The Evolution Of Multi-Unit Restaurants: Carbon Copies No More
The Evolution Of Multi-Unit Restaurants: Carbon Copies No More

Because consumer desires are changing, the carbon-copy restaurant chains that popped up across the country in past decades are now the analog version of today’s brands, which are focused more on authentic identity than simple replication.

Diners these days may notice that newer multi-unit restaurant groups are no longer subscribing to a cookie-cutter growth model. Their own aversion to the word “chain,” where every link is identical, hints to the future vision for young dining brands.  

Because consumer desires are changing, the carbon-copy restaurant chains that popped up across the country in past decades are now the analog version of today’s brands, which are focused more on authentic identity than simple replication.

Modern diners crave authenticity and expect fast casual and other chains to cater to their specific regional tastes. For a long time, chain restaurants—which originated in the first half of the 20th century, led by A&W, White Castle and McDonald’s—were based on conformity in terms of dining experience, aesthetics, and food.     

Today, multi-unit restaurateurs are less focused on reproducing identical decor, employee uniforms, furniture, and menu items at every location. Instead, the goal is to create a set of restaurants that are unique in their own ways, with specific identities, while still preserving the overall familiar experience as a part of that brand family.

You can see this evolution in Shake Shack’s modernization of the McDonald’s model.

When you walk into a McDonald’s, you know what to expect, no matter where you are in the world. This is a big reason for the iconic burger chain’s success. Its consistency solved an “expectation problem”: People wanted to know what they were getting. And McDonald’s delivers—a Big Mac at a location in a small town you’ve never heard of during a road trip tastes like a Big Mac from the McDonald’s around the corner from home.

Of course, there are regional variations around the world. But in the U.S., you can expect the same consistent meal at any McDonald’s.

In the case of Shake Shack, though, two locations 100 miles apart—or even in the same city—could have quite different menus. While the NYC-based fast-casual chain keeps its core menu of burgers and fries the same across the board, each location often features regional cuisine created in collaboration with local chefs.

If you stop in at Shake Shack in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, for example, you could choose from four location-exclusive frozen custards that contain mix-ins from local donut shops, pie shops, and confectioners. In 2016, Massachusetts Shake Shacks offered a limited-edition “Coppa” burger that borrowed flavors from a classic Italian grinder and was created in collaboration with two acclaimed Boston restaurateurs.

People embrace these promotions because they’re authentic and local—a characteristic research has linked to customer satisfaction and intentions to return to a restaurant.  

Modern multi-unit restaurant brands are focused on replicating an experience rather than making sure superficial traits are exactly the same at every location.

The goal is to be consistent enough that customers don’t worry about the expectation problem, but still feel they’re in a place that cares. Owners also want each restaurant to be distinctive, so that a diner’s local branch can establish itself as an organic part of the neighborhood.

One of the best ways to fulfill this goal is to create a sense of community at each location, which restaurants accomplish through locally sourcing ingredients, catering to local tastes, and supporting local causes at the organizational level.

And by doing these things, multi-unit groups provide authentic experiences that traditionally were only offered by local independently owned neighborhood staples—all while fulfilling the promise of a familiar experience at each individual restaurant.

This is the future for multi-unit restaurants. While there will always be brands that compete, excel, and succeed by replicating an identical experience, a significant determining factor in the success of newer restaurant groups will be their ability to create authentic experiences and embrace regional tastes. It’s these intangibles that tie the locations of a restaurant brand together.

Brands are also more focused on “the power of the solution.”

Multi-unit restaurants can often be categorized by the problem they solve. I admire how Brett Schulman, CEO of CAVA, a multi-unit Mediterranean fast-casual, often talks about his restaurants solving a problem. Whether it’s access to healthy food at an affordable price or the convenience of getting a meal in a matter of minutes for busy parents, this regionalization mindset also applies. Certain areas have “food problems” that can be solved by a restaurant, and the nature of the problem may be different location to location.

The Mighty Quinn’s Barbeque flagship location in New York City’s East Village was one of the first authentic barbeque restaurants in that area, and potentially the first in a purely fast-casual format. We worked to create a space where the neighborhood felt welcome, from families to young foodies to the late-night crowd. We never set out to solve a problem. But in hindsight, a lot of what we did was unique, from the type of food to the style of service.  

Today, the goals of multi-unit restaurants are changing with their changing consumers. What people want out of their food experience is much different than it was just five years ago. When expanding across a state, nation, or globally, multi-unit restaurants can no longer afford to lose sight of the unique individual communities in which they operate.

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