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.
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