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CX Innovators: Holly Wagstaff-Bellomo, Dividend Restaurant Group

Leveraging CX Technologies and Best Practices Across Multiple Brands with Different Market Positioning

CX Innovators - Holly Wagstaff-Bellomo, Dividend Restaurant Group

Holly Wagstaff-Bellomo is the chief marketing officer at the Dividend Restaurant Group, whose brands include Romano’s Macaroni Grill, Sullivan’s Steakhouse, and Eddie Merlot’s Prime Aged Beef & Seafood. Wagstaff-Bellomo cut her teeth in advertising, working first for global ad agency McCann Worldwide before moving to a boutique consulting firm and then leaving to start her own business, a virtual agency called The Gene Pool that she ran for 10 years after buying out her partner. A brief stint in technology ensued, followed by her first foray into the restaurant business when she joined Noodles & Company, the Colorado-based fast-casual restaurant chain. She has now been at Dividend for five years, of which four years have been as CMO.

Holly Wagstaff-Bellomo, Chief Marketing Officer, Dividend Restaurant Group

Most Significant CX Challenges

Finding common tools to leverage across multiple brands for efficiency gains is not an easy task, Wagstaff-Bellomo says. The typical Macaroni Grill customer, for instance, is likely being more squeezed by high prices in the economy and worried about keeping their job, so Wagstaff-Bellomo feels it is important that the restaurant provide an enjoyable dining experience. Nonetheless, the solicitous concern that worked at The Macaroni Grill may not apply to the financially secure customer at Sullivan’s Steakhouse, where a staff that has been feeling empowered from the recent bounce-back of steakhouses provides a pleasurable dining experience out of a different context.   

As the restaurant scene comes back to life, many new post-pandemic elements are emerging, Wagstaff-Bellomo says. For instance, delivery service providers did not exist 5-10 years ago, but their presence today in many markets suggests that they have become an integral part of the restaurant ecosystem. Also worth noting has been the launch of brands such as Twisted Mac, Meatball Corner, and Beauty and the Burger. And now more than ever, attention is being paid to packaging, on what food travels well and what can effectively be delivered without sacrificing taste or experience.  

For diners to have a more holistic encounter, Wagstaff-Bellomo prefers to offer the full in-restaurant experience. Even so, the dynamics of consumer demand have changed a great deal. Generation Z, for instance, often prefers not to interact with anyone. Consumer behavior online is also very different from consumer behavior in retail, requiring differing CX approaches as a result.

CX Success Stories

“Surviving Covid, period,” says Wagstaff-Bellomo, when asked what she regards as her biggest CX success, underscoring the unprecedented challenges brought about by the pandemic to the global restaurant business. Also a big success was the launching of virtual restaurants, considered an immediate imperative—“a NASA-like project” in urgency and scale—as restaurant owners fought for their establishments to stay alive when the world was locked down. And unlike typical R&D projects that could take months or even years to complete, the pandemic-era restaurant did not have the luxury of time on its side but needed to successfully launch, find its footing, operate, and maintain share of mind—all to be achieved in quick order to make it through. Now, on the back end of the pandemic, Wagstaff-Bellomo says, many restaurants are thriving.

Internal Barriers

Turbulence in the American workforce is not new, but COVID-19 altered how companies operated and changed how employees work. At restaurants, the employee experience (EX) is difficult to manage. “People need to be treated well, feel like they are valued, feel like they can grow,” states Wagstaff-Bellomo. The “fluidity of everything,” she adds, has been “the biggest internal mindset shift.”

Given the high premium placed today on consumer insights, Dividend is implementing technology to track what goes on at its restaurants. The company is more interested in user and starred reviews posted by diners than in the reviews coming from food critics, and the staff at work is constantly on the lookout for trends online to be relevant or stay one step ahead of the competition. When this is done effectively, Wagstaff-Bellomo says, trends can be spotted online by frontline workers before the central operations team notices they are occurring.

Key Technologies

The technology stack at Dividend includes MomentFeed, a platform that helps multi-location brands optimize for proximity search to connect customers with Dividend restaurants at the local level; and SMG’s experience management software, which uses platform technology and professional services to help companies improve the experiences of brands, customers, and employees.

Making up a huge part of the business is OpenTable, the online reservations and booking system for restaurants. In fact, OpenTable has become so important that managers are incentivized based on the star ratings of their restaurants, and ultimately these results are tied to compensation.

With “dashboard upon dashboard upon dashboard” of data being available, the company has not only built a proprietary platform that can show sales at a granular level, but has also developed a variety of application programming interfaces (APIs) to monitor specific metrics—determining, for instance, servers with the greatest add-on sales—which could potentially shape the restaurant’s policy. “Consolidation of data is truly the golden key,” Wagstaff-Bellomo says, but distilling what is relevant is also important. This explains why she loves “the social scraping”—or the culling by restaurant staff of insights offered up by customers via social media. “The nuggets we get are truly phenomenal.”

Predictions for CX Market Development

AI acts as a massive enabler, Wagstaff-Bellomo expresses. As virtual assistants, AI systems for restaurants can automate many operations, cut costs, reduce errors, improve customer satisfaction and CX, and help businesses optimize menus and achieve higher sales. The capabilities of AI technology can be enhanced further with machine learning (ML), whose algorithms can anticipate and recognize patterns in data to guide or inform decision-making.

Even so, the goal at the end of the day is to provide customers with “longitudinal surety,” Wagstaff-Bellomo says, the attention to detail and the other elements making up a great CX present on an app as they are on the website, ensuring a seamless experience for the customer in any channel and in any medium. “The brands that figure out how to tie all that together the most seamlessly are the brands that win.”

About the CX Innovator Series

The CX Innovator Series is an actionable and educational industry initiative that showcases the best practices that leading end-user executives are using within their organizations to shape their community’s experience. The series is a collaborative effort between Dash Network, Sleeping Giant Labs, and Team Wakabayashi. Using expertly curated executive interviews combined with quantitative research from consumer surveys, the CX Innovator Series provides tangible insights and a deeper understanding of how successful companies are utilizing CX programs resulting in positive business outcomes.

The CX Innovator Series is made possible by support from our lead sponsors: Concentrix, eGain, Tealium, and QuestionPro. If you would be interested in participating in the CX Innovator initiative, either as part of an end-user interview or as a supporting sponsor, please contact us.

Author Information

Clint brings over 20 years of market research and consulting experience, focused on emerging technology markets. He was co-founder and CEO of Dash Network, an integrated research and digital media firm focused on the CX market, which was acquired by The Futurum Group in 2022. He previously founded Tractica with a focus on human interaction with technology, including coverage of AI, user interface technologies, advanced computing, and other emerging sectors. Acquired by Informa Group, Clint served as Chief Research Officer for Informa’s research division, Omdia, with management and content strategy responsibility, formed by the combination of Tractica, Ovum, IHS Markit Technology, and Heavy Reading.
Clint was previously the founder and President of Pike Research, a leading market intelligence firm focused on the global clean technology industry, which was acquired by Navigant Consulting where he was Managing Director of the Navigant Research business.

Prior to Pike Research, Clint was Chief Research Officer at ABI Research, a New York-based industry analyst firm concentrating on the impact of emerging technologies on global consumer and business markets.

Clint holds a Master of Business Administration in Telecommunications Management from the University of Dallas and a Bachelor of Arts in History from Washington & Lee University.


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