It was 1990. I was just barely 18, and my first real job was delivering pizzas for Rocky’s Pizza Ring. This local mom-and-pop joint could have been a hot spot “back in the day.”

Tom-Kowalski-BW-cropTom Kowalski, Senior Director, Restaurant Experience, Interbrand Design ForumJudging by the never-been-updated boxing theme décor, that day was some time in 1972. It had a certain vintage charm about it — and more importantly, really good pizza. You could see Rocky’s was past its prime but it was still bustling. I delivered a lot of that great pizza to a lot of customers who were also, well, past their prime.

At the time, I had no clue that I would make a career out of helping brands like Rocky’s find new life. I do remember having a keen sense of Rocky’s untapped potential. Faded lacquered newspaper clippings of Muhammad Ali could be so much better. Boxing ring ropes draped clumsily around the dining room could be more stylized and deliberate. The deflated speed bag mounted to the wall could have added personality. All these good-hearted attempts at creating an experience around an idea worked for a time. That was a time with fewer options, less demanding customers and when an eye-catching ad in the phone book was enough to make the phone ring.

Fast forward to today. I’ve spent the better part of a 20-year career helping brands such as Burger King, Au Bon Pain and Donatos Pizza create better restaurant experiences for their guests. As I think back to Rocky’s and consider other brands that have failed to keep up, I can’t help but consider how they might reclaim their relevance. In the past decade a flood of fast-casual concepts has raised the tide of the restaurant industry and raised the bar on customer experience. So, what is it about fast casual that connects so well with customers today, and even more specifically, those highly sought-after Millennials?

We recently collaborated with Oracle on an extensive study of Millennials to better understand how to make meaningful connections with this often misunderstood group. The core challenge is the diversity within the generation — ranging from financially dependent teens to married homeowners with children. To address this, we grouped Millennials into five distinct customer segments based on the clustering of their various attitudes and behaviors, with each of the segments representing a cluster or “tribe” of people that behave similarly.

In order to target these segments effectively, we identified five themes that brands need to consider in order to win with Millennials: create an experience, make it frictionless, offer customization, build loyalty and demonstrate value.

These five strategies for success with Millennials also describe the qualities that make for a good restaurant experience. Many thriving fast-casual concepts already employ several, if not all of them. Let’s take a closer look at these five themes and you will undoubtedly see why fast-casual restaurants are hitting the mark with them.

AuBonP041. Create an Experience. The emergence of the YOLO (You Only Live Once) mindset has created a new expectation with this generation. It’s not just about the product, it’s about the experience you have with the brand or the experience the product creates. When we consider this principle in the context of fast-casual dining, the experience is a foundational element of the category. That better experience is usually a combination of a distinctive and attractive environment, engaging service and higher quality food.

2. Make it Frictionless. Making it easy and accessible is the best thing a brand can do to keep Millennials coming back again and again. Removing friction starts by taking a hard look at any pain points in the experience. For Au Bon Pain, that meant updating the old pencil-and-paper sandwich ordering method to wireless devices, adding convenient adjacencies that put complimentary breads alongside the soups and providing deeper trays with handles to enable customers to build their orders easily.

3. Make it Customizable. Millennials have grown up with the expectation that anything and everything can or should be customized. Within the fast-casual category, sometimes just the offer of customization can be enough. Guests at Piada Italian Street Food in Columbus, Ohio, actually customize less with a newly revamped menu that focuses more on signature creations than customization. Knowing I can add a bit of this or avoid that is empowering but less risky and stressful than coming up with my own, potentially oddball combination that I may or may not enjoy.

4. Build Loyalty. Social networks and peer recommendations are the lifeblood of most Millennial social circles. Traditionally, word of mouth was the only way to give true peer–to–peer recommendations, but with Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and Yelp reviews, it’s crucial that the buzz is positive and stays positive and to use technology to engage this group. Starbucks has paved the way when it comes to loyalty with an app that enables wallet-free payment and tracks rewards points. Technology and social media will continue to play a leading role in loyalty, but the aforementioned “experience” will be the ultimate factor in determining future visits.

5. Demonstrate Value. Our study shows Millennials look for a balance of quality and price. Don’t forget that this is the “everyone gets a trophy generation” and that the “what’s in it for me” attitude is always just under the surface. The value that fast-casual restaurants have offered from the beginning has been an appealing mixture of many of these five principles — all at a price point well below casual dining and with a product superior to what you get at a QSR.

AuBonP03At Au Bon Pain, steps taken to create a “frictionless” experience included updating from paper and pencil to wireless ordering devices and adding convenient adjacencies that put complementary breads alongside the soups.As I think about applying these ideas to Rocky’s Pizza Ring, I get excited about the potential. I see a modern twist on a “fight night” themed experience — perhaps one that celebrates the fanfare and nostalgia of boxing in a sophisticated and approachable way.

I consider how frictionless pizza already is and how chains such as Blaze and Pie Five have proven a dine-in pizza experience can succeed again but in a fresh way. I think about how customization was the exclusive domain of pizza for decades and how it can evolve to something new and even more endearing to customers.

And I think about how old, tired brands can leverage their heritage and hand down that loyalty to a new generation of customers. I ask, “What is that unique value equation for Rocky’s and the many other local restaurants just like them?”

My hunch is that service and a sense of community pack quite a punch. Keep making a great product, spruce up that venue and you’ll have a killer main event.

Whether you’re a mega brand with thousands of franchisees, an up-and-comer finding your niche, or an established brand looking to regain your luster, these five strategies are the key to a winning experience.