QSR Innovators: Church's Chicken’s EVP, Global CMO Brian Gies

Brian Gies, EVP and global CMO of Church's Chicken, talks opening new restaurants, new menu items and the future of QSR.

While the fast food industry has faced challenges during the pandemic, some players like Church’s Chicken continue to grow.

The Atlanta-based fried chicken chain is opening 100 new stores this year and is offering up new menu innovations such as the Texas Tenders, a new boneless fried chicken item.

The chain ranked 45 out of 50 on QSR Magazine’s list of the fastest growing QSR brands published in August 2020, which pointed out the brand's momentum since 2019.  At the time, the brand’s CEO Joe Christina revealed a five-year growth plan and even with the pandemic, the brand is still on track to meet these goals.

“I am proud and happy to say that our five-year plan has not only not slowed down, but also, because of our strong performance during 2020 and now with our start to 2021, it’s really only accelerated some of the initiatives we have baked into our plan, one of them being that aggressive restaurant development schedule.” said Brian Gies, EVP and global CMO of Church's Chicken. “To be able to have the confidence and wherewithal to stick to that and grow our presence both in the US and internationally, that’s no small feat.”

Gies attributes its growth to its desirable home-cooked comfort foods, digital innovation, and a strong alignment with its community of franchisees. “That’s always critically important,” said Gies. “We depend on those franchisees that are out there running the restaurants every day, to be well-aligned and supportive of what it will take to keep the business momentum going from both a short and long term view.”

Some of the new plans include rethinking dining rooms with less indoor space and more outdoor space, but also for what comes next. “I do think it’s exciting because we do have to plan for the pandemic today, but also the post-pandemic tomorrow,” Gies said. “It goes back to what initially interested me in marketing, which is figuring out how consumer behavior is changing, what is influencing that behavior, and how do we motivate that to favorably impact our business.”

Prior to joining Church’s Chicken, Gies has served as CMO of TGI Fridays, Vice President of Marketing at Burger King and Senior Associate at KPMG. Brand Innovators caught up with Gies from his home in Dallas to discuss the QSR’s growth, new menu items and the future of QSR. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

We are almost one year into the pandemic and Church's are opening 100 new stores at a time when many restaurants are struggling. What is your secret sauce to not only surviving but also thriving through this complicated time?

I’d say we are really fortunate. We quickly adapted to a solutions orientation for our customers. When COVID hit, no one had a playbook. We were not sure how the landscape was going to change, or how radically and rapidly it would change. As a leadership team, we quickly adopted our focus of ‘people first and safety always.’ That became a mantra for us, ‘people’ being our team members and our guests. We collectively as an industry had to quickly adapt.

We closed dining rooms and enhanced all the safety protocols in response to the virus. From a consumer perspective, we had to tell them about how we were a safe choice. We had to let them know that our drive-thrus were open, we doubled-down on delivery and other channels which consumers were gravitating towards. We navigated what we felt consumers were going through to make it easy for them to access our food and to choose us.

You recently revealed a new OPS 360 System, a digital and app based order and delivery platform. Can you talk about how this helps drive customer experience?

One of the first things we did from a digital perspective was work very closely with our partners at Yext on our digital listings. We needed to make sure that our listings were current to the minute, consumers were becoming even more reliable on digital communications to understand where they could access food quickly. I think that there was an appropriate balance that we needed to strike between the physical aspect of our restaurants and communicating that we were open, but also encouraging guest visitation via alternative channels like delivery or order-ahead.

From a physical perspective, we needed to put ourselves into the consumers’ shoes in this new behavior. Consumers were unsure of where they could access food and what was safe. You would see random cars of essential workers needing to grab a meal; They would slow down in front of restaurants and crane their necks to see if there were any lights on, if the place was open for them to eat. We deployed a COVID merchandising kit that we shipped immediately to the majority of our restaurants in less than two weeks, just to alleviate the burden on the consumer. We wanted to let them know that we were open and how we were open. Whether it was dining room, drive-thru, or curbside pick-up. We oriented towards a solutions mindset.

To elaborate on our digital presence, we shifted some of our traditional media to those channels that were more relevant. We shifted a lot of our awareness-driving tactics to digital channels.

What role does new menu innovations like Texas Tenders play in keeping the brand relevant?

We have been in this business for almost 70 years. That delicious, flavorful, hand-battered chicken has been our original recipe since 1952. It’s interesting because we were originally founded on a ‘to-go’ concept. It was ‘Church’s Fried Chicken To-Go,’ in San Antonio in 1952. The product of chicken was so portable and universally appealing. That is so meaningful today. We have almost come full circle with the need for great-tasting, portable, comfort food. This resonates more with consumers now than ever in the pandemic. It’s been a huge differentiator and benefit for us. We have a product that can easily be enjoyed at home, not only for essential workers who need a bite on the go, but also for those larger portion meals. We seamlessly delivered a Church's Chicken Family Meal to feed 6-8 people. It was a very important function of our menu. Then, we wanted to make it ever easier for guests who choose Church’s. We developed a to-go box, in upgraded packaging that supported larger meals to feed big families. We facilitated that from a functionality and convenience perspective.

We now have a chicken sandwich and Texas Tenders which represent the boneless aspect of our business. ‘Beyond the bone-in’ heritage that we have deserved presence on our menu as well. We’ve had tenders for a number of years, but the competitive landscape has expanded with concepts that are just based on tenders. So, we felt like we really needed to up our game on the quality of the tender, which was long standing in our restaurant. Hence, the launch of our chicken sandwich product and then the Texas Tenders. It was a gap in our menu. We did not have a competitive chicken sandwich which satisfied consumer demand. About a year ago, we set out deliberately on a strategy of rounding on these two boneless platforms. I’m proud to say that we launched a very successful chicken sandwich last November, a now permanent menu item for us. This week, we are launching the Texas Tender in concert with our Butterfly Shrimp which we are known for, once a year during the Lent window. The new Texas Tender is a perfect complement this time of year with the Butterfly Shrimp.

You have served senior executive marketing roles at TGI Fridays and Burger King. What experiences from those roles have you brought to Church’s?

I didn’t actually start my career in the marketing world. I started at KPMG, and I spent those years learning about a variety of businesses, public and private, from international banking to healthcare to retail. It was through that exposure that marketing chose me. I wanted to be on the front-end of the business and driving sales, which ultimately led me to brand analytics at Burger King. Then I progressed in my career. I feel like I grew up at Burger King in a way. It was so much fun being in a highly competitive business and finding the smartest and most impactful ways to steal share.

One of the lessons that stuck with me throughout my entire career is: Smart dimes beat dumb dollars. To me, it’s a fun puzzle to figure out how far you can stretch your resources. It’s about learning to be as clever and scrappy as you can be with the available tools to ultimately reach the consumers and influence their visitation into your brand. Running the spectrum of huge budgets to even scrappier budgets, that has never failed me. I became the Vice President of the US business at Burger King, and had the privilege of being on the leadership team that took the company public.

I love the competitiveness of the restaurant space. I also love the idea that meals are a social experience and a part of everyone’s lives. That took me to expand my career from QSR into the casual dining space where I eventually became CMO of TGI Friday’s. Then the chicken category came a-calling. I’d say, another valuable lesson that holds true in this space, and for any brand in a competitive marketplace, is the need to address awareness differentiation challenges and those corresponding opportunities. It doesn’t matter, any one of those brands still had awareness opportunities and differentiation needs.

At Church’s, that’s even more pronounced. We’re smaller in scale, but growing as you saw in our recent announcement of opening 100 restaurants this year. We are in the second year of our five-year plan, and I think that dictates us keeping the pedal down on what’s working. From a marketing perspective, it’s about tapping into the strengths of the brand heritage, that Texas authenticity, which hasn’t fully been capitalized on, here in the U.S. Although, we have done a good job of leveraging that internationally. That is even more pronounced here at Church’s. Lessons learned over the years have been consistent no matter the brand or the sector you’re competing in.

What do you think eating out will look like a year from now and what does this mean to QSRs?

We think that some of the new behaviors are going to stick. We are anxious for dining rooms to start to re-open when it’s safe. There will be a migration towards more social behavior. There is a lot of pent up demand for that. I really believe that the convenience factor, which has now been elevated due to the pandemic, the need has become a new tool for a much broader age spectrum. There were folks who didn’t know what a QR code was before. For many reasons, QR codes didn’t spread broadly quickly because the original technology was not conducive to it. But now, you’ve got people coming into the restaurant to learn something more about a menu, and they are accessing the menus contactless with a QR code.

Technology will continue to play a role. The idea that consumers do not have to wait at a restaurant and order their meal ahead of time in our sector will be something that sticks as well. I feel like that is informing components of a restaurant redesign: Do you now continue to expand the way that you can serve your guests through drive-thrus more efficiently? It may require a different restaurant build which some restaurants are already experimenting with. Is there a way to facilitate the to-go order, where your dining room shrinks to accommodate that behavior and acknowledge the role that delivery, and 3rd-part delivery, plays in our business? I think that will stick and require modifications to the way we work with those delivery providers and build out our restaurants.

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