Let’s Get Social: Meet the Top 5 Brands That Grew in Social Restaurant Visits

Everything in the digital landscape may take place in a virtual reality, but those social media and mobile actions impact our actual reality. Social media and mobile, while viewed by some as a quick means of casual and fun communication, is serious business. The restaurant industry sees that firsthand.

In 2015, there were over 1 million social media mentions about the food and beverage sector, with 57 percent of them being about quick-service restaurants. Since then, that number has surely boomed. Last year, RetailMeNot reported that 25 percent of people have at least one restaurant app on their phones — and if you're looking for some more food for thought, did you know a study by mobile-local ad network xAd and call measurement provider Telmetrics revealed that hungry mobile users who search for food through their phones or tablets go on to make purchases at a near 90-percent conversion rate? Sixty-four percent of those smartphone searchers convert searches into buys within one hour of their mobile activity.

Kitchen sink of percentages aside, it's needless to say that restaurant owners and operators can't ignore this growing segment of their target audience. But which brands can we look to for inspiration on how to engage and interact with consumers? And which brands are captivating those consumers, so much so that they turn their social media actions into physical foot-traffic actions and visit a restaurant location? Below are the five brands that improved the most in social restaurant visits (SRVs) during Q1 2017.

How the Data Works and Defining SRVs

These top-performing brands are not editorially selected, but are ranked based on core social consumer metrics. Foodable Labs analyzes more than 167,000 restaurant and hospitality brands daily and more than 220 million global restaurant consumers engaged in social media across over 500,000 foodservice locations.

A brand's Social Restaurant Visits Score is based, of course, on their social restaurant visits, which are actions consumers take, whether as a mention, photo share, or "check in" on a social media platform, referencing a restaurant's location in a post or within the post's geo-metadata. SRVs include a variety of data points, such as a consumer's intent to visit or a return-and-refer social mention.

Social Restaurant Visits Scores of the Top 5 Most Improved Brands During Q1 2017

Social Restaurant Visits (SRVs) are location-based actions consumers make in relation to their engagement on social media. Foodable Labs, through the Restaurant Social Media Index (RSMI), analyzes more than 167K restaurant and hospitality brands and over 220MM global restaurant consumers across 500K foodservice locations.

Biggest Social Restaurant Visits Score Growths and Declines (Variance) During Q1 2017

Social Restaurant Visits (SRVs) are location-based actions consumers make in relation to their engagement on social media. Foodable Labs, through the Restaurant Social Media Index (RSMI), analyzes more than 167K restaurant and hospitality brands and over 220MM global restaurant consumers across 500K foodservice locations.

Brands With the Highest SRV Growths in Q1

1. Which Wich — Increased by 15.93 points. 

SRV Scores From Q1 2016 to Q1 2017: Which Wich

Fast casual sandwich chain Which Wich definitely sandwiched in some growth during Q1, launching up an impressive 15.93 points in social restaurant visits. Its progress, as seen in the line graph, is incredible, moving from a gradual decline to a drastic jump. What factors could have played into its latest social restaurant visits spike?

For one, a new power player joined the team in late 2016. Former Corner Bakery Cafe executive Ric Scicchitano became president in September, his aim to "guide menu innovation" and marketing, and the planned addition of 90 restaurants across the board, a promise for growth. (Which Wich is boasting a brand-new menu and all-time favorites here. And if that wasn't enough, did you know they even cater everything from gluten-free to meaty sandwiches?) Scicchitano is an influential force, hopping aboard with CEO and founder Jeff Sinelli, who calls himself the "chief vibe officer."

Speaking of vibe, Which Wich's brand voice is all about vibing —  the company even encourages consumers to "get good vibes" by joining their rewards Vibe Club. This is mobile-heaven for social consumers, who earn a free 7-inch wich for every 35 points they earn. Plus, loyal fans get free grub on their birthdays, a free drink just for signing up, and random freebies, promotions, and cash giveaways. To make earning points even easier for time-strapped, hungry consumers, Which Wich also has mobile ordering.

“About half of our transactions are mobile,” Vice President of Marketing and Research and Development James Park said in 2015, when the brand began mobile ordering. “Our brand is really geared toward the high-energy, early adopting segment and there is a part of us that’s inherently analog. ...The bag and line are part of our DNA, but we are building infrastructure around our customer base that requires the technology component. So we have a healthy balance of analog and digital.”

Mobile ordering and foodservice seem to go together like peanut  butter and jelly, which leads us to Which Wich's main differentiator during Q1. The sandwich brand garnered a lot of social attention with their Project PB&J, where the brand "spreads the love" to help those in needs. For every PB&J sandwich bought, the brand donates "food, comfort, and a little happiness" to the hungry. Good food with a good cause? It's no wonder why Which Wich led our rankings with the highest SRV growth this quarter.

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A post shared by Which Wich (@whichwich) on

2. Flower Child — Increased by 11.86 points. 

SRV Scores From Q1 2016 to Q1 2017: Flower Child

Ready for a little flower power? Healthy fast casual chain Flower Child comes in second for most improved SRV with a growth of 11.86 points. Being a part of the Fox Restaurant Concepts family with revered restaurateur Sam Fox manning the helm (his newest brand being Doughbird), it's no shock that this restaurant is a success. Flower Child was even named one of the best breakout brands in 2016.

How did Flower Child bloom this quarter? Besides being a rare brand that fills a unique, "chill," "hippy" niche with glorious pop art, bohemian themes, and deliciously healthy bowls paired with refreshingly fruity drinks — which, let's be real, makes for perfectly artistic photo ops for its hipster, trendy consumers to share all over their Instagram and social media feeds — Flower Child recently began offering custom group dining packages. With the hashtag #PartyAtFRC, guests can share their intimate dining experience and can host up to 50 guests at its Santa Monica location.

Along with Flower Child's Ebites subscription, which alerts loyal fans of restaurant openings, special offers, and VIP event invitations, new members receive $10 off $20 orders, free birthday desserts, a 25-percent discount on select days, and more. All the perfect recipe for churning up social restaurant visits.

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3. Velvet Taco — Increased by 11.28 points. 

SRV Scores From Q1 2016 to Q1 2017: Velvet Taco

There's much to taco'bout when it comes to Velvet Taco — and no, not just because this brand received a major L Catterton investment toward the end of 2016.

And no, not just because Clay Dover, the former chief marketing officer of Pei Wei, took up the role of president in March. (Although, we can't wait to see where this restaurant veteran leads the trendy taco joint.) Overall on social, Velvet Taco knows how to resonate with consumers in quirky and playful ways. 

The brand showcases a "weekly WTF" (Not what you're thinking — this one stands for "weekly taco feature"), helping guests explore global, innovative flavors with their longstanding tradition of creating a special taco for the week. One of their latest is the zesty, punch-packing Gochujang Pork Taco, which pays tribute to Korean cuisine. With hibiscus corn tortilla, basmati and cilantro rice, slow-roasted pork, Korean barbecue sauce, mung bean sprouts, and more, this purple-colored taco is fun to look at and just as fun to eat.

Pair their fun flavors with their fun and frequent behind-the-scenes, get-to-know-us team videos and photos on social media, along with the fact that they're open until 5 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays (great news for hungry night owls enjoying the weekend), and you have a winning combination for SRV growth.

4. &pizza — Increased by 11.09 points. 

SRV Scores From Q1 2016 to Q1 2017: &pizza

&pizza is no stranger to Foodable and has been dominating a piece of the pie as of late, from their recent $25 million investment in November on. 

If there was a food that could encapsulate the millennial generation, it might look like an &pizza pie. Known for being an edgy brand — not only localizing each store design based on the personality of its community, offering organic ingredients and gluten-free dough, supporting the $15 an hour minimum wage enthusiastically, and putting a vivacious spin to their team name by calling their employees members of their "tribe" — &pizza is also socially-conscious, promoting their &CHARITY fundraising efforts. 

The self-proclaimed "anti-establishment establishment" goes against the grain. Their rewards mobile app is even advertised for the "Troublemaker" or the "Maverick," their strong, rebellious brand voice drawing people in on social media. An example of how &pizza nonconforms and edges on the unexpected? During Q1 on Pi Day, March 14, they helped couples tie the knot and get married at their locations. Yup, this fast casual brand became a venue for equally fast and casual weddings.

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A post shared by &pizza (@andpizza) on

5. 4 Rivers Smokehouse — Increased by 9.75 points. 

SRV Scores From Q1 2016 to Q1 2017: 4 Rivers Smokehouse

If there's smoke, there's a fire, and 4 Rivers Smokehouse is coming in hot with an SRV jump of 9.75 points. This Texas-style barbecue restaurant was never actually supposed to a restaurant, founder John Rivers said on the brand's website. He was simply hosting a cookout fundraiser to support a neighborhood family whose daughter was fighting cancer. With humble beginnings like that, it makes complete sense that consumers would support a restaurant with such an inspiring backstory and intentions as good as its brisket. 

(Fun fact: Why 4 Rivers? Because the Rivers family has four special people, John, his wife, and two children.) Aside from being "family owned, locally made, and community focused," this restaurant captures social media feeds with its catering services (even for weddings), retail stores for signature rubs, sauces and boxed recipes, as well as brand merchandise from hats to tees, and its Pitmaster's loyalty club, where each member gets a card and free sandwich or stacker every 10 visits. With elements like these, 4 Rivers is on its way to continue its smooth flow into more SRV growth.

Q1 2017 Leaders in Social Restaurant Visits Growth by Segment (Variance: Points Jumped From Jan. 1 to April 1)

Social Restaurant Visits (SRVs) are location-based actions consumers make in relation to their engagement on social media. Foodable Labs, through the Restaurant Social Media Index (RSMI), analyzes more than 167K restaurant and hospitality brands and over 220MM global restaurant consumers across 500K foodservice locations.

Brand With the BIGGEST SRV Decline in Q1

So, there you have it. We've met the top five SRV superstars of Q1 2017, but what can we learn from the brands who fell in SRV? Let's take a closer look at one of our usual top 100 brands, Applebee's. 

Applebee's — Decreased by 6.39 points. 

SRV Scores From Q1 2016 to Q1 2017: Applebee's

Looks like it make not be the bee's knees for this famous neighborhood bar and grill. Typically a strong brand that ranks in Foodable Labs' Top 100, Applebee's dropped 6.39 points in SRV, the line graph showing its strong start in 2016, before its struggle to sustain that growth.

It may not be its marketing tactics, per se, that is causing the brand's SRV decline. It's all just changing consumer demand — the want for fast-casual-style foodservice has made headlines in the last few years, and that's clear even here that fast casual is winning, with the top five brands in SRV growth all being fast casual chains.

Applebee's is swimming in what some call the “casual dining death trap,” where casual dining brands are beginning to look dated as new fast casual competitors swarm the restaurant industry. Consumer tastes are shifting to convenience, and casual dining may no longer fit the bill. In an effort to attract guests back through the door, we've seen the brand offer an "all business coupon" promotion. What does that entail? Applebee's recognized customers' gift cards, coupons, and certificates from any business, restaurant or not — even if they were expired — for 50 percent discounts on their meals. A desperate attempt to claw out of the pit or a success strategy? Only time will tell.

Still, Applebee's is not giving up in its battle to shift and adjust to consumer needs. Toward the end of Q1, it named Grey as its newest creative agency. Will Grey add some fresh color back into Applebee's marketing and up their SRVs? Here's to hoping Applebee's SRV future will redirect from bleak and grey to bold and bright.