Philadelphia-based stir-fry and salad restaurant Honeygrow is making inroads in the crowded Baltimore fast-casual restaurant market — with a little help from technology.
Ordering kiosks line the front counters, where restaurant-goers can customize their meals down to the garnish, and the chain recently unveiled an ordering app, which features a game where diners can earn loyalty points toward free items.
The company also uses virtual reality to train its employees. It partnered with Philadelphia-based art shop Klip Collective to build a virtual reality training module that could be viewed on Google Daydream headsets.
The company has two Baltimore locations: one in Charles Village, which opened in November, and one in Harbor Point, which opened in December. Honeygrow is looking for more locations in both the Baltimore and D.C. metro areas, said chief brand officer Jen Denis.
“The technology component has always been part of who we are as a brand,” Denis said. “When we opened our first store in Philadelphia in 2012 it had ordering kiosks, before kiosk technology was used much.”
Technology isn’t just a novelty for the company, however.
“We’re never implementing technology for technology’s sake,” Denis said. “We always want to make sure there’s a business need for it.”
Honeygrow is among a slew of fast casual restaurants nationwide. The concept grew popular in the 1990s, and its restaurants promise better quality ingredients than fast food chains at an affordable, albeit higher price.
Typical fast casual receipts range from $9 to $13 in cost, compared to about $5 for fast food chains. These restaurants offer a more laid-back dining environment, without table-to-table service. They now make up 12 percent of Restaurant Business’s Top 500 eateries with $34 billion in sales.
Panera, Chipotle, and Panda Express top the list. Panera, an oft-cited founding member of the genre, came onto the scene in 1981, Panda Express followed 1983, and Chipotle arrived a decade later in 1993. The three chains combined for over $11 million in sales in 2016.
But the once-burgeoning fast casual market may be hitting a plateau. Fast-casual restaurant stocks dropped 14 percent last year, according to the Bloomberg Fast-Casual Restaurants Index, and their growth is slowing to 6-7 percent. In year’s past, their growth hovered between 10 and 11 percent.
Perhaps technology is the way out of the slump.
Loyola University business professor Gloria Phillips-Wren, who specializes in information technology strategy, said Honeygrow is doing a good job of integrating its technology and their business model.
‘When I teach technology, I look at: ‘How do you align your technology with your objective and also with your stakeholders?’,” she said. “[Honeygrow] seems to me to be really consistent … they’re demonstrating an innovative spirit, and they’re located in areas where people would be accepting of using technology to enhance that experience.”