Restaurants are interesting to me, particularly because there is frequent innovation-driven differentiation driving emerging subcategories and strong brands with a lot of energy. In restaurants, there are a lot of levers to pull and there are significant customer engagement possibilities.  A lot can be learned from restaurant brands that are hitting a home run.

A fast food brand located in San Francisco, The Melt, caught my eye because it not only has a differentiated offering but also has the opportunity to connect with customers in different ways.

The Melt has a simple menu that harkens back to the days of grandma’s fixing lunches of tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches. There are five kinds of cheese, each with a matched bread, five soups, interesting drinks such as Izze Sparking Pomegranate, five desserts including a Chocolate Marshmallow S-more’s Melt, and a breakfast menu that includes Steel Cut Maple Raisin Oatmeal and Banana Maple Waffles. It is the only restaurant with grilled cheese sandwiches as its core item. And its specialized technology enables the quality to be higher and more consistent than grandma used to make.

A customer’s mobile device is an integral part of the experience and contributes a “coolness” component. When an order from a mobile device is entered, all of The Melt restaurants in the area get the information.  Their strategy is to get a critical mass of outlets in an area. A customer then simply walks into any one of them and has his or her order scanned from the device. The order is immediately processed. There’s no standing in line and thinking about what to order. When a customer becomes part of the mobile system, the information can be used to make the process even more efficient and personalized. It also has the potential to create an ongoing relationship.

The Melt operation is visibly eco-friendly, with all containers using materials that are 100% recyclable and 100% compostable with well-designed receptacles for each category on site. The restaurant itself is even made from recycled materials!

Customers are offered the chance to round up their bill to the nearest dollar, donating the difference to fight world hunger. The vehicle is an organization called “FeelGood” that is committed to reducing hunger by empowering youth. Feelgood students across the country are running non-profit deli’s to raise money to move people from hunger to self-reliance in the most disadvantaged places in the world. The effort has substance and is highly leveraged.

I really like the “round-up” way to allow customers to contribute. It creates more participation than, for example, contributing 1 percent of sales or a penny for every sandwich to charity. In this case, customers have a choice and thus there is a much higher level of involvement. Also, the program is not a promotion with unknown effect but, rather, an ongoing commitment to an organization that is going to make a difference. You get the impression that the donation will be leveraged and that it will be part of an effort that will only build over time.

There is a lot to like in addition to the “round-up” program. The food is tasty and wholesome with a hint of  homemade cooking in the background. The absence of the familiar snack and soda brands and the use of new-gen drinks provides the right aura. The clean, contemporary interior and graphics support the ambiance. The visible eco-friendly policy reflects the organization and the customer.

The restaurant industry has much to teach us about branding: how to differentiate, how to deliver on a value proposition, how to create energy, and how to connect. What is the most interesting restaurant brand in your world? To which are you most loyal? Why? The answers may inform you.