By Greg Michlig
According to Nori Japan's website, there are 31 of these restaurants in mall food courts throughout the United States. Perhaps you’ve seen one or even dined at one. Or, if you’ve been in a food court where one of these restaurants is located, maybe you’ve sampled the sesame chicken.
Here in La Crosse, Wis., the Nori Japan restaurant is not so modern looking as the one shown on the corporate website. The photos of the food on the display behind the counter aren’t going to draw many people in. An order is delivered on disposable plates, not the sharp-looking dish shown on the website. All in all, the presentation is average, at best, and the retail display is fairly underwhelming.
As for business? There is almost always a line of people waiting to be served. This past weekend, while doing a little shopping with my family, we grabbed lunch there and sat at a table adjacent to the restaurant. The chicken-centric restaurant next to Nori Japan had shut down, apparently from lack of business. Other restaurants had walk-up traffic with no more than four people in line at any given time. Nori Japan had a consistent flow of customers with frequent lines of eight to 10 people.
So what’s the draw? It’s the free sample of sesame chicken that’s offered to everyone within walking distance of the restaurant, by a person assigned the sole job of passing out those samples. Nothing fancy, just a small piece of chicken with sauce on the end of a toothpick. I’ve seen the process repeatedly, but it wasn’t until this day that I really comprehended the incredible impact this activity had on business. In hindsight, it’s probably why Nori Japan is the first place we think of when the idea of grabbing a bite to eat at the food court comes up. I can guarantee our two youngest children would never have tried sesame chicken, had it not been in the form of a sample (which somehow makes it fun).
As we ate our meals, my wife and I began to discuss how determined the man handing out the samples was--not in an aggressive way, but he was clearly committed to making sure anyone, from small children to older adults, who passed within roughly 50 feet of the counter, was offered a sample. It wasn’t a show. He didn’t speak loudly or add any flare to generate attention. In fact, it was fairly understated. There was a confidence that 1) you would want to try the sample and 2) once you did, you would want more, because it is that good. More often than not, this was reflected in the actions of the consumers.
Three interactions stood out from the many that took place that afternoon.
The first was a couple with a baby in a stroller. I noticed them because my daughter saw the baby and commented on how cute he/she was. The family appeared to be on their way out of the mall when the father stopped and accepted a sample. He turned to the mother and immediately said, “Let’s have this.” She also tried a sample and, almost giddy, agreed. The kids and I chuckled at their excitement over stumbling upon what appeared to be the perfect lunch.
Next was a group of late teens/college-aged young men who appeared to be on a mission for one of the stores selling flat-brimmed ball caps, saggy jeans or maybe just to Spencer’s. They snagged the sesame chicken samples on their way through, and laughed to one another as if they just got away with something. Around 15 minutes later, the group returned and stepped in line behind the four or five people already waiting to order. One of the young men turned to the man dispersing the samples and said, “You hooked me with that sample, man… you got me. The sesame, right?”
The third interaction that stood out was an older gentleman who seemed to do what many of us males do when shopping with the family … browsing, also known as wandering aimlessly. The sample guy stepped out a little further than he had been to offer a taste to this man. The older gentleman accepted, and nodded to himself with approval after finishing the sample. From there, he strolled toward the restaurant and took a long look at the menu. He didn’t purchase anything while we were there--and it was at this point that we processed the fact that the images on the display menu weren’t as appealing as the food itself--but the seed had been planted with this man. My guess is that he’ll return at some point and order the sesame chicken.
So I ask you: What is your sesame chicken?
It’s not an ad in the paper or weekly shopper. It’s not a BOGO or a discount offered if you decide to purchase or sign up for membership. It’s a freebee.
In addition, does your sesame chicken come with personal interaction? It doesn’t have to be a major production, but it needs to grab people’s attention. No other restaurant in the food court had invested in an employee whose sole purpose was outreach to the consumers in that marketplace. No other restaurant had the business that Nori Japan had that day (and from what I’ve seen, on a regular basis) either.
Maybe your sesame chicken isn’t really a giveaway of your product or service, but it can’t be a toaster, either. There needs to be some type of relationship between what you are giving to what you offer on the grand scale. And, there needs to be a personal touch.
Did I mention that the sample guy also circles back around to offer additional samples to those already standing in line if there are not other passersby in the area? How’s that for anchoring a relationship?
Like many of you who have taken the time to read this, my initial thoughts on the samples were something like: "That’s nice. Whatever." In fact, I certainly overlooked this seemingly small gesture many times. But sitting front and center to watch this process changed my perception on its value. It also allowed me to see the nuances that made it different, engaging and successful. What are the nuances that you can bring to your promotional and member engagement strategies that will make your sesame or, more importantly, your credit union stand out?
If you are going to be at the 2013 CUNA Governmental Affairs Conference and would like to chat about sesame chicken further, be sure to stop by the CUES booth (256). Our Rock of CUES theme (#rockofcues Twitter hashtag) will feature materials on how CUES can help you rock your credit union’s professional development and education needs in 2013 and beyond. And, if you are so inclined, you can step on stage and compete in our Guitar Hero competition, or just play for fun. We’ll probably even let you play more than once.
Greg Michlig is CUES' senior director of member relations.
Meet CUES' staff, including the member relations team.