As a customer, however, that little extra effort means a lot. Elmer's has been in existence for more than 50 years, but it takes great pains to point out its local owners, Pacific Northwest suppliers and regional ties. It recognizes its local past and keeps locations as close to the vision that Walt and Dorothy Elmer had when they started them business in 1960, but it realizes that it has to adapt to stay relevant. Walt Elmer's pancake batter recipe can stay, but the Sanka coffee and Liver and Onions entrees had to go.
Elmer's also seems to realize that it may only get your attention once. It can't hope you'll stop back again during its makeover or will be enticed by meal deals that slash its margins to nothing. It has to get your attention that first time and, hopefully, convince you it's worth returning. That's what the welcome package is all about. That's what the manager is at your table instead of hurriedly chasing staffers around the kitchen or sitting in an office. That's why the eggs have to be real eggs, the bacon has to be at least passable bacon and the ingredients have to be as local as the names of the dishes they're going into.
That's also why I'll be going back. In that one experience, Elmer's not only restored my faith in the chain eatery, but showed the way forward by turning to its past. Instead of ripping out all the fixtures and making wholesale changes to the menu when something goes wrong, casual dining places can make it right simply by focusing on the customer's experience. If the food is good, is a good value, is presented in such a way that it makes you want to come back again and fosters a following that makes the establishment a core part of the community, then that's the solution. Cramming as much reheated food as you can into a $25 package, shoving a loyalty card into a customer's hand for use anywhere and hoping just occupying land in a nearby strip mall makes you a local fixture just can't work anymore.
The casual dining customer wants food, but they also want a reason to come back. There's no shortage of logo-laden highway stops waiting to give U.S. diners a cut-rate special. One that's willing to spend a little extra time and money improving the food and customer experience is a bit more rare.
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-- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.
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