Wellness Program Launches: Macaroni Grill Shows You What Not To Do

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We moved into our new house in March, and have been camping out in the kitchen while wood floors are installed. With the kitchen not really usable, we decided to live it up with a discount coupon for Macaroni Grill’s fairly new “Express Dinner.”

And we learned a very valuable business principle: the importance of thinking through operational details.

A great idea is not simply not enough.

You’ve got to be smart, thorough and relentlessly detailed about how you implement every single aspect of your program launches. That includes identifying all the changes you need to make in your current sales, marketing, staffing, customer service, service delivery and billing processes.

First, some background:

For the Express Dinner, you stand in line over by the kitchen to order. You choose from a somewhat limited menu — say, roughly a dozen entrees, $9 each, which is at least 30% cheaper than their regular entree prices, on average. They also promise to serve you within 9 minutes or it’s free.  Smart idea, because one of our biggest complaints about Macaroni Grill (aside from the often hushed atmosphere, calorie count, sodium content and price) is how long it takes to get your food. My husband’s diabetic and has to inject insulin well before we eat, so meals that take forever to show up are a non-starter for us.

Here’s what wellness business leaders can learn from this experience:

1. It is not possible to over-communicate

When we walked in, neither the host nor our server even mentioned the Express Dinner option. That’s a problem for two reasons. First, the program will fail simply because it’s invisible. You’ll never know whether customers would have loved it or not. Second, as you’ll see below, if you’re seated at a table first, and THEN head to the Express Dinner line, things fall apart.

Of course, that in turn means that customers have to know when they walk in the door, that they want the Express Dinner. Even though it’s new…and they probably never heard of it until 5 minutes ago… You can see the problem here.

We actually did know we wanted the Express Dinner thanks to our email coupon — but otherwise, we’d never have known it existed. And since WE don’t know anything about their internal processes, it never occurred to us to make sure they sent us over to that order line.

Yet as I write, I’m sure Ignite Restaurant Group, which owns Macaroni Grill, is going nuts trying to figure out why so few people are interested in the Express Dinner. Hello! It’s because they don’t know it exists! Or how to order it.

Lesson learned: when you launch a new program, you have to OVER COMMUNICATE. A few customer emails is not remotely enough. You also have to make sure that every single person in your member or client workflow is trained and accountable for their role in that process. Moreover, don’t leave it in the hands of humans. They should have had a card featuring the Express Dinner on the table and announcements should have been posted on mirrors in the restrooms and elsewhere.

2. The menu picks are kinda underwhelming

I’m guessing that they did a lot of math to figure out which entrees they could actually offer for 9 bucks and still make money.

But unfortunately most of these items aren’t actually that tasty, and there’s only one vegetarian item — a huge pile of pasta with a scant spoonful of onions and mushrooms and as I recall, carrots. Don’t picture a delightful tangle of caramelized veggies. This was more like a small handful of Stouffer-quality veggies, briefly cooked. Nothing special.

In fact, that huge pile of pasta theme is recurrent. Clearly part of how they’re hitting the price point is minimizing pricier ingredients and maximizing cheap noodles.

Nothing wrong with that — except that if you want to offer a low-cost option, you do still need to offer value. It’s not like customers won’t notice that it’s hard to find the chicken on the plate!

Low-cost without value is just…cheap. If you offer a product that betrays your core commitment to a certain kind of customer experience, you’re shooting yourself in the foot.

Lesson learned: All too often, wellness businesses remove program elements so they can lower their program prices and still make money. (Sometimes, they add dumb stuff no one really cares about, and increase the price. Very similar problem.) Don’t kid yourself. If you’re dropping most of what people actually care about from your program, it’s doomed to failure.

3. Their operationalization is poor…

They also unbundled some items that are complimentary with their traditional table service model. Those unbundled items — like a big loaf of fresh bread — are upcharges for Express Dinner customers. I like that idea.

But….the lack of communication when we were seated also meant that the server assumed we were a “normal” customer. So she took our drink order, and delivered the complimentary bread. We didn’t want it, and refused it, but that’s beside the point. They whiffed on an upcharge opportunity. Oh, and she asked us to tell the Express Dinner cashier to add our Diet Cokes to the tab. A clunky process, to say the least.

Lesson learned: If you unbundle a wellness program into distinct elements that you then sell individually — say, fitness, nutrition, and stress management — you MUST modify your operational processes so that you always charge for these individual items. Otherwise, all you’ve done is to lower your prices across the board, probably by quite a bit. Not cool. And make sure that any handoffs that have to happen behind-the-scenes are transparent to your customer. Don’t ask them to carry messages from one of your employees to another.

4. …very poor.

You pay when you place your order. Which is great from the customer perspective, and they probably thought it would simplify the workload for their servers, too.

But guess what: normally, they offer a dessert upsell at the end of the meal. Since they didn’t really rethink their workflow, they’ve eliminated the opportunity to offer dessert to their Express Dinner customers.  That’s a HUGE mistake, because Macaroni Grill is clearly a special occasion place for a lot of customers. I always notice groups of people there, and many do order dessert.

The other issue here is that the process for participating in their new program — ordering the Express Dinner — has a single point of failure. If they can’t get you into that Express order line right off the bat, everything falls apart after that. The bill is messed up, your drink order is messed up, they miss upsell opportunities, and so on. That should be a huge red flag for any business operator.

5. If it feels like pushing string…

So many things were awkward about this process. The order line was squeezed in next to the kitchen, with kitchen staff stepping around you while you decided what to eat. Retraining every host and server throughout the chain to ask about the Express Dinner FIRST is a big task. So is teaching them to always, always capture upsell revenues. Hitting the price points with quality is really tough, too.

It made me wonder: would this hot mess have worked better if the Express Dinner were offered only in the bar? No reconfiguration to make room for the ordering line, much less retraining, and the bar’s usually not that busy during the week. It’s always staffed with a bartender who could handle limited menu and dessert orders, and the more casual setting lends itself to a more informal ordering process.

Lesson learned: If it feels like pushing string to roll out your Big Idea, ask yourself if there’s a better way to do it. Successful programs do not require pretzel-like business contortions to work. If the process is awkward, if it’s confusing to employees and customers — these are all important signs that you’re not ready to greenlight it yet.