For those raised in proximity to any Earls restaurant, you'd be forgiven for having missed one of Canada's most overlooked entrepreneurial success stories. This powerhouse brainchild of the father-and-son Fuller team pioneered the "premium casual" dining genre, spawned a category of copycats, and then...kind of just existed.
"I think we got complacent," he says. "People knew us as the leaders and innovators in casual dining, and there got to be a point where we probably started to take it for granted."
But change is afoot. Earls has a new vision from the top that is inspiring the ranks (Mo Jessa, former dishwasher at Earls and a 25-year company vet, is now president), a new Chef's Collective is primed with innovative new dishes, and is getting press attention heralding its innovative culinary leadership. With an attitude and corporate culture focused on helping people "live large lives," Earls is ready to fearlessly own up to its category-creating past.
Earls asked Domain7 to partner up and explore opportunities to better serve guests in the digital space.
A foundation of human-centered research
When you're asked to discover what can be, you first need to understand what is. It's a critical part of our process: a no-stone-unturned exploration of current realities. For Earls, we needed to bring out many different types of research methodology.
Field trips to Earls locations, with tours through kitchens, break rooms and lounges helped us assess the culture and operations of the chain.
Discovery interviews with leadership and focus groups with staff provided the chance to ask pointed questions about Earls' past, present and future.
Guest surveys from hundreds of Canadians offered qualitative and quantitative insight into how diners view restaurants in this category, and what they expect (or don't) from digital tools.
Workshops helped us explore and prototype ideas for actual products and tools.
And some up-close-and-personal exploration of the technology stack Earls is using helped illuminate technology possibilities.
Earls gave us exactly the type of in-depth access we need to make informed recommendations that are tuned into the realities of their day-to-day business. We had equal access to the CEO, to the Marketing Team, and to the IT teams—and that’s what helped us uncover one of Earls’ biggest opportunities, the secret weapon that’s going to catapult them far beyond their current competition.
How a data repository and an API can change business
What makes a company like Earls tick? What's the common passion that unites guests and staff? The food, of course. And how was Earls treating its food data? As a non-pivotal asset stored haphazardly through various disconnected systems.
With 65 unique locations and dozens of menu items per location, the previous Earls website couldn't keep up: it had one generic menu with just a sampling of what might be available at your local restaurant. And what's worse, getting actual menu content into the store menus involved typing, retyping, and typing again—a full-time job to manage menu changes. In the cloud economy, content should be fluid, helping prevent wasteful re-entry like this. It was time to link this disparate content together in one central data repository, that could become core to how Earls connects with its guests and staff.
Domain7 architected and created a data repository with a connecting API that could provide all core operational systems with up-to-the-minute, centrally stored food information—prices, descriptions, names, nutritional information, photography, and more.
It wasn't just a technical, behind-the-scenes feat: the actual guest-in-the-restaurant is able to experience a tangible benefit from this, leading to measurable business outcomes.
Here's how: Guests need flawlessly accurate content and a bulletproof mobile experience. On sidewalks and in passenger seats around our cities, the "zero moment of truth" happens, where a future guest is made or broken. Checking a menu item, finding a nearby location or getting directions all point to a split-second decision, often made-on-the-go. Previously, the Earls website was getting in the way of these crucial moments. Now, thanks to the content repository, the website can offer location-specific menu data, and actually aid the guest's experience.
Where does menu item content go? It goes on printed menus in the stores, in the point of sale system, on the website and on the training intranet. And none of that content was stored consistently or connected. An entire full-time position existed just to type out menu changes each month.
Designing a transformative user experience
Before those blink-of-an-eye decisions can even happen, we know customers need to feel a deeper affinity for the brand— to feel an emotional connection to the restaurant, to see a restaurant experience that syncs up with their own aspirational identity.
There's a delicate fusion here—a balancing act: tell the Earls story in a powerful, evocative way, connected with quick-loading, practical functionality that helps the decision get made.
Our design and content processes explored customer needs to learn exactly what diners want during their restaurant-research experience.
User testing gave us insights from the homes and devices of actual diners, revealing gaps in our early designs and development prototypes we could then address.
By working closely with the client to discuss visual design opportunities, brand languages and design styles that evoke the future of the Earls brand, we nailed down a strong direction.
Twinning the wireframing and page-mockup process ensured proper hierarchy was prioritized at every turn—and that mobile devices were thoughtfully considered through responsive design.
And all of it, nearly every major idea for design, can be traced to the hard work and contributions of the client themselves, via workshops where marketing and IT team members collaboratively sketched prototypes with Domain7ers.
Flowing from research, to big idea, to design, to technology development, the end result is a new earls.ca with a behind-the-scenes content repository to manage the restaurant's key content assets. Earls is equipped to eclipse the premium-casual players and give diners a provocatively seamless experience.
A relentlessly transparent partnership
But there's one more thing: how does a complex project like this get managed? Surely it would be a messy, convoluted, detail-heavy affair, mixed with complicated technical details and long delays?
That's where this gets interesting: the client could see the development server—the work in progress—from day one; and each week we'd meet in-person to review every single task left to do.
I've never experienced project transparency like this before. There were no big surprises or big reveals. Instead, we got clear visibility on timeline and budget and had input on the project at every stage in the process.
The future belongs to the fearless
Earls now has more than sixty-five locations across Canada and the US. Its new flagship locations in Miami, Toronto, and Boston's Assembly Row are the talk of the town: there are line-ups and bouncers at the Toronto location and in Miami and Boston there's reports of guests proclaiming, "We've never had this kind of Canadian hospitality around here!"
Earls puts heart and soul in the restaurant experience. Their world-class staff are trained to anticipate your every whim. By dedicating themselves to designing a digital experience that takes care of customers the same way an unforgettable server would—reading your mood and giving you exactly what you need, literally right where you're at—Earls is locking down a place in the hearts and stomachs of a new crop of devotees. They are treating guests like royalty and treating operational content with respect—nothing can stop Earls from becoming one of North America's best-loved restaurant chains.
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