True Food Kitchen's First CMO Plots a Digital Future
For Shannon Keller, digital is the future of marketing. True Food Kitchen’s newly appointed chief marketing officer, its first in company history, has her sights set on capturing a changing audience and connecting with them beyond the four walls of the restaurant.
“We need to remain relevant. There's more healthy competition now than ever,” she says. “There's never been a more exciting time to be a marketer because we certainly have our work cut out for us to really hone in on what makes True Food Kitchen different, and not only continue to reinvent ourselves, but also become a brand that stands the test of time.”
Unlike other health-focused chains popping up in all segments of the industry, especially fast casual, True Food Kitchen is a full-service brand built on a very specific set of principles. The concept centers around the anti-inflammatory pyramid developed by co-founder Andrew Weil. It puts vegetables, fruits, and whole grains center stage with minimal animal proteins.
Keller admits explaining True Food Kitchen's mission to someone who hasn’t dined there can be a challenge, but getting the message across to consumers is a marketing task she enjoys. It's what differentiates the brand from competitors in an overly saturated industry.
And digital marketing allows the brand to be flexible and broad with its message in ways it couldn't before. It can be more reactive as customers demand change.
“The nice thing about technology and digital media is that we are able to act quickly and implement changes in order to remain relevant,” Keller says.
Due to the rapid changes in consumer behavior and rise of fresh marketing channels, Keller has had to develop a strategy completely different from what the brand was doing five years ago. “The way that we would market to consumers even a year ago is completely different,” she says.
But True Food Kitchen now has the ability to reach consumers in more direct ways. In January, the brand launched online ordering. It took the time to flesh out the details of the platform so it could, as much as possible, mirror True Food Kitchen’s in-store experience.
“We have a very sophisticated guest. We cater to all sorts of allergies and food preferences,” Keller says. “What our guests come to expect online is very much in line with what they've come to expect in our restaurants. We've sort of raised the bar that way.”
One key part of the strategy was to make sure the custom online service provided guests with just as much information as servers would. From protein and grain substitutions to calorie counts and clear labeling of vegan, vegetarian, and gluten-free options, no detail was left behind on the online menu.
“To be even more convenient and make True Food Kitchen more accessible to more people is certainly a priority of mine,” Keller says.
She views the platform as another revenue stream for True Food Kitchen, while also being able to leverage it as a marketing tool, fresh with original imagery and messaging that connects with at-home consumers.
To further customize the dining experience at True Food Kitchen, the marketing team will analyze data from online ordering to understand customer behavior and learn which channels are working best. Along with customer demands, the data allows the company to identify trends and areas where it can grow in a way that wasn’t possible before the data was available.
“The marketing team has a responsibility to drive bottom-line growth and part of that is really having a strong understanding of the changing technology,” Keller says. “And then working more closely than ever with our tech team and our digital agencies and digital partners to identify the opportunities to continue to grow our business.”
One of these new opportunities the brand hopes to capitalize on is a loyalty program. Instead of a loyalty program with rewards of discounts and free offers, the three-tiered platform will create experiences for guests. Someone who might be on the silver tier is a regular guest, and over time, earns a community dinner hosted by the restaurant’s chef, Keller says.
It’s more about creating a meaningful experience than the offer, she says.
“We really put a premium on that guest and community enrichment,” Keller says. “It's about the surprise and delight. The loyalty program and the rise of big data will help us create more customized experiences for our guests, which we're really excited about.”
“At the end of the day, marketing is all about creating connections with our guests,” she adds.
Creating captivating campaigns that connect with consumers in the digital space will be one of the main focuses of Keller’s new role.
“Digital marketing is certainly an inevitable piece of our role as marketers,” Keller says. “But no matter how many advances there are in technology, the goal as marketers really does stay the same to create that quality personalized experience for each of our guests.”
Throughout 2019, the focus of True Food Kitchen’s marketing will center on storytelling. The brand wants to tell guests about where the food comes from, and the impact healthy eating can have on a person’s health. Along with explaining the roots of the concept and the science behind each dish, the storytelling campaigns will explore the challenges of getting fresh ingredients to locations nationwide.
“We do a lot of storytelling around the sourcing, and that's a big part of our marketing strategy,” she says. “It will be a big part of our marketing strategy for 2019 to continue to do so,” she says. “Working with fresh produce isn’t easy. Our chefs play a very integral role in making sure that the ingredients are prepared in a way that highlights the freshness of the food.”
By highlighting the fact that there is a chef in each kitchen crafting seasonal dishes, Keller says, the brand stands out from others.
As True Food Kitchen gears up for expansion, the Phoenix-based company continues to bolster its leadership team.
Since the end of 2016, the brand added CEO Christine Barone, former Starbucks executive; CFO Allison Schulder of P.F. Chang’s; and COO James Liakakos, former VP of operations for Jean-Georges Management. Last year, it also brought in Robert McCormick from Daniel Boulud as brand chef.
In 2018, Oprah Winfrey invested an undisclosed sum in the health-focused chain and joined the board of directors as its eighth member. Private equity firm Centerbridge, the company that recently dealt P.F. Chang’s, remains the controlling shareholder of True Food Kitchen.
The so-called Oprah Effect could help support True Food Kitchen’s recent growth spurt.
"As we plan to double in size over the next three years, we will be opening up a significant number of restaurants and really do need financing to help fund that growth," Barone told AdAge at the time.
Keller’s mission will be to spread the vibrant message of True Food Kitchen as it breaks into new markets. The emerging chain opened in 2008 and has 26 locations in 11 states. Over the past two years, the brand doubled its footprint from 12 restaurants in 2016 to 25 by the end of 2018.
But growth is just getting started.
True Food Kitchen just opened in Kansas City, Missouri—a fresh market for the chain. As it enters others, the brand awareness strategy will change, Keller says. Messaging on social media is customized to new areas and audiences to help give True Food Kitchen a local feel.
“How we describe True Food Kitchen in the Midwest market might be a little different than the way we talk about ourselves in Southern California,” she says. “It’s about remaining true to who we are, but changing the message in order to reach guests where they are.”
True Food Kitchen will open in Arlington, Virginia; New Orleans; and debut a second Chicago location. Growth won’t be forced, Keller says. When the brand finds the right places, it will expand.
Over the next few years, Keller estimates 6–10 new locations will open each year.
“When we find that there's increased consumer demand we'll open up another location, and we have some of that happening in 2019 and 2020,” Keller says. “We've now reached a point where there is some of the same-market growth, which is exciting for a brand like ours.”