Quaker Steak takes loyal customers' pleas to heart

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Quaker Steak & Lube executives had seen the pleas and the pitches. The fans who wanted the Sharon-based restaurant chain to please -- please -- open up in their markets, even if those happened to be nowhere near Western Pennsylvania.

The company has a grand plan of expanding nationally, but putting the choice of where to go next into consumers' hands would be risky. Last year rapper Pitbull ended up being sent to a tiny Wal-Mart in Kodiak, Alaska, after online voters used a promotional contest to send him into temporary exile.

Still, Quaker Steak management decided to take the chance, working with its South Side-based marketing agency Gatesman + Dave to run a contest recently that allowed fans to choose the next expansion market through Facebook votes. And now, honoring their promise, company officials are scouring Toledo, Ohio, for real estate.

Businesses don't always respond to petitions, letters, tweets and other efforts meant to convince them to enter new markets. There's good reason for that.

Companies develop expansion strategies based on tracking population growth and demographic details such as age and household income. Geography is also an issue. A burger chain growing on the West Coast might not want to stretch its supply lines to Pittsburgh, for example, no matter how many fans promise to eat burgers every day if it would only come.

Last year, the Wegmans grocery chain received more than 4,000 requests from people who really, really like its stores and want one in their neighborhoods -- neighborhoods that are all over the country. "We are so flattered when these kinds of petitions have been created," said Jo Natale, director of media relations for the Rochester, N.Y., company.

Wegmans only builds two or three stores a year, and it is currently focused on building its presence in the Mid-Atlantic and New England states, Ms. Natale said. The site selection and store opening process typically takes several years, she said.

Although the company has two stores in the Erie area -- those opened in the 1990s, she said -- it has no plans to move into the Pittsburgh market anytime soon, despite regular requests from residents of this region. "It is typically not a reason why we would build a store in a community," she said.

Similarly, Trader Joe's, a California-based specialty grocery chain, has been on the receiving end of customer-driven campaigns, including one in the Pittsburgh area before it began opening stores here several years ago.

"It's really nice to be wanted, but wooing doesn't go into our decision-making process," said spokeswoman Alison Mochizuki.

In the Quaker Steak case, the company had long has plans to grow beyond its established markets.

The company's agency Gatesman + Dave had been tracking social media for a few years, cataloguing the kinds of comments and priorities that the Quaker Steak fan base shared. There were the "foodies"; the "heat extremists" who like spicy food; and, of course, the "local requestors."

Convinced that last group could help the restaurant chain achieve its growth goals, last fall the agency began work on how to set up a contest that would engage loyal customers and reward their efforts.

"You go where your fans want you to go," said Beth Thompson, account supervisor at Gatesman + Dave.

The chain had already gone into markets such as Denver, convincing management that they could successfully take the model far from their core region if fans voted for far-flung locations.

After a lengthy planning process in which the company and its marketers tried to plot out every possibility so they could be prepared for any social media surprise, a two-week nomination period was held in February. Participants could either vote for a major metropolitan market included in a pre-assembled list or write in their own ideas. There were 1,700 nominations submitted, and 1,100 of those were write-ins.

In the second phase of the project, the top 10 markets were identified. "We did let leadership take a look at them," said Ms. Thompson. Those with the most votes were all acceptable to management, although it's not entirely clear what would have happened if fans in a market too small to support the chain's restaurants had gotten their town into the mix.

The markets that survived the cut included places like State College, Altoona and Philadelphia in Pennsylvania; Orlando and Fort Myers, Fla.; Indianapolis; Detroit; Houston; and Sioux Falls, S.D. "They were all over the country," Ms. Thompson said, crediting transplanted former Pittsburghers for much of the support.

The markets of choice seemed pretty consistent with the earlier requests that the marketing team had seen in its business intelligence data, said Shannon Baker, director of public relations and social media at Gatesman.

That first group of 10 was narrowed to five and then in April, the announcement was made that Toledo had won. More than 2,600 votes were cast and the results were fairly close. Orlando placed second and State College was third.

The company has committed to putting restaurants in Toledo, but other fans may also be rewarded. Quaker Steak is working with a franchisee interested in developing the State College market, bolstered by the social media contest showing that there's demand there.

"It's laid some groundwork for them to see where the best opportunities are," said Ms. Baker.

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Teresa F. Lindeman: tlindeman@post-gazette.com or at 412-263-2018.


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