Looking to build your business? You’re likely to have more success not by making incremental improvements to your menu — adding creative new condiments that make your burgers a little more interesting than your competitor’s down the road, for example — but by identifying and marketing your specialty. Christopher Lochhead, host of the podcast “Follow your Different” and author of the new book Niche Down, offers the example of Sushirrito, the San Francisco brand that pioneered sushi in burrito form. It combined two of the region’s favorite foods, sushi and burritos, and then focused on solving a problem: How can sushi be eaten on the go? Enter handheld sushi that just happens to introduce some interesting flavor combinations too. The fast-casual brand has generated strong traction in the area since launching in 2011, with now eight locations around the Bay area. They accomplished this not specifically for having better sushi than other restaurants in the region but because they identified a consumer need and found an inventive way to address it. Thinking small — creating and marketing to a specific niche and not simply trying to improve upon what you already do — can help you boost guest loyalty. The good news is that the data you collect about your guests has the power to help you drill down to specifics about their behavior, likes and dislikes, and spending habits. Based on what you know about your guests, is there a menu item you offer that is ripe for a reinvention? Do you know what other food your most loyal patrons enjoy that could give you clues about potential opportunities?
Conventional wisdom says that people who want a harmonious relationship shouldn’t go to bed angry, right? Toast is now applying that logic to negative restaurant reviews. The company commissioned a study that found that 65 percent of one-star reviews on Yelp were posted within one day of a dining experience. To use that one-day window as an opportunity for customer retention, Toast created Toast Guest Feedback, a new guest feedback platform that sends a text to a manager whenever their restaurant gets a one-star review. Often times this will allow the restaurant to correct problems in real time, deescalate customer concerns and avoid losing those customers permanently.
Having an up-to-date food safety plan has benefits beyond preventing foodborne illness and cross-contamination. It’s also an important factor in saving money and demonstrating your accountability. As the food safety software firm Focus Works points out, having a food safety plan can ensure you’re storing and processing foods in ways that lead to less waste, so you won’t have to discard contaminated food that isn’t safe to serve. Further, if and when a foodborne illness outbreak occurs and your operation is named as a potential source, your staff training logs and other records can help back you up in court, demonstrating your commitment to running a safe operation.
Is oat milk on your menu? It is fast becoming the dairy alternative of the year, with PepsiCo launching an oat beverage under it Quaker brand and many restaurants embracing it as a creamier, high-fiber alternative to regular milk — and the consensus is that its taste far surpasses other nondairy options available. While the trend has hit coffee shops already, oat milk is not just for the coffee menu. Nation’s Restaurant News reports that it is appearing in meal-replacement beverages like the Big Date (a blend of dates, cocoa nibs, banana, vanilla whey protein and oat milk at Chicago’s Protein Bar). It can also boost the flavor and nutrient profile of pancakes, pudding and ice cream.
Consumers tend to focus on negative reviews. As the New York Times article “You Can’t Really Trust Negative Reviews” points out, such reviews may help us better “understand risk and reduce our losses.” But on the flip side, such reviews may include inaccurate or vague recollections, represent a small cross section of guests, or be downright fraudulent. They also make it more difficult for restaurant operators to make amends. Hospitality Tech advises operators to use their own technology to quiet the noise of large online review sites. Prompt guests for feedback immediately after the meal, then share that feedback immediately with the pertinent people involved. Soon you’ll have hundreds of reviews at your fingertips (not just a handful of extreme reviews on Yelp). Connect those reviews with a server, product, and time of day and you will quickly be able to see patterns — and get a more accurate idea of what needs attention. You’ll be able to update menu items more confidently, adjust staff training, better reward great service and potentially resolve guest complaints before a guest even leaves your restaurant, salvaging your relationship with that person.
Try an expanded color-coding system
You may already use color-coded utensils and equipment when managing the specific food sensitivities of guests. A report in Food Safety Tech also recommends color coding as a strategy to protect the overall food safety of an operation. The chef who authored the report said he uses a system that uses seven colors to identify various preparation tools and food storage containers throughout his kitchen. He suggests removing ingredients from their original boxes and storing them in their assigned color-coded, airtight containers to help avoid cross-contamination — and ensuring there are ample pieces of each color in order to avoid having to swap colors for different uses. His verdict: the system is simple for staff to use and saves time, making it easier for his operation to comply with food safety standards
Are you allergy ready?
When a guest with an allergy dines with you, how well does your team — from your waitstaff to your line cooks — know how to respond? If your cooks aren’t fully up-to-date on what items on your menu contain traces of gluten, for example, your waitstaff can’t adequately protect a guest with celiac disease from an allergic reaction. Statefoodsafety.com suggests developing a separate menu to offer guests with sensitivities so they don’t have to scan the regular menu and weed out all of the items they can’t have. Also make sure you have a reliable system in place for waitstaff and cooks to communicate about allergies — using codes that refer to different sensitivities can help make sure important messages aren’t lost in translation.
Preserve your reputation on online review sites
Gone are the days when a guest’s harrowing experience at a restaurant — or even a mildly disappointing one — stayed within the establishment. As online reviews have made it easy for guests to share every detail of their meal, negative (and highly public) feedback has become one more thing for restaurant operators to manage. Upserve suggests you bear some tips in mind when responding to guest reviews online: Apologize and offer a solution if one is needed, and if possible, clarify policies you have in place without getting defensive. Provide your phone number or email address and encourage the guest to contact you to resolve the problem to her satisfaction, whether with a discount, reimbursement or other offer — it may even result in the guest adjusting her review. In your quest for glowing feedback, however, don’t pay for an online reputation management service to scrub your negative reviews. A restaurant with a sea of five-star reviews comes across as less credible than one that has mostly great reviews, with a handful of mediocre ones in the mix.
Know the right tools to manage food fraud
About 10 percent of the food supply is impacted by food fraud, Food Safety Tech reports. Chances are, many of the foods you serve and use in recipes every day, including coffee, olive oil, orange juice and fish, are among the most vulnerable in the food supply, notes Shield Safety Group. But many food companies aren’t prepared to manage the problem. In a recent Food Safety Tech report, the senior manager of food safety & defense, QRC at the Hershey Company and the manager of food safety & quality assurance at GMA discussed the best tools available to monitor food fraud – consider them when talking with your suppliers about how they are managing and mitigating risks. The USP Food Fraud Database 2.0, for one, contains thousands of fraud records, can be searched by ingredient and offers some automated analytics tools. EMAlert is a predictive model that analyses the vulnerability of ingredients based on weight, which makes it a good platform for sourcing commodities. SSAFE Food Fraud Vulnerability Assessment provides a strong starting point for companies looking to assess their risk by ingredient, product, brand, facility, country or company, and it can be used across the supply chain. The World Factbook of Food contains more than 130 foods and 75 country profiles, which draw from a range of sources to help assess risk. Finally, the Food Adulteration Incidents Registry contains more than 550 incidents of food fraud, providing access to open data records that can support food risk assessments.
Bad reviews? Take the reins
What restaurant operator doesn’t love a great review? A Harvard University study found that an extra star in your online reviews can generate 5 to 9 percent more sales. But in a Foodable report, restaurant coach Donald Burns recommends you consider some facts to keep things in perspective. First off, a whopping 20 percent of reviews are fake, added by unethical businesses that want to improve their ratings, albeit falsely, and take the competition down a peg. (Take heart that sites like Review Skeptic are helping to uncover the fakes, so false reviews may be a declining problem.) Before you take a negative (or even a positive) review to heart, consider whether it’s accurate. If a negative one holds true, use it to improve. Make sure you have established clear standards and core values that your team lives and breathes, and that you’re taking steps every day to train and develop them. Are there trouble spots on your menu? Does your customer service need polish? Remember that your response to a negative review can build or bust your credibility with readers. If a review is negative, apologize without making excuses and, within 24 hours, ask for a chance to win them back. Before posting a response, compose a draft in a different application and ask a trusted person to read it to ensure it comes off professionally. If it doesn’t, you’ll have a bigger problem on your hands when your words are shared around the Internet within minutes of your response.
Protect against poultry risk
If you host young children in your restaurant, pay special attention to food safety: Kids under age four are five times more likely than adults to contract bacterial infections from food, according to the Centers for Disease Control. FightBAC.org recommends you pay close attention to chicken, often a go-to option for children’s menus, though a risky one: A recent report from the CDC linked chicken to 23 foodborne illness outbreaks and said it was the food category responsible for the second-largest number of foodborne illnesses. A single drop of raw poultry juice can contain enough Campylobacter to cause illness. Remember to emphasize proper food handling in your kitchen – handwashing before and after handling poultry, storing it on a low shelf to prevent cross-contamination, thawing it at or below 40˚F instead of washing it (that can spread bacteria around the kitchen), and cooking it to 165˚F to kill harmful bacteria.
Experience the halo effect
You don’t have to have a fat marketing budget to make a big splash on social media. Look at Halo Top ice cream, a small business that now competes with giants in the category, thanks in part to its online marketing strategy. Food Dive reports that the company claims it has never paid for a social media post and only recently began paying for any brand advertising at all. However, the company’s success in producing packaging, photos and other highly shareable content has resulted in the hashtag #HaloTop being used 100,000 times and the company’s account attracting about 400,000 followers. The company sold nearly 17 million pints of its high-protein, low-calorie ice cream last year, boosting sales by 2,500 percent.
More tech, higher sales
Technology is making it increasingly easier for restaurants to upsell consumers. An Associated Press report that assessed the business results of a number of national restaurant brands confirmed that people tend to order more when they order digitally, whether online, on a tablet or via a mobile app. Certainly, a consumer who can readily spend with a credit card instead of cash (which comes with the territory when tech is used for ordering) will spend more anyway – 12 to 18 percent more, according to a Dun & Bradstreet study. However, it also helps that a computer will allow a consumer to browse for a longer amount of time and, while a human taking an order might neglect to promote extra items, a computer will automatically ask a consumer if he wants to add toppings or extras. Ziosk, which makes devices used at Chili’s and Olive Garden, among other brands, says restaurants see more appetizer and dessert orders when using their devices – and there’s usually more coffee tacked on to those orders.
Robots changing the face of restaurant labor
Food industry leaders recently flocked to SXSW for a look at trends on the horizon. One big one, of course, is continued development in automation. According to a Restaurant Business report about SXSW, this included everything from software used to connect restaurants with a pool of qualified workers to fill shifts, to robots that can automate repetitive tasks like dishwashing and burger flipping. The industry also looks to be testing how much human interaction consumers desire. At the event, a robot mounted with a tablet demonstrated the ability to assume the role of server. It allows guests to ask questions and order, delivers meals and accepts payment. While far from being a mainstream addition to restaurants in the short term, these robots (along with a wide range of software applications) are likely to change the management of restaurant tasks in the years ahead as developers find ways to make them affordable.
Get the most from your host
If your restaurant is known for its human touch, have you unleashed the full power of your host? The first person your guests meet at your restaurant can help you set the tone for your brand, promote specials and recruit new members to your loyalty program, Foodable reports. (Perhaps that’s one reason why even low-touch restaurants like Eatsa have a host at the door.) Looking to entice guests with your seafood special? If your host can enthusiastically talk about his experience tasting your food, he can plant a seed of interest that can steer a guest’s attention toward specific items when he opens the menu. A host can also help ensure each guest walking in is a happy guest. Extra long wait? Consider having the host offer those guests a complimentary drink. Having your host check in on tables can help boost your loyalty program too. If he asks how a table is doing and everyone loves their meal, he can ask them to sign up for your loyalty program and perhaps sweeten the deal with a free dessert or other promotion.
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