Strategies to thrive in 2017
It looks like 2017 will be a low-growth year for the restaurant industry. To stay the course, Foodable recommends you raise your operation’s game in these areas: Embrace social media marketing and use it less for selling and more for engaging with your guests – consider Snapchat, Instagram Stories, Instagram Live and Facebook to bring video to your guests. Ensure you have a top-tier team, which means releasing bad hires, training well and always looking out for new talent. Make your menu a profit machine by costing out your food, analyzing your product mix report from your point-of-sale system and updating your menu pricing at regular intervals. Finally, be careful about entering the discount game – choose your offers carefully. Foodable suggests value-driven appetizers or a three-course prix-fixe menu on slow days, for example.
Produce is the new protein
If you’re looking to build a better sandwich (or provide non-salad options for health-conscious guests), many chefs are demonstrating that vegetables can be a key attraction in sandwiches – either alongside meat, fish or poultry or in place of it. Flavor & the Menu reports that at Oak + Char in Chicago, one of the most popular sandwiches is filled with stacked smoked eggplant, pepper jam, curried chickpea mash, smoked cilantro yogurt and Upland cress. Other chefs are stacking plantains and testing combinations like roasted cauliflower and peppers with Vidalia onions and shallots. At Plenty Café in Philadelphia, a housemade tasso ham baguette with spicy aioli was transformed into a mega-hit when the chef added sliced tart apples, fig jam and melted Gruyère. Experiment with produce to add crunch, meaty texture or unexpected spice to a dish.
New superfoods on the horizon
Consumers are showing signs they want nutritious foods that make them feel good about what they consume all year long. Datassential, which tracks “functional” foods that promise a healthy heart, along with boosts in energy and brainpower, has predicted three categories of superfoods we’ll see more of in 2017. Look for the next kale in algaes like spirulina and chlorella, which often appear in detox drinks (or even with alcohol for a saintly spin on cocktails). Aquafaba, the thick chickpea-soaking water, is a close substitute for egg whites and is adding frothiness to cocktails and condiments. Sprouted grains are being touted as an easier-to-digest, high-protein alternative to whole grains in pasta, bread, pizza crust, cereal and more.
Spices and stealth food risk
Spices from around the world can give your menu the authenticity and flavor guests crave – but food safety risks are bringing the industry under increased surveillance by the FDA and CDC, Food Safety magazine reports. There are approximately one million Salmonella infections per year, which is a high estimate compared to the relatively low discovery of outbreaks, the report says. That has led experts to believe that many of the illnesses are coming from “stealth” foods used at low levels in a variety of applications, such as spices in condiments and garnishes. It’s a good time to ensure your suppliers have sufficient sanitation practices and training programs in place, as well as hygienic equipment design and repair practices.
Weigh in on healthy food labels
The FDA just extended its deadline for accepting public comments regarding the use of the term “healthy” on food labels. Food Safety News reports that the FDA wants the new definition of the term to be specific due to push back from the food industry on existing law concerning use of the term. Currently, for example, eggs cannot be labeled “healthy” because of their cholesterol and saturated fat content, even though they are recommended in the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. You can submit a comment at https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2016/12/30/2016-31734/use-of-the-term-healthy-in-the-labeling-of-human-food-products-request-for-information-and-comments#open-comment until April 26.
Protect yourself against wage and hour violations
In the past 30 years, the Department of Labor has prosecuted more than 23,000 foodservice operations for wage and hour violations, resulting in the industry having to pay $247 million in back wages and civil money penalties, Toast reports. Many affected establishments simply failed to follow complex rules. With minimum wages in flux, it’s critical to know where related violations can crop up, such as in tracking employee time over multiple restaurant locations, irregular employee scheduling, poor record keeping and violating the minimum wage. To protect yourself in a dispute, Toast recommends you move quickly and cooperate, with the goal of resolving problems without litigation (or starting litigation without delay). If you have violated the Fair Labor Standards Act knowingly or not, you will likely owe money in damages, so know your value and what you can afford. Finally, take corrective action right away with systems to prevent ongoing problems.
Restaurant outlook for 2017 favors quick-service
If you’re a quick-service restaurant, you’re among the lucky ones: NPD Group predicts the sector will experience 1 percent growth this year, full-service restaurants will see a 2 percent decline and the industry overall could see little to no traffic growth. To buck that trend, Bonnie Riggs, NPD Group’s restaurant industry analyst, suggests operators stay relevant in consumers’ minds, focus on innovative products and promotions, provide a good value and demonstrate the benefits of the experience of eating a restaurant as opposed to staying home. CNBC suggests watching these brands, which have fared better in recent months: Domino’s (revenues were up nearly 17 percent in the third quarter over the previous year), as well as McDonald’s, Starbucks and Wendy’s.
The power of your public
You know it’s important to have a compelling story behind your food and to promote it well to the public. But chefs Roy Choi and Daniel Patterson recently learned exactly how critical that can be when New York Times food critic Pete Wells awarded zero stars to the chefs’ Oakland, Calif. Restaurant LocoL, the quick-service restaurant that aims to bring wholesome, fresh, affordable foods to underserved neighborhoods. Eater reports that while Wells had earned popular support after withdrawing two stars from Thomas Keller’s famed Per Se restaurant last year, he generated serious social media backlash with his treatment of LocoL. One reader said his review was akin to booing at an elementary school musical, while others suggested he “take on soup kitchens next.”
Voice-ordered food to your door in less than an hour
Amazon continues to push the limits of food technology. The company just announced that its Prime customers can now order food via voice command from Amazon Restaurants on Alexa-enabled devices and have any meal they’ve ordered previously delivered for free in less than an hour. A customer can say, “Alexa, order sushi from Amazon Restaurants,” and the service pulls that customer’s order history from a specific restaurant or cuisine type and lists meal options available for reorder. The selected meal is then sent for delivery to the customer’s default address. The new option allows customers to reorder food from any restaurant available on the service in more than 20 cities.
Investing in tech-assisted food ordering
Among 18-to-34-year-olds, 77 percent want or expect mobile ordering at quick-service restaurants and 83 percent feel the same about fast-casual outlets. In the Middle East and Asia, a majority of consumers report being able to do just that – but the percentage falls to just 32 percent in North America. That’s according to Technomic’s 2016 Future of LSR: Fast-Food & Fast-Casual Consumer Trend Report. The U.S. lags behind Asian and Middle Eastern countries when it comes to tech-assisted ordering programs due to the expense of investing in technology in a low-margin business. But the risk may pay off: According to the data, U.S. consumers choose delivery or takeout for 51 percent of all foodservice needs – that is a bit more than in Asia and only slightly less than in the Middle East.
When you need to revamp your strategy
Any restaurant can experience peaks and valleys in sales – so how do you know when you need to rethink your restaurant’s strategy? In a recent Toast blog, restaurant coach Donald Burns identified a couple of key areas to consider: First, does your restaurant plan need adjustment? Consider how your guests see your brand, how that compares with how you see your brand, and how you might need to reposition your brand in your market. Also ask yourself if your product mix is right – review your sales reports to determine what is selling (not what you want to be selling). Second, do you need to replace staff? Perhaps you have a culture that doesn’t attract top talent, or you made bad hires and kept them. Address snags in these areas – and in any other areas that keep you awake at night – to set your business on a positive course.
Gift card give and take
Last year, 90 percent of consumers either purchased or received gift cards, First Data Corp. reports. To stand out from the crowd of retailers offering them, it’s important to get creative. Restaurant Hospitality recommends you offer foods rewards instead of monetary ones – or let the person buying the card get a piece of the reward too. Saladworks in Conshohocken, Penn., for example, offers a free salad with a gift card purchase instead of a cash reward. Other brands offer menu items or cash bonuses that correspond with different gift card price thresholds. Try to use your restaurant’s personality to help make the sale, like Chicago-based Portillo’s, where employees in the drive-through are known to dangle gift cards from their hats – the tactic helps the brand sell more than half of its gift cards for the year.
Growing pains for operators who don’t accept tips
For restaurant operators that have gone the no-tipping route, running a business has become like assembling a jigsaw puzzle – or, says one director of operations, like opening a new restaurant. In a New York Times report about restaurants that have made the switch, the businesses have tried different strategies to adjust to the tip-free model: adding bulk to a plate to better justify a higher charge, adding a smaller cut of meat to the menu to balance a larger and more expensive one, limiting some organic produce, working with a smaller kitchen crew, and buying ingredients in bulk and in partnership with other restaurants to save on expenses. Expect more adjustments to come as operators test their pain points – and those of their guests – when it comes to adjusting menu items, prices and staff.
Back to basics for Chipotle
While Chipotle would surely like to say good bye to 2016, the brand’s challenges this year provide a valuable list of lessons for the rest of the industry. The Chicago Tribune reports that its efforts to win guests back following its brief wave of contamination incidents have fallen flat, with sales down 22 percent in the most recent quarter. While Chipotle has tried overhauling food safety measures, adding chorizo to the menu, launching a summer rewards program and offering free kids’ meals, it now seems to be running into trouble on such customer service no-nos as long lines, messy dining rooms and drink stations, and missing ingredients. Now it sounds like the brand is refocusing on the basics that made it a darling of the industry in the hopes that guests will return.
Automation spreads from coast to coast
Eatsa, the eatery that offers quinoa bowls from a high-tech dispensary with minimal human involvement, now has a New York restaurant to match its west-coast outlet. Guests order food from tablets in the restaurant or via smartphone app and pick up their food from electronic cubbies. While humans do work at Eatsa, they’re limited in number, working behind the scenes making food and standing out front to answer guest questions. Eater reports the model helps the brand cut costs and customize orders too – Eatsa owner Scott Drummond hopes to bring the cost of a quinoa bowl from $7 down to $5 and further develop its technology to offer custom bowls to guests based on their past orders.
The bar menu gets reinvented
Seventy percent of people between the ages of 21 and 34 purchase alcoholic beverages away from home at least once a week, reports Technomic and Beverage Marketing Corp.’s new On-Premise Intelligence report. That’s compared to just 48 percent for everyone older than those in that bracket. To capitalize on younger consumers, the report predicts we’ll see more alcohol popping up on menus at limited-service restaurants – Taco Bell and Starbucks are already cashing in on this idea. These consumers like to branch out and try new flavors, so bars targeting the demographic will offer a broader variety of alcohol categories, brands and styles, limited-time drink specials that rotate through the menu, and craft beer made on site.
Restaurant industry flexes to accommodate the independent worker
More cafes and restaurants are finding ways to embrace the 35 percent of the workforce who work independently. Eater recently reported on some newer approaches for appealing to these guests, such as cafes charging guests a $6 flat fee for their first hour spent onsite, then five cents each hour thereafter, which grants each person a workspace and unlimited coffee, tea and snacks. Others offer hybrid hospitality/workspace for monthly fees ranging from $95 to $220. In cities with bustling happy hour and evening business but non-existent lunch business, restaurants are offering space to independent workers during the day when they purchase either a monthly or day pass.
Protect your dry goods storage
Start your new year with a food supply that meets safety standards. Food Safety magazine shared some simple rules for making sure your dry goods are stored safely: Rotate your food – the first item in should be the first out. Keep your storerooms dry, well ventilated and cool (between 50 and 70˚F), with humidity of 15 percent or less. Avoid storing food in direct sunlight. Store food at least six inches from the floor and at least 18 inches from walls to minimize the development of condensation and ease cleaning and vermin control. Keep doors and windows sealed and shut whenever possible to prevent the entry of rodents, insects or birds. Finally, have adequate space to accommodate what you store. Use this equation to help determine if you have sufficient space: Required storage area (sq. ft.)= (Volume per meal x number of meals between deliveries)/(Average height x fraction of usable storeroom floor area).
A purple blow torch promises safer food
A major food safety innovation on the horizon could help restaurants prevent norovirus. Food Safety News reports that cold plasma treatment, also known as a purple blow torch, kills 99.9 percent of norovirus on blueberries without harming the fruit. The researchers report that the method has the potential to extend shelf life by slowing spoilage rates. While they say there is further research needed before the cold plasma method is available commercially, they expect the technology to be accessible and affordable for the food industry to use. Food Dive reports that when that occurs, it could revolutionize the industry, benefiting the security of meats, poultry and produce.
Do you have the right point-of-sale system for you?
Are you using a retail point-of-sale system at your restaurant? Toast outlined why even if it offers you the basics, it’s likely holding you back. A system designed for restaurants will offer you table management, online ordering (without having to pay a third-party ordering site), and analytics that will help you see what sold best that day, how you can create sales forecasts and which server generates the best tips. It will help you develop a reliable customer database that tracks who your most loyal guests are, what they love about you, and what they order -- information you can use to deliver communications and promotions that resonate with them. Finally, it offers efficiency by helping you integrate your inventory, sales, employee scheduling, loyalty program and customer database. Does your current system offer these tools?
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