QSR Innovators: McAlister’s Deli’s Director of Marketing Jessica Wu-McConnell

Jessica Wu-McConnell, Director of Marketing, Digital at McAlister's Deli, talks to Brand Innovators about the QSR's new "Warming up the Community" campaign, digital innovation and what dining out will look like in 2021.

McAlister’s Deli has run philanthropic campaigns since the QSR chain opened in 1989, and these efforts to support their local community are needed more than ever in a year of pandemic.

This month, McAlister’s is kicking off its second annual partnership with Meals on Wheels to help tackle the growing issue of hunger among seniors. Food insecurity has been on the rise in recent years with almost 10 million seniors threatened by hunger in the US before the pandemic. Since the pandemic started, Meals on Wheels programs has delivered 77 percent more meals and 47 percent more seniors than they were prior to COVID-19.

“Our brand is very community oriented so we have philanthropic efforts and this is one that we really want to build up and continue the partnership with,” says Jessica Wu-McConnell, Director of Marketing, Digital at McAlister's Deli. “This was already a need prior to the pandemic, and now as even more seniors are threatened by hunger and we see that at this time there is even more of a need. We wanted to definitely be sure that we continue to support the cause.”

The effort helps the brand show its purpose and brings its line of soups to the conversation as the weather gets colder. McAlister’s will donate 10 cents for every soup sold to Meals on Wheels with a minimum donation of $100,000. Broccoli and Cheddar, Country Potato, Chicken Tortilla, Chili and Veggie Chili and a limited time offer, White Chicken Chili Soup are among those soups on the menu.

McAlister’s Deli has 450 stores across 28 states and like other QSRs has had to adapt to the pressures of eating out driven by the pandemic. And in a case of fortuitous timing, the chain had already begun rolling out online and app ordering before the virus hit. McAlister's has quickly adapted to introduce other services like contactless payments and curbside pickup in recent months.

Wu-McConnell came to McAlister’s Deli from InterContinental Hotels Group and has also held senior marketing roles at FOCUS Brands which owns Schlotzsky’s and Cinnabon.

Brand Innovators caught up with Wu-McConnell from her home in the Atlanta area, to discuss digital innovation, the Meals on Wheels partnership and what QSR might look like in 2021. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What is the strategy behind the new “Warming up the Community” campaign?

We have partnered with Meals on Wheels America for our “Warming up the Community” campaign. It launched at the beginning of November and will be running for the whole month. The whole focus for them is supporting seniors and combating hunger amongst seniors, as well as senior isolation. We felt that it was a great brand fit and we thought it was a great cause to work on. This is our second year working on this and the campaign basically entails donating $.10 for every soup sold at our restaurant with a minimum donation of $100,000 to Meals on Wheels.

We know that nearly 10 million seniors across the country are threatened by hunger and that has only gone up in the past few months with the pandemic. So we are very excited to partner with Meals on Wheels America and have this community connection with our “Warming up the Community” campaign.


QSRs have had to change things up this year as consumers are wary of dining out. How has McAlister’s adapted?

At the beginning of this year, we were very fortunate to have launched our digital transformation in February. We completed switched our online ordering platform, we have a new custom app, we switched our rewards platform and completely new loyalty program.We really set ourselves up well, without knowing it at the time to be able to be able to scale and move quickly from digital innovation standpoint to meet our guests where they feel most comfortable during this time.

With the online ordering we were able to really allow our guests to order in a way that they felt comfortable, contactless ordering and payments, as well as pickup. We originally had about 50 locations available for curbside pickup and were able to ramp that up to 350 in the matter of a week in March. Consumers could also order through our pick up windows through our app and our website. We were fortunate to have laid this really strong foundation with that launch in February. From there we were able to launch delivery through our website and app as well during the summer.

Our whole goal with all of this was making sure that guests could get their McAlister’s favorite when they wanted to and how they felt most comfortable.


How are you marketing these new services to people and what channels are key to getting the word out?

Educating our guests on what is available. We did all this work to open up these different channels and to make sure that they could interact with us and get their McAlister’s in all of these different ways, and so from our messaging we want to make sure that they understood that we had all of these options whether it was curbside pickup, pickup windows, ordering through the app or the website. We really ramped up on that to make sure that those options were available to us at this time.

We are definitely on social. We have a lot of great messaging and content going on in our online channels, our promotions, our LTOs [limited time offer]. We just launched our new white chicken chili which is a hearty bowl soup option that will also be part of our “Warming up the Community” campaign, definitely leaning a lot into social as well as search. Catering during this time has been more of a shift, we are seeing more of those B-to-C occasions coming up that we are also wanting to lean into. Social, search and focusing on these key areas of what is happening in the restaurants and how our guests can access us through online ordering and through the app.


Who is your target audience?

We have a pretty broad audience group. We target families. Actually during the pandemic developed some menu innovation around family meals and deli kits to help make it easier for families to get food during that time and have that delivered or order through pick up. And so families are big within our audience. We also target older audiences and millennials as well, so we have a wide swatch, but families are a big part of our target audience.


In addition to the “Warming up the Community” campaign, what other campaigns do you have going into the holidays?

We know that Black Friday and Cyber Monday are going to be different this year for many retailers but with our new rewards program, we wanted to give our loyalty members the ability to participate in the excitement of Black Friday deals. So we do have a week long McAlister’s Rewards Daily Deals that is going to be happening towards the end of the month for Black Friday. Each day loyalty members will get a surprise deal that they can take advantage of for that day. It is very exciting and we want to reward them for their loyalty and being fans of McAlister’s.


What do you think 2021 will look like for your brand and the QSR category in general?

Having that accessibility is going to continue to be important. Really making sure that we have the options, the flexible ordering and ways to allow our guests to get their food however they feel comfortable.

From a digital perspective, we are continuing to innovate on ways to do that. We have got delivery. We have got curbside. We’ve got pick up windows and stations. People are going to feel varying levels of comfort for how they want to get their food. So in-restaurant we are continuing to make sure that that is a focus with sanitation and with our team members and then online making sure that we continue to let guests know that they have these different ways of ordering with us.

This year a lot of dine-in restaurants have had to close or close off temporarily, so next year we will see if they can start opening up again to higher capacity and with that being able to continue to have new menu innovation, continuing to have new options for our guests. It really does come back to having all of the different ways that our guests can get their McAlister’s food and also just giving new options for them and expanding our LTOs.

We know that Black Friday and Cyber Monday are going to be different this year for many retailers but with our new rewards program, we wanted to give our loyalty members the ability to participate in the excitement of Black Friday deals. So we do have a week long McAlister’s Rewards Daily Deals that is going to be happening towards the end of the month for Black Friday. Each day loyalty members will get a surprise deal that they can take advantage of for that day. It is very exciting and we want to reward them for their loyalty and being fans of McAlister’s.

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