Talk to any restaurant operator and it’s likely to be the top challenge at work: labor and the difficulty of delivering great service in an environment of near-constant turnover. Joni Thomas Doolin, founder and chair of restaurant consultancy TDn2K, thinks a lot about this. Her firm publishes a quarterly workforce index, the latest of which indicated that at fast-casual and quick-service restaurants, vacancies at the back of house were near 80 percent. In that scenario, it’s difficult for a restaurant to do anything beyond keeping the doors open. So how can restaurants operate to change that? Thomas Doolin shared several strategies on a recent Restaurant Business podcast with Jonathan Maze. First, she advised, focus on creating an environment in which you can engage, retain and offer stability to your general managers. She said that across the industry, many brands have focused resources at the employee level while general-manager-level compensation and benefits have remained flat or even declined in the past decade. She cited research that found that in the restaurant industry in the U.S., 35 percent of general managers were engaged in their work, as compared to 61 percent of general managers across industries. Keep them interested by offering development – not training – that will help them handle more complex tasks and manage employees from multiple generations. You can also offer some flexibility – and that doesn’t necessarily mean fewer hours but it might mean allowing a person a couple of hours to catch his child’s baseball games each week. Brands are succeeding with other retention strategies too: Chick-fil-a employee retention remains high due, in part, to its policy that keeps stores closed on Sundays, giving employees a built-in day off. Others have shown they’re invested in the community. MOD Pizza, for example, has a history of hiring people with backgrounds of incarceration, homelessness, drug addiction and mental disability, then paying a higher wage and offering benefits such as a 401(k) – a stance that has kept employees engaged and turnover low while appealing to guests too.
Self-service kiosks remain an important vehicle for reaching and understanding consumers. Research from Tillster found that more than 65 percent of customers said they would visit a restaurant more often if it used self-service kiosks and 30 percent said they prefer to order via a kiosk instead of a cashier if the lines were of equal length. While kiosks have helped restaurant operators save on labor costs, watch for much more to come from them. As the CEO of the kiosk company TRAY told AgFunder, the value of kiosks in the years ahead will be more about taking customer personalization (and therefore service) to the next level. With a swipe of a credit card, a consumer will be able to pull up a personalized menu based on what is popular at the restaurant and what meals he has ordered at other restaurants.
At a time when restaurant businesses are feeling pressure to identify new revenue streams, the CIO of Mattson, a food and beverage innovation firm based in Silicon Valley, says many operators are missing out on a potentially lucrative opportunity: meal kits. Barb Stuckey of Mattson told Restaurant Dive that she has long been urging operators to take a look at offering the kits to at least determine if they make sense financially or operationally, but few are following through, save for perhaps Chick fil-A. The brand tested meal kits to positive results last year, according to Forbes, though they haven’t announced future plans for them. Stuckey likes the kits because she thinks they can help operators attack some of the quality-control issues they may experience with delivery. For instance, kits may be worth a shot if you have menu items that could do well off-premise but may not travel as well when they are fully cooked (like fries and sandwiches). Or, if you have brisk lunchtime traffic, promoting the kits during lunch may help you sell to guests who want to sort out their dinner plan in advance. At least, the category could help restaurants tap into a less saturated segment that is ripe for reinvention. According to Packaged Facts said, meal kit market expansion in the future is likely to rely more on alternative purchasing venues than on the traditional subscription model, which can clash with the on-demand mentality of off-premise customers. Restaurants can provide that on-demand experience.
A study by IHL Services, Inc. found that 96 percent of consumers between the ages of 18 and 39 like to use kiosks for ordering food. Restaurant operators who consider kiosks to be the domain of large chains might keep an eye on Tapit, an emerging player that offers a customizable kiosk platform called SELFIT that is aimed at individual restaurants on up to small- to medium-size chains. The platform, which was on display at the recent National Restaurant Association Show, aims to help restaurants customize menus and integrate promotions, lifting check totals in the process. The company’s technology is currently used in the Israeli sandwich chain New Deli, where the head of operations credited the kiosks for boosting individual sales by 30 percent and branch sales by 13 percent. National Restaurant News reports that Tapit’s kiosk platform will have its first U.S. rollout at Duchess Restaurants in Connecticut.
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