Are you in the sweet spot?
The National Restaurant Association’s latest Restaurant Performance Index found that operator expectations are at their highest point in three years. Yet for many restaurants, razor-thin margins, employee turnover, fickle consumers and quickly shifting trends mean there is a fine line between being poised for growth or on the cusp of a decline. Restaurant coach Donald Burns says operators should ask themselves several questions to get a reliable reality check. First, do you think you’re the best at what you do? If you do, it’s likely a signal you’re missing opportunities for improvement – and up-and-comers could be targeting you as the restaurant to beat. Second, when a customer or employee suggests an idea that would change how you operate, do you quickly dismiss it because it would not work in your market? Your willingness to hear and apply ideas that don’t come from you is critical to both anticipating problems down the line and retaining top talent, since the people on your team want to feel their contributions matter. Finally, do you think you don’t need to change? It’s tempting to rest on your laurels when business is strong, but there is always a need to make tweaks that could help you improve and win loyal customers. On the flip side, perhaps you are eager to take risks and embrace change by expanding your brand to an additional location. Before you do, make sure you have a reliable pool of talent (working at a rate you can afford) to sustain both your existing and new locations. In addition, ensure you have a solid training system to help you deliver consistent service. You should also be making any move because your existing business is strong and you have a talented team who would be able to develop further as they help you build your brand – not because you see a chance to pick up a real estate deal or you want to keep up with the competitor across the street.
Study the psychology behind your menu
Did you know the average guest spends less than two minutes looking at your menu? That isn’t much time to hold a person’s attention, so it’s important you use every second to direct people to the items you most want to sell and communicate the messages you most want to send about your business. Upserve suggests you tap into human psychology when designing your menu layout. For one, don’t use dollar signs (a Cornell Hospitality report found that consumers tend to spend less when they see them on a menu) or draw attention to prices by placing them next to a series of dots or in a column that makes it easy to identify the most and least expensive items on the list. Make credit card payment easy, since cash payments tend to make consumers feel a greater sense of loss after a purchase. Make every word on your menu count and use language that tells people the story of the food they’re ordering, such as if it came from a local bakery or was raised on a nearby family farm using sustainable practices. List your most expensive dishes first: Guests tend to order the top two dishes on any menu more than any other item and they will compare what they see farther down the list to the first items they noticed. To highlight items you’d like to sell more of, consider placing them in a box to attract attention. Finally, remember the golden triangle, the pattern people’s eyes follow when reading menus. The items you most want to sell should fall within the boundary of a triangle whose points fall in the middle, top-right and top-left corners of your menu.
Produce and pathogen prevention
Fresh produce is responsible for most of the foodborne illness in the United States, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest. As you chop fruit and vegetables for menu items, keep some health and safety tips in mind to help prevent the spread of pathogens. Statefoodsafety.com recommends chilling salad greens promptly after cutting them, since bacteria multiply quickly in moist greens left out at room temperature. That goes for other sliced vegetables too: If you use pre-sliced produce in your kitchen to save time and minimize labor costs, research published by Oxford University Press for the Infectious Diseases Society of America may make you reconsider. It found a high degree of contamination in pre-sliced vegetables, which highlighted the importance of proper cooling, transport, reheating and distribution of these items.
Panera (the consultant) can clean up your menu
Panera has long attracted attention for its efforts to remove additives from the food on its menu and has led efforts to supply calorie counts on menus and raise awareness about the human health implications of meat containing regularly administered antibiotics. Now, Restaurant Business reports that the company is creating a consulting business called Panera Clean Consultant to help other restaurant businesses assess their menus as a whole and substitute clean ingredients for those with artificial colors, flavors and other additives. Panera’s founder told Reuters it wanted to help other restaurants end the practice of reformulating one product to make it more natural, only to serve it alongside sauces loaded with artificial ingredients. In 2015, Panera examined and overhauled its menu, then publicized a list of 150 artificial ingredients that it planned to remove from its products.
Bring on the vegetables
Consumers are making room for vegetables on the plate and, according to Flavor & the Menu, the latest way chefs are innovating with vegetables is through plant-based purees. They are appearing as a flavor-packed, colorful alternative to pesto in pasta dishes, as a warm base for salad greens, or a sauce for seafood (in the last case, Flavor & the Menu suggests an edamame puree blended with mint and fresh lime juice as a vibrant complement to fish). Consider adding a plant-based puree or two when enhancing the vegetarian and vegan-friendly options on your menu.
What does the survey say?
You know customer feedback is critical. But do you know how to ask questions that will elicit the most actionable information for your business? When you design a customer survey, Foodable advises you start with a clear, specific goal you’re looking to achieve. Determine when you want to ask customers for their feedback – shortly after a visit? At regular intervals? Continuously? When designing questions you’d like to ask, keep them simple and concise. Avoid overloading a sentence with multiple questions. Start off with some easy yes-or-no, multiple-choice or scaled questions and then balance those with some specific open-ended questions that give customers freedom to share ideas about a topic you care about. Consider offering an incentive at the close of the survey without telling guests about it beforehand (it could skew their answers otherwise) and offering the survey in a mix of physical and online forms.
Digital displays promise ambiance and entertainment
Technology is making it possible for restaurants to change the atmosphere of their dining rooms at the flip of a switch. Restaurant Hospitality reports that restaurants are using digital wall displays and table-top animations to keep guests interested while waiting for their food – and to make them intrigued enough to return and book tables that offer those features. In addition to adding to the ambiance of a dining room, these systems have more functional potential as well, such as allowing guests to scroll through visual menus and place orders. One system, Kodisoft, allows guests to link their social media pages to the table and play games to entertain children while they wait.
Minimum wage on the rise? Get creative.
Rising labor costs in many U.S. cities have forced operators to rethink their service models – and how they pay the people serving and preparing food for their guests. Eater reports that Oakland, Calif. seafood restaurant AlaMar, which once prided itself on its attentive, full-service model, recently had to switch to a counter-service model in order to accommodate minimum-wage hikes in the region (wages increased by 37 cents to $13.23 per hour beginning in January). The owner slashed the majority of menu prices by 30 to 50 percent by cutting some staff who were no longer needed. The result has been a happy surprise for the owner, who has seen restaurant sales increase by 17 percent since the transition, with a higher volume of customers. At other restaurants, cooks are helping to serve food and are therefore sharing the gratuities. Technology improvements are helping too, by helping operators automate functions that once required more workers in the kitchen and more time from servers at the front of the house. QSR reports that more operators are using value-added products that can simplify food prep and eliminate the need to have a maximum of staff on hand. But cutting staff hours isn’t always a feasible option for restaurants. For that reason, Tom Douglas Seattle Kitchen has eliminated tipping altogether in favor of a 20 percent service charge. Servers earn a commission based on sales and performance, which accounts for 14 percent of the service charge. New servers earn a starting commission between 10 and 12 percent of the service charge. Managers rate servers based on factors such as knowledge of the menu and communication. The remainder of the revenue earned from the service charge goes to support staff, and back-of-house staff are paid out of the restaurant’s operating budget.
Mine the data behind your menu
Is there a data-driven purpose behind every item on your menu? If there is, you could drive profits higher by double-digit margins with each menu redesign. The data analytics firm Unlock Insights says menu engineering – the use of data analytics to assess the popularity and profitability of dishes and determine their ideal placement on your menu – is a critical way to drive profits at restaurants. Using certain adjectives, fonts and colors can pull guests’ attention to items on the menu. A broad menu without helpful visual cues can slow service and turnover. While drastically winnowing down your menu may not be necessary, you should know your most popular, profitable and fastest-moving menu items from your laggards in order to assess your inventory effectively, avoid over-ordering and minimize the waste you generate. Your data should also help you connect specific dishes to your guests so you can contact them when they’re away from your restaurant with offers that appeal to their tastes. Menu Cover Depot suggests you conduct a four-step assessment to improve your menu: First, break down every menu item into its individual ingredients and determine how much you spend to prepare each dish. Second, divide your menu into broad categories (appetizers, entrées, desserts, etc.) and then subcategories (vegetarian entrées, seafood entrées, etc.). Then rate each menu item as a star (high profitability and high popularity), plowhorse (low profitability and high popularity), puzzle (high profitability and low popularity) or dog (low profitability and low popularity). The ratings will help you determine which items must stay, go, be reinvented or repriced. Third, design your menu using visual cues to draw the eye to the items you most want to sell. Keep lists within each menu category short, with your most important items toward the top. Avoid listing prices down the side of a page, which can influence people to select the least expensive items. Finally, test your menu regularly to find new ways to improve it.
Tune in to turnover
Finding and keeping good employees is an ongoing challenge across the restaurant industry – but you may have more power to keep your most valuable people than you think. Upserve's recently released State of the Restaurant Industry report found that according to data pulled between July and September 2017, an employee’s position in the restaurant was a stronger indicator of likely turnover than region of the country or even base pay. Holding on to a quality employee seems to be more about offering new responsibility than pay raises. The highest turnover was seen in roles including counter service/cashiers, support staff like bussers, dishwashers and runners, and among staff like sommeliers and caterers. Bar staff and managers had the lowest turnover, which was consistently the case across regions.
Local and sustainable reach a new level
In the National Restaurant Association’s most recent annual survey of 700 chefs, participants identified the top predicted concept trend of 2018 as “hyper local” food. As Skift Table reports, this trend is about restaurants making their sustainability more visible. Restaurants are making their waste management efforts more apparent to guests, as well as taking away the middleman by growing, picking and processing their own food onsite in a way that guests can experience it. Operators are doing such things as returning used oyster shells to the waters where they were fished in an effort to minimize waste, and operating indoor hydroponic farms that guests can pay to visit while they’re having a meal that features the items being grown. Complementary businesses are capitalizing on the potential opportunity too: Take Smallhold, a company that runs a distributed farming network of mushroom mini-farms. Mission Chinese in New York had one of the company’s mini farms installed prominently above their bar and the owners take pride in being able to offer fresh-picked mushrooms in the dishes they prepare.
Do your boards make the cut?
Your cutting boards could be ground zero for foodborne illnesses if you neglect to maintain and replace them regularly. The foodservice consultancy Letter Grade Consulting recommends that when you choose cutting boards, you opt for those with rounded corners that don’t break or chip. They should be made of nonporous surfaces hard enough that knives don’t leave nicks and gashes, which can harbour bacteria. Color-code boards for different purposes (e.g. those for cutting meat and others for cutting items like vegetables and bread that won’t be cooked before serving). After use, clean each board, sanitize it with a tablespoon of bleach per gallon of water, let it stand for five to 10 minutes, rinse it with fresh water, and let it dry completely before storing. To extend the life of your cutting boards, use bleach and fine sand paper. Discard any boards that are permanently discolored, feel rough to the touch, or snag the fibers of a damp cotton ball rubbed on the surface.
Soup’s on – make sure it’s hot
A hot bowl of soup can be a perfect complement to a cold winter day. Just be cautious about food safety when preparing it. StateFoodSafety.com suggests you stir your pot of soup thoroughly before taking its temperature. This will help ensure you disperse the heat evenly, eliminating the cooler spots in thicker soups that can take longer to warm up.
Getting meat down to a science
Technology is changing what’s on the menu. One trend taking root this year is science-based foods, which aim to provide consumers with a cleaner, environmental-friendly way to enjoy the taste of meat. Food Dive reports that the products in development range from cell-cultured meat, fish and poultry to plant-based meat and sausage that mimic the experience of eating the real thing. Plant-based burgers that bleed like a conventional burger are already gaining a following in stores and restaurants (the Next Level Burger meatless burger restaurant has two outlets in Whole Foods stores). The Plant Based Foods Association and the Good Food Institute report that sales of plant-based food increased more than 8 percent last year, while Nielsen estimated that plant-based meats generated more than 2 percent of refrigerated and frozen meat product sales.
Customized, not creepy: Using guest information wisely
Social media has chipped away at the anonymity of consumers – and restaurant guests are no exception. A recent article in Vogue titled “What Restaurants Know About You Before You Walk In,” points to the many ways operators can research guests and share that information with staff in an effort to provide a customized experience. Keeping guest notes that outline a person’s preferences, habits and budget can help your staff steer guests toward menu options they prefer. Using tools like Venga to aggregate feedback across a variety of platforms and review sites, or studying comments on OpenTable and Resy, can help operators collect information about guests that helps deliver a customized experience. To ably walk the line between accommodating and invasive when it comes to using customer information, Restaurant Business has some suggestions. Managers should use the information they find to provide extra hospitality – mentioning that the last time the guests dined with you was on their wedding anniversary, for example. If on scanning the guest’s Instagram account, you find a guest has posted photos from a recent trip to Spain, you could suggest a wine from that region to help spark some conversation that enhances the experience. That said, you naturally don’t want to mention you’ve been looking through their vacation photos, so use staff training sessions to emphasize the importance of guest privacy – and run through scenarios that can help servers test out tactics for providing an experience that feels tailored to a loyal guest without getting too personal.
You have a schedule for posting social media content, quality photos of your newest menu items and plenty of ideas about what to promote. Just don’t forget about analytics so you can ensure the time you’re putting into your social media strategy is paying off. Top Rank Marketing suggests you use Google Analytics (or another analytics tool of your choice) to discover how much referral traffic you’re getting to your website, what your most-visited pages are, how much time people spend on each page and how many pages they visit, as well as conversions – how many of the clicks to your reservations page are resulting in actual bookings, for example. How many of your website visitors are new as opposed to returning? Are they searching for you through social media, via another referral source or directly? Are people visiting a page without making a single click? What page on your website is usually the last one people visit before they leave your site? Answering these questions can help you tweak pages, tune in to helpful referral sources and offer incentives to keep visitors coming back. The social data consulting firm Crimson Hexagon calls social media the perfect test kitchen for restaurants. Operators can monitor it to identify what kinds of food and beverage people are craving, monitor the social response to a new item overall and by restaurant location (you should know if a recipe isn’t being made consistently) and tune in to social media conversations to iterate existing menu items based on what guests are saying about them.
How clean is clean?
In recent years, your foodservice operation has likely tried to swap in organic whole foods in place of more processed foods containing pesticides, antibiotics or artificial additives. Now some restaurants are digging even deeper in the quest to go clean. Food Navigator reports that Panera has been examining components within the so-called “natural” ingredients it uses to ensure those items meet the brand’s standards. Their research found the balsamic vinaigrette they once used needed adjustments. While on the surface, the dressing’s ingredients – natural flavors, rosemary extract and
balsamic vinegar – looked satisfactory, a deeper dive found that the ingredients included a balsamic flavor that was highly processed, a rosemary extract that included an undesired emulsifier and balsamic vinegar made with a grape must that included caramel color. Panera since worked with suppliers to revamp the recipe with whole, unprocessed ingredients. Would your menu items pass a similar test?
Wearing gloves to prevent (not spread) contamination
Using single-use gloves in a foodservice operation can help prevent contamination – or in some cases, provide a false sense of security about preventing it. If you use single-use gloves in your kitchen, remember to have employees change them whenever the gloves get soiled or torn, before they begin a new task, at least every four hours during continuous use, after handling raw meat, seafood or poultry and before handling ready-to-eat food. Statefoodsafety.com advises that anyone with an infected sore on their hands or wrists should cover it with a bandage, then wear a single-use glove to create a double barrier between the sore and the food being prepared. Those who wear nail polish or false fingernails should also wear single-use gloves, as those employees pose a risk for contaminating food with paint chips or bacteria that hides beneath the nail.
Kelp is on the way
Is there room for kelp on your menu? A company in Maine called Ocean’s Balance hopes so. Civil Eats reports an expanding U.S. market for kelp, whose production requires no land, fresh water, fertilizer or pesticides and produces no methane emissions or nitrogen runoff – and at a time when Millennial consumers are seeking out nutrient-dense foods with minimal impact on the environment. Seaweed farms have sprung up in Mexico, California, Alaska, Connecticut and Maine, and they have the backing of the World Bank, which has touted seaweed farming as one of the best solutions for feeding the world without contributing to its deterioration. Chefs around the country who are looking to bring more vegetables onto their menus are getting creative with the product, which has an umami flavor, and have worked it into dishes in both expected ways (as an ingredient in soup broth, for example) and not (like kelp sloppy joes and even kelp berry crumbles).
Take the paper and people out of temperature testing
Food safety logs and paper checklists have long been a necessary annoyance for many a restaurant. But Bluetooth temperature sensors are helping to make them unnecessary – all while helping to protect customer safety and prevent restaurant product loss. For that, Bluetooth temperature sensors made Fast Casual’s recent list of the top seven technologies transforming the restaurant industry. The sensors allow restaurants to manually or automatically test the temperature of food or equipment in just a few seconds. Managers can receive alerts when temperatures fall outside of a set window and even have the sensors record temperature readings in an HACCP log, eliminating human error or oversight altogether.
Say yes to SMS
If you’re still using clunky pagers to alert waiting guests that their table is ready, take note: Modern Restaurant Management found that 75 percent of customers want to receive alerts via text. In addition to freeing up your hosts and eliminating expensive equipment maintenance, using an SMS system to send messages has additional advantages when it comes to guest engagement. By having an SMS system, you’re automatically collecting guest information that will help feed your database. From the first time a guest joins you, you can send special offers, rewards and other benefits, all of which can help turn each guest on your waiting list into a loyal one over time.
Zero in on the data you need
“Data” has become a buzz word for any restaurant operator looking to grow market share. But in an age when the amount of data available can be overwhelming, how can you decide what you really need to know about your guests? Modern Restaurant Management asked this question recently and provided some guidance from Bloom Intelligence, a data analytics and marketing firm that works with restaurants and retailers, to help operators make data management more manageable. First, take a look at the community surrounding your restaurant and have a clear grasp of its demographics so you can price your menu appropriately and meet the cultural expectations of the people who live around you. Then collect information on an individual basis: What is the demographic profile of your customers? What food and beverages do they prefer? Use this information to deliver content that engages those guests. When do they visit your restaurant and how long do they stay? Your answer will help you determine when to market to them. Do they order online or in your restaurant? What brings them back? If you can use technology to tap into guest preferences when they are onsite, you can immediately send automated offers and suggestions that can influence their purchasing decisions – and market to them once more as soon as they leave so they have an incentive to return.
Virtual and augmented reality poised to transform restaurant training
For years, restaurant operators providing employee training have had to choose between low-touch, high efficiency models (such as large group sessions with little opportunity for individualized or location-specific learning) or high-touch, high-cost models (such as smaller, more customized sessions delivered onsite). But now, augmented and virtual reality technology are beginning to change the game for the food industry by offering new training options, TechCrunch reports. Virtual reality can provide a digital means for employees to interact with their work surroundings while mentally and physically learning how to accomplish set tasks. For example, they can participate in virtual reality lessons on how to manage crowds at peak times or how to cook a new menu item. While virtual reality recreates a real-life situation digitally, augmented reality applies virtual elements on top of those real-life situations. A study from the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity found that augmented reality can help people visually estimate serving sizes, for instance. Fast Company reports that the Microsoft Hololens augmented reality headset is allowing technicians to visually disassemble and reassemble products in need of maintenance and repair without actually being onsite. When they are in the field, their headsets allow them to overlay schematics and tutorials and even contact specialists via Skype, all while they are looking at a product requiring maintenance or repair. As prices for virtual reality and augmented reality headsets decrease and give you greater access to information you need to manage your business, look for opportunities to make training materials more adaptable to a variety of learning styles and business needs.
Research confirms link between sick leave policies and foodborne illness
Is your restaurant plagued by foodborne illness outbreaks? More than 50 percent of foodborne illness outbreaks stem from foodservice operations, according to public health officials. Now, Food Safety News reports that a recently published study entitled “Association of Paid Sick Leave Laws with Foodborne Illness Rates” found that foodborne illness rates decreased by 22 percent after paid sick leave laws were implemented in jurisdictions that have laws supporting employee sick leave. The study also found that 46 percent of foodborne illness outbreaks implicate an infected foodservice worker, and outbreaks in food and beverage operations infect a median of twice as many people as other outbreaks.
Plate or plank?
To add interest to a meal’s presentation, a growing number of operators have been serving (and sometimes cooking) food on wooden planks in recent years. But unfortunately, these vessels have been linked to food poisoning. If the planks aren’t properly sanitized – which is difficult to accomplish when they are scratched or nicked – they can harbor harmful bacteria. According to Eater, health inspectors fined a steakhouse in Birmingham, England the equivalent of nearly $70,000 for repeatedly serving food on wooden planks that hadn’t been adequately sanitized. This occurred even after 14 people complained about contracting food poisoning from the restaurant.
Restaurants test travel-industry pricing models
Overcrowded on Friday evenings but empty on Tuesdays at lunch? Some restaurants are experimenting with congestion pricing to incentivize off-peak dining. Bloomberg reports that a pricing model used widely in the travel industry is beginning to take root in the restaurant industry, giving restaurant operators more freedom to decrease prices for meals during slower periods that would be charged at full price at peak times. London’s Bob Bob Ricard, for example, offers the same menu all week but prices are 25 percent lower during Monday lunch and other slower periods, 10 percent lower for mid-peak periods, such as dinners on Tuesday and Sunday, and full price on Saturday night.
How the smartest businesses use Instagram
Instagram has 800 million monthly active users, which has helped make it a must-use platform for restaurant operators. But how do you stand out in that large of a crowd? In a recent report in Inc., Instagram’s small-business community lead shared some of the smartest things small businesses are doing to shine. For one, they’re aligning with brand ambassadors, people who like and promote their brand and are willing to share images of it on Instagram. Having a strong set of values to promote or a charity partner can help you find such ambassadors. Second, they include video content that can stand on its own visually (without requiring sound, which isn’t always convenient for mobile viewers to use). Third, they study their followers to gain insights into how to reach them. For instance, are most of your followers women? How old are they? Where are they located geographically? Use the answers to provide content that speaks to that audience. Finally, tell a personal story but keep it consistent. For example, think about three to five qualities that are most important about your business, then weave one of them into each Instagram post you create.
What can your food delivery partner do for you?
To gain an edge in the increasingly competitive food delivery market, companies are offering new incentives – and it’s a restaurant operator’s market. Consider Deliveroo, a business that partners with restaurants to deliver food to customers in Europe, Australia and parts of Asia. Foodable reports that Deliveroo has begun to provide free “dark kitchens,” or additional commercial kitchen space, to restaurants that sign on to use the service. These kitchens, which are made out of shipping containers, are offered to top restaurants that want to expand their reach through the delivery company. At a time when UberEATS and other companies are vying for market share, Deliveroo is positioning itself to help restaurants looking to broaden their geographical reach and customer base. If several delivery companies are competing in your community, find out how they can make it worth your while to partner with them.
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