Restaurant Chains Get In on the Local Trend

No two Tender Greens locations are alike. The California fine-casual chain serves fresh, healthy food across its 24 locations, but each restaurant is tailored to serve its unique neighborhood—from ingredients to decor.

“Each location is run by an executive chef who creates daily specials and works with local farmers,” says Christina Wong, director of brand expression. “The Chef’s Special menu is different, for lunch and dinner, at every location.” 

“Going local” is a trend that’s gaining speed, as quick-service and fast-casual chains across the country realize diners have a growing appetite for a more authentic experience. “It’s resonating around the industry, and especially among younger consumers—millennials and Gen Z,” says Peter Napathalung, a senior manager of market insights at research firm Technomic. “Even larger operators, like McDonald’s, are introducing regional items to smaller markets to see what has staying power.” 

Often times, localizing chains comes in the form of menu sourcing, like using nearby suppliers for the fruit used in breakfast pastries, the cheese placed in sandwiches or the nuts baked into dessert bars. 

Napathalung and Technomic Analyst Shayna Inzunza point to Smashburger, which has locations concentrated in North America and the Middle East, as an example of a quick-service brand that has nearly perfected the local model. “Each location has one local burger that is only available in that state or region, and each restaurant features local craft beers—which is a good way to locally source,” says Inzunza. 

Growing Local

When Tender Greens was founded, the vision was an accessible neighborhood eatery serving high-quality food. However, as the brand expanded, the founders realized that keeping the neighborhood vibe authentic would require tweaks to the typical cookie-cutter expansion model, which can’t always account for details that make a dining experience genuinely unique to a specific location. 

Instead of centralizing supplier relations at headquarters, Tender Greens empowers each location to build its own relationships with nearby farms and food suppliers. And rather than dictating a uniform look and feel, the founders tailor each location’s interior design to the neighborhood. “At our Hollywood location, we have concert posters that honor the music industry that surrounds the neighborhood,” Wong says. “In West Hollywood, we used photographer Hank O’Neal’s images from the Christopher Street Parade to honor and reflect the LGBT-friendly neighborhood we’re in.” 

Get Involved in the Community

While using local ingredients, custom decor and offering region-specific products are effective ways to shift a restaurant’s reputation from chain to neighborhood mainstay, not all restaurants can overhaul sourcing or invest in unique interior designs. And they don’t have to. An equally effective, though different, way to localize chains is through community involvement.

When general managers asked for ways to better interact with their communities, Pei Wei Asian Diner, a fast-casual chain with 204 locations across the country, launched its local marketing program, Pei Wei Local, in January 2016. “We set it up to focus on neighborhoods, schools, sports and fundraising,” says Megan Hearn, local restaurant marketing manager at Pei Wei. “The program gives general managers guidelines that help them get involved with their neighborhoods, whether supporting school activities or sponsoring a sporting event or contributing to a fundraiser.” 

As part of Pei Wei’s program, a recent Veterans Day weekend event, created in partnership with the Dallas Farmers Market, featured an Asian-inspired art installation and free samples from the restaurant. Visitors were encouraged to share pictures of the installation on social media with the hashtag #DonateWithPurpose. For each photo shared, Pei Wei donated $1, up to $5,000 total, to Farmers Assistant Returning Military, a Dallas-based nonprofit that provides veterans therapeutic rehabilitation. “We ended up donating the entire amount,” Hearn says. “Our brand message is about providing people with nutritional food, flavor with purpose. So this marketing program empowers our general managers to better advocate and communicate who we are and what we do.” 

Beyond Fundraising and Donations

In addition to raising money for local organizations and causes, restaurant chains can give back to their communities through their operations. Launched in 2009, Tender Greens’ Sustainable Life Project recruits and trains young adults who are exiting a local foster care system. After a six-month paid internship during which trainees learn about food supply, cooking and nutrition, graduates can apply for a full-time job with the company. “The hope is that the interns, whether they stay with us or not, will take the knowledge they’ve learned and bring it back to their communities to pay it forward,” says Wong. “We’re not raising millions of dollars or helping thousands of kids yet, but we are making a big difference on a local scale, one person at a time.” 

Across these diverse initiatives, all of the resources dedicated to engaging with local communities can pay off significantly in brand recognition and diner loyalty. “People do want to know where their food is coming from, yes, but they also want to know that corporations aren’t just in the office,” says Technomic’s Inzunza. “They want to see an integration with their own community.”