Appetite for Technology: 5 Questions With Chili’s Digital Chief Wade Allen


Chili's Ziosk

Chili’s became one of the leaders in the digitization of the dining experience in US fast-casual chains when it installed more than 45,000 Ziosk tabletop tablets in its restaurants a couple of years ago. Now it’s up to Wade Allen to try to keep the Brinker International-owned Tex-Mex eatery brand at the forefront of technology.

Allen joined Chili’s two years ago as vice president of digital innovation and customer engagement after building his digital chops with ad agency stints and in running a startup called Coupon Factory that was bought by WPP.

“I was attracted by the blue sky in the casual dining industry, which over the last 40 years hasn’t been innovative in [digital] technology,” Allen told brandchannel. “This role didn’t exist before, so I was given a little bit of the keys to the kingdom to move forward.”

Chili's App

Among other things, Allen launched a My Chili’s Rewards loyalty program, partnered with major brands in other verticals in the Plenti rewards consortium, added new features to the Chili’s app such as Skip the Line, and made the Ziosk tablets more efficient—now responsible for 75 percent of credit card sales.

Allen talked with brandchannel about Chili’s digital progress:

bc: What are the latest additions to Chili’s digital guest experience?

Chili's Wade Allen

Wade Allen: The tangible items are tablets on tables, the online ordering platform or to-go, our mobile app, CRM or loyalty and all the digital analytics that go with it. And we have all this great information in terms of both customer transactional data and digital data and the bread crumbs.

My first year I spent getting up to speed and getting the foundation built correctly and we had short-term digital wins such as getting Ziosk on the tables. There were some great things we could do to augment the guest experience in our restaurants as well as updating our app. It’s an iterative process. We’re overhauling the app and digital properties and then changing out some of the tech that supports and drives our online ordering. That’s one of the fastest-growing areas of our business, up to 10 percent now, and it has the capacity to grow dramatically.

bc: Are you going to become like Domino’s where the focus on online ordering technology these days is driving the business, more so than the food?

Allen: We’re a little more balanced than Domino’s. We’re focusing on three areas: food, atmosphere and service. Tech is the string that pulls all of them together in some capacity. But in an environment and fast-casual industry that has literally been untouched, that’s where we needed to start. We had innovated our food and updated our restaurants and brought in new team-service models but hadn’t updated the tech in restaurants or at headquarters, and we needed to do that to make digital advances.

I love that Domino’s has come out and said that they’re a tech company that just happens to serve food. But we’re more balanced.

bc: How is the My Chili’s Rewards program going? I understand you started with 4.2 million participants in six months after you launched it last year.

Allen: It has exceeded expectations because we were shooting for 5 million in the first year, and we’re almost to our annual goal already. The other important metric is engagement: You can have a ton of people in the program but if they’re not using it or engaging with it, it’s all for naught. Between 18 percent to 20 percent of total transactions in restaurants are associated with loyalty members.

bc: You were the first restaurant chain to join Plenti, the new loyalty program for a consortium of big brands. How is that working out?

Chili's Plenti

Allen: Plenti has been great for a couple of key reasons. It gets us to an exponentially larger group than we can reach as a single casual chain. When you can bring together Nationwide, AT&T, Enterprise and so on, the pool of customers within the reach of our restaurants is significantly increased.

I lived in the UK and saw how Nectar [one of the first consortium programs] operated. There is a learning curve but as more and more people realize they can, for example, buy a cell phone at AT&T and redeem the points for gas at Exxon and also buy a Fossil bag at Macy’s, they start to see the value of the program. Like anything, it’s contingent on the value of the name brands you get in, but it’s off to a great start.

bc: What have you learned from Chili’s use of Ziosk tablets so far, which allow customers to order appetizers and desserts, play games, pay their bills and so on without having to involve wait staff?

Chili's Ziosk

Allen: When we put them on the table, everyone thought we would get an operational win or some great other wins that would help us with service. What we really found is two key things: The data that comes off that device to help make a better experience for guests is unbelievable. About 25 percent of customers take the survey after they pay on Ziosk—there are just six or seven questions they answer and it only takes 15 seconds. That data is incredibly powerful. It allows us to coach and praise team members in case they’re doing well or need improvement. It also gives us the ability to flex in questions about food that customers may just have consumed or that we are trialing at that restaurant.

The other thing is that less is more. When you get something new, a new toy, we found out that Ziosk does a fantastic job of augmenting the experience, but it will never be an overhaul for the personal touch. It allows some great things to happen around the most mundane tasks of a team member, helping them to know when guests are finished eating, for instance. It allows customers to do their own light ordering and reorders of drinks, and scans their coupons or rewards, and allows some entertainment for that 12- to 30-minute time frame when they’re waiting for food.

So [with waiters] there was some initial hesitation: What’s this going to do to my employment? But they learned that Ziosk takes away mundane tasks and allows them to focus on how they can make the most money: serving their guests and creating a service atmosphere.

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