Canadian Pizza Magazine

Features Business and Operations Customer Service
Marketing Insights: June 2016

Experience wanted


Society is obsessed with decluttering, or at least obsessing about needing to declutter.  The baby boomers who entered adulthood in the 1980s and ’90s accumulated stuff – lots of it – and now they’re re-evaluating their priorities. In his groundbreaking book Stuffocation, James Wallman speaks to the importance of experiences over things.  “We have to transform what we value. We have to focus less on possessions and more on experiences. Rather than a new watch or another pair of shoes, we should invest in shared experiences like holidays and time with friends,” Wallman writes.

Dining lends itself beautifully to experiential enhancement, but few restaurants execute it well. It’s an important opportunity because a unique experience is worth paying more for. When it comes to how we approach the steps of service, are we adding the sizzle or going through the motions?

High-end restaurants have known for some time that offering an elevated experience equates to charging a premium price. Winery restaurants in Ontario’s Niagara region, British Columbia and Napa Valley in California all offer experiential dining events that allow for an increased price of 30 to 50 per cent. Often these experiences involve an educational component. As estate manager at Trius Winery in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., I see our “Black Glass” dinners sold out weeks in advance. The Black Glass experience allows groups of 12 to 20 people to start with a guided tasting to learn how to detect wine notes. This quick seminar allows a group of strangers to make a connection and is followed by several courses of gourmet food paired with various wines served in an opaque black glass. The participants (who have arrived at the dining room with a group rapport, thanks to the tasting tutorial) compete in teams to identify the varietal by relying on taste and smell alone because the dark glass masks the colour of the wine. The server leads the group through the pairings and a discussion of why that particular wine pairs with the course they’re having. The “wow” factor in the dining experience comes from the interaction guests get with the food, the wine and each other.

An interactive dining experience can also include customers in the design process. The term “open source” refers to a group of users collaborating to design computer software for the world to enjoy, but it can be applied nicely to a dining experience too. The Pie Five Pizza Company in Fort Worth, Texas, has leveraged pizza’s natural customization assets to create a unique and interactive experience. Customers are welcomed by “Pie-Tech Experts” (think Apple Genius Bar) who guide them through the creation and ordering process. Customers create 10-inch pizzas tailored to their personal tastes. They choose from four types of crusts, seven sauces, several cheese options and a wide variety of meats and vegetable toppings. Queen Margherita Pizza in Toronto holds Pizza Libs experiences where five teams of four guests participate in a hands-on pizza making competition. The teams collaborate to plan the toppings and then make their pizza, which is judged by the head chef. Pizza Hut is taking the open source approach to pizza design to a more literal level through its alliance with Chaotic Moon Studios to create an interactive table prototype that functions like a giant iPad, allowing customers to play with pizza size, toppings and sides.

The best and most buzzworthy interactive experiences don’t have to be high-tech, but they do leverage your most important asset: your people. Most employees love their jobs even more when they feel they’re truly adding value and their own personality to their interaction with guests. By teaching the customer about the food or wine, the restaurant team has a chance to talk about what they find exciting on the menu. An experience could be as simple as a three-course meal with beer, whisky or wine pairings where a group of guests compete in teams to choose the best pairing. If you’re lucky enough to have a team member who can toss pizza dough like a pro, why not have a dining experience that involves learning how to toss followed by topping, baking and eating their creations? Pizza lends itself to global exploration so beautifully. Perhaps a trip to Naples with the tastebuds could include a local history buff speaking about Italy during the Second World War, the agriculture, the culture and how pizza was brought home by North American soldiers who discovered it during their European tours of duty?

People crave a connection with their food, with their dining partners and with the people making and serving them their meals. Look for exciting ways to celebrate your points of difference and ask your team for their input on how they could lead an engaging experience for groups of diners. In doing so, you’ll be giving your customers and employees memories they’ll cherish … no clutter involved.


Michelle Brisebois is a marketing professional with experience in the food, pharmaceutical and financial services industries. She specializes in brand strategies.


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