, and there are complainers.

“It comes down to asking yourself, ‘Who is my current customer?’” said Joshua Reynolds, head of marketing and client consulting at Quantifind. “‘Do I want to change that or play to it?’”

Using proprietary technology tracking millions of data points, Quantifind analyzes nearly 80 restaurant brands in fast-food, fast-casual and casual dining to identify trends driving the overall category as well as the strengths and weaknesses of individual brands. A key metric is what Reynolds called the “buyer signal.”

Restaurants must determine if their core customer is a 'craver' or 'complainer' and act accordingly.

“There is an enormous gap between what people say and what they do,” Mr. Reynolds told Food Business News, a sister publication to MEAT+POULTRY. “The danger with that is that restaurants of all types are relying on the voice of the customer and often analyzing buzz or broad consumer statements in social media, consumer research and surveys… but not the signal that surrounds when folks are actually buying and eating the food, which leads to the potential for misleading signals and focusing on the wrong things.”

In separating the buzz from the buyer signal, a clearer picture emerges of what drives sales and market share gains in the increasingly competitive marketplace.

“This whole notion of the difference between what people say and what they do gets a lot more complicated when you put two or more people in a car and they’re trying to decide where to go for food,” Reynolds said.

The difference between what people say and what they do becomes more complicated when deciding where to eat, Reynolds said.

That’s where the cravers and complainers come in.

“Healthy eaters for the most part have left quick-serve restaurant categories, and the challenge is for each individual brand to rebuild the business, see how they can appeal to the healthy eaters who are leaving the category, quiet the complainers, satisfy the cravers,” he said. “The only way you can do that the right way is to pay attention to what people actually do, not just what they say.”

At McDonald’s, for example, the core consumer is the craver — the person who orders a sweet tea and a Big Mac in spite of negative health perceptions, said Concetta Rand, director of solutions at Quantifind.

McDonald's is aiming to win back health-minded consumers with menu changes, including the removal of artificial preservatives from Chicken McNuggets.

“The cravers know what they’re getting when they go to McDonald’s, and they’re doubling down regardless of the lack of health of the item,” Rand said. “Cravers are their hardcore devoted customer. The complainer is the person in the car who is saying, ‘I’m not going to McDonald’s. There’s nothing for me. That cardboard salad is a turnoff.’ And that person has the power to turn the car around and go somewhere else.

“For McDonald’s the challenge is not to become a healthy brand; it’s to do whatever they can to quiet the complainer while recognizing their core customer, the craver, is the one they absolutely need to satisfy.”

Recent moves at McDonald’s suggest the brand is aiming to win back health-minded consumers, or at least those demanding simple, recognizable ingredients. Adopting a new tagline, “The Simpler the Better,” the company this year announced a series of menu changes, including the removal of artificial preservatives from Chicken McNuggets, high-fructose corn syrup from hamburger buns, antibiotics from chicken and growth hormones from beef. A number of other top chains, from Taco Bell to Chick-fil-A, have initiated similar ingredient changes.

Chick-fil-A recently updated its yogurt parfait to feature Greek yogurt, which contains half the sugar and twice the protein as the previous offering.
But are these efforts driving sales?


“I don’t think we’ve seen anything in the buyer signal that supports a massive migration from one restaurant to another based on ingredient choices, but I think there is an advantage to be had for being the first mover, and I think there is a growing belief that this will become a standard practice,” Rand said. “The key difference between the buyer signal and what you get in terms of noise and buzz in the marketplace in general is a longer term view as to what the persistent impact is. There may be a lot of buzz that results from an initial decision or announcement around brands changing their ingredients, but we want to see how that manifests over time.”

Added Reynolds: “If your goal is to get people’s attention with a commercial and have people talking about you, then, sure, some of these things might be useful as short-term attention getters. But if your goal is to make money over a long period of time, you really have to look at the buyer signal.”