Visitors to fast-casual eateries expect quick, convenient, and rewarding experiences. As customers seek proof that brands value their time, restaurants must simplify and streamline their operations via the latest digital technologies.
“You’ve always got to meet the customer where they are,” Bernard Acoca, the CEO of Zaxby’s, a multibillion-dollar chicken finger franchise. “We’re trying to leverage technology across all those channels to create a more desirable customer experience. We want to have transactions occur frictionlessly through the implementation of technology. Zaxby’s focuses on delivering options that provide flexibility while maximizing profitability for our franchises.”
Zaxby’s menu includes chicken fingers, wings, sandwiches, and salads. Headquartered in Athens, Georgia, the quick-service restaurant (QSR) has grown to more than 900 locations in 17 states.
Acoca took over as Zaxby’s CEO in January 2022 after being tapped for the role in October 2021. He’s the company’s first outside CEO, as founder Zach McLeroy had operated the company as CEO since its 1990 inception.
After joining Zaxby’s, Acoca devised a new technology strategy to meet growing consumer expectations better. He believes using technology is the way to improve speed, while also making back-of-house operations easier to execute.
Zaxby’s CEO Bernard Acoca Was an Early Adopter of Technology
Before the COVID-19 pandemic struck, 60% to 70% of QSR sales came from drive-thru lanes rather than from foot traffic. The pandemic ushered fast-food seekers to the drive-thru window in ever higher numbers. For example, Wendy’s reported generating a staggering 90% of all business from the drive-thru after the COVID pandemic.
Before joining Zaxby’s, Bernard Acoca was the CEO and president of El Pollo Loco, a fire-grilled chicken chain based in Costa Mesa, California. He led the brand, which was founded in 1975, through a massive transformation.
“The company wasn’t growing, and the stock price had languished as a result,” Acoca says. “I transformed the company across the board from resetting what the brand stood for to introducing new technology platforms that didn’t exist to grow the digital and e-commerce business.”
Within three years, El Pollo Loco’s stock price had more than doubled. A large part of the success can be attributed to Acoca’s streamlining the drive-thru and back-of-the-house operations, and accelerating the restaurant chain’s digital strategy.
Acoca’s team went so far as redesigning the restaurants to deliver a digital-forward, app-driven experience in a more modern style, balancing the brands roots with a look to the future. The chain will remodel more than 300 restaurants in the next few years to expand its new technology and design aesthetic.
Zaxby’s CEO Bernard Acoca Stands at Technology’s Forefront
When Bernard Acoca was Pizza Hut’s senior director of digital marketing early in his career, he deployed a mobile ordering system to sell more pizzas and migrate customers away from calling in their orders to ordering online. It was 2008, and this was cutting-edge technology.
“We wanted to provide maximum accessibility,” Acoca says. “E-commerce via mobile apps on your phone was starting to gain traction and we wanted to be at the forefront of it.”
Acoca explains that when the iPhone came into existence, he knew Pizza Hut had to be the first QSR to develop a restaurant app that took full advantage of the iPhone’s capabilities.
“We created this interactive app that gamified the entire ordering experience,” Acoca says. “So, if you went to Chipotle and ordered something small, medium, or large, you would check the box on their app. But with our Pizza Hut app, you would take pizza dough and spread it with your fingers on the iPhone to make it either a small, medium, or large.”
Acoca’s team developed the app to provide entertaining interactivity as a function. The app invited the customer to drag and drop chicken wings into a bowl and coat the wings with a sauce of their choice by shaking the phone.
“The entire app was developed with that interactive functionality,” Acoca says. “Apple absolutely loved it. They were like, ‘Oh my God! You’re the only restaurant company that gets our platform!’ So, they featured it in all their advertising and stores, and we received a lot of merchandising from it.”
When Acoca became CEO of El Pollo Loco, he repeated moves from the Pizza Hut playbook. He led a redesign of the Loco Rewards program during the company’s digital transformation. Afterward, Loco Rewards saw a 40% year-over-year growth in new memberships. It also earned a Top 10 spot on Newsweek’s 2021 ranking of America’s Best Loyalty Programs, which was compiled using consumer feedback.
Zaxby’s CEO Bernard Acoca Serves Up a Personalized Digital Experience
Acoca’s experience leading some of the nation’s top restaurant concepts through digital transformations is instrumental to his goal at Zaxby’s. He wants to make the customer experience more intuitive and reward customers for their visits to increase loyalty to the brand.
In October 2022, Zaxby’s launched its new, mobile-focused loyalty program, Zax Rewardz, under Acoca’s lead. To incentivize customers to join the program, the company offered a free Big Zax Snak Meal with new downloads or updates to the existing app.
According to QSR Magazine, an app download or update represents a new user and the first conversion on the mobile app customer’s journey. The publication reported that “the brand has been the sector’s fastest-growing app throughout 2022, at 317 percent (based on growth of user sessions).”
The app, loyalty program, and e-commerce platform will provide customers with a personalized digital experience that delivers greater utility and value. Acoca believes technology will enable him to reach significant goals for Zaxby’s, such as making loyalty the center of its go-to-market ecosystem. He also wants to add millions more new members.
“We surprise and delight our guests with innovations offered through the app,” Acoca says. “With our ability to own the customer record, we learn more about our guests and provide, in a targeted way, what they love. Over time, we learn who they are as individuals.”
Learn more about Bernard Acoca here: https://www.crunchbase.com/person/bernard-acoca