Late this summer, the Mediterranean fast-casual brand Cava opened its first innovation kitchen, a technology-driven effort designed to collect and analyze consumer tastes and trends in real time – without the time-consuming hassle of organizing focus groups or experimenting with new menu items in test locations. Cava isn’t the first brand to launch such an effort and it’s further evidence of the increased pressure restaurant operators face to innovate their menus and to get them right each time. Even if you don’t have state-of-the-art technology to help you fine-tune your menu, you can still innovate your menu well if you start with the problem you’re looking to solve. Are you looking to improve the quality of your off-premise options? Increase your dine-in traffic? Then let that question drive your decisions. Chefify advises operators to keep several factors in mind when making menu changes. First, be able to back up your prices with market research and an understanding of what your guests will enjoy and are willing to spend for a particular product. Next, make sure your new menu items are extensions of what you already do well – not overeager attempts to follow the latest trends. Third, be clear about your ingredients and list them so guests (particularly those with food allergies) can make the best choice for themselves. Fourth, make sure that if you need to cut food costs, focus on your less-essential ingredients so you’re not sacrificing the quality of the core ingredients that make your restaurant appeal to guests. Finally, opt for a minimal, easily understood menu that allows guests to make decisions quickly when they’re hungry and allows you to both minimize your food waste and improve your order accuracy.
Hummus is a menu workhorse. It can help you deliver on-trend spices, serve as both a condiment and a main attraction, and add interest to a broad range of different dishes. Flavor & the Menu suggests it as a base with such ingredients as eggs, onions, pickles and harissa oil. Its versatility also helps it add depth when added to sandwiches, as a base for grain-and-vegetable bowls or meat skewers, and even as a salad dressing.
Offering local, in-season foods not just during peak growing season but year-round will help you present your brand as more authentic to guests. And according to Mintel research, 78 percent of consumers consider seasonal dishes to be a treat (and therefore an extra enticement to support your business). Of course, using seasonal ingredients on your menu might be a breeze in the middle of summer, but what about in the dead of winter? Your marketing efforts in this area can help you sell the best of the season year-round and also create some urgency to encourage guests to enjoy your latest offerings while they can. Chefify suggests using each season to tell a range of stories. Who are your growers? Why does your chef love cooking with a certain item on your menu when it’s in season? What beverages are the ideal complements for the new foods you’re offering? Create excitement around the change of seasons by adjusting your restaurant’s environment — everything from the music to the artwork on the walls to the images you use on social media — to reflect the new season. To generate some buzz about the new menu offerings, plan a special tasting event where guests can sample and rate new dishes. (You can also do the opposite and have an end-of-season party to give guests a final chance to taste your popular summer berry cobbler.) If you’re just starting out and aren’t ready to make a larger commitment to offering seasonal foods, Chefify suggests creating one menu of staples and another with seasonal specials that you can test and swap out as you weigh guests’ reactions to them.
Even if you don’t think insects have a direct place in the food you serve (cricket cookies, anyone?), they could still play a large role in lab-grown cells that could eventually become replacements for such foods as shrimp, lobster or even hybrid alternatives to plant-based meat. That’s according to a new study out of Tufts University that found that insect cells are especially good building blocks for other proteins because they are safe, nutritional and cost-effective — qualities that put them in a more favorable position than lab-grown beef at the moment. A Fast Company report said that while lab-grown insect meat still has a ways to go before it’s ready to market — researchers still need to determine how to develop the cells into the muscle and fat that builds the meat-like structure of the protein — the study provides a strong basis for insects as the basis of related crustacean-like proteins on menus down the line.
New research from the National Restaurant Association found that delivery, drive-thru and takeout food are on track to comprise 63 percent of restaurant sales this year – and many industry insiders see off-premise sales as the industry’s key growth engine. Recent consumer data demonstrates the potential. For example, Foodable reports that more than 80 percent of consumers younger than 35 are using on-demand food ordering apps about twice a week, and Food On Demand reports that delivery sales are 75 percent higher than in-store sales. At the same time, a declining percentage of consumers want to talk to others when visiting a restaurant, according to a recent study from Harvard Business Review. Clearly consumers still crave a restaurant experience but the best way to engage those people may no longer be via an in-person conversation. Harnessing technology to drive off-premise sales is key to tapping into the off-premise opportunity. Do you have a technology blueprint for driving off-premises sales? As of this writing, we were a few weeks away from the 5th annual Takeout, Delivery & Catering Symposium, which will gather industry leaders to forecast what’s ahead for off-premise sales, as well as how operators can use customer analytics to drive sales and engagement, and how technology can make a restaurant operation more efficient. Stay tuned for details from the event in the coming weeks.
As Beyond Meat and the Impossible Burger compete for market share and fast-casual and quick-service brands scramble to bring meat substitutes to their menus, don’t forget some other plant-based meat alternatives that may suit your menu well. In a recent Upserve survey of 9,000 restaurant operators, jackfruit had climbed 52 percent on menus in the past year. Unripe jackfruit has a taste and texture that mimic meat and can work well as a pork or chicken substitute. It is also nutrient-rich, containing calcium, iron and potassium, and because it is a natural plant-based protein, it may appeal to guests looking to consume more whole foods.
If your restaurant has a salad bar, buffet or other self-service food station, pay attention to temperature and cross-contamination risks. Hot foods should be at least 135˚F and cold foods should be 41˚F or cooler — and check those temperatures regularly. Statefoodsafety.com advises operators to clean and sanitize food thermometers between uses with other foods so germs or allergens don’t spread from one food to the next.
An apron can tell a story about a kitchen worker’s day, picking up traces of food but also dirt and bacteria. ServSafe advises you make sure your staff know to wear aprons when preparing food and removing them when they use the restroom or when they take out garbage. Have a convenient place to store aprons so your staff can access them easily between tasks.
Who needs meat? As menus become more plant-focused, chefs are taking cues from meat preparation so consumers are less likely to miss the carnivorous experience. Datassential points out that one trend to watch in the coming months is that cooking and preparation methods once reserved for meat are making the leap to produce. (Coffee rubs, once in the purview of barbecue, are now being used on root vegetables like beets.)
Anthony Bourdain’s death last year, along with a string of 12 suicides and substance-abuse related deaths among hospitality workers in Sacramento, served as a reminder of how restaurants can be fertile ground for mental health problems. The long hours, stressful pace and other extreme conditions can set the tone for unhealthy eating and sleeping habits that exacerbate mental health concerns. To help, a Civil Eats report that appeared in Eater said chef Patrick Mulvaney of Mulvaney B&L in Sacramento has partnered with Kaiser Permanente, VSP Global, WellSpace Health, the Steinberg Institute and the James Beard Foundation to develop a pilot program called “I Got Your Back.” The program, which has already launched in Mulvaney’s business, trains select workers to spot signs of mental distress at the restaurant. They wear a purple hand on their uniform and check in with other employees to offer support. Mulvaney has hosted workshops to connect with other operators looking to discuss mental health, and he is next looking to develop online resources to help workers in crisis find mental health professionals.
We all know that eating plants is better for us, for the environment and for the restaurant operator’s budget. But for flexitarians and carnivores looking to eat less meat, the idea of eating plants doesn’t always feel as satisfying — or to some, as nutritionally balanced — as a meal should be. Being reminded that they’re not eating meat doesn’t help. Enter the Better Buying Lab (BBL), a department of the World Resources Institute that helps businesses reframe their marketing of plant-based foods. Fast Company reports that following BBL’s principles helped one U.K. grocery store selling “meat-free sausages and mash” (to weak sales) make the change to “Cumberland-spiced veggie sausages and mash,” resulting in a 76 percent jump in sales in two months. They have also advised Panera and Google with similar efforts. BBL recommends companies avoid such terms as vegan, vegetarian, meat-free, or other health-restrictive terms such as low-fat, and embrace terms related to provenance, flavor, and look and feel.
At a time when many famous chefs are having to come to terms with their missteps in managing restaurant culture, chefs Ashley Merriman and four-time James Bear Award winner Gabrielle Hamilton stand out for knowing how to establish a healthy one. Hamilton opened Prune in lower Manhattan in 1999 and she and Merriman have since made it into not just a successful restaurant but an employee-friendly place to work. Guiding them are five simple values, which they recently shared in a Quartz report: Be thorough and excellent at everything you do, even when no one is watching; be smart and funny; be disarmingly honest (that means willing to tell the truth, but not in a brutal or overly earnest way); work without division of any kind (strive to put the person who sweeps the floor on equal footing with the owner); and to use service as leadership. That final point implies that through serving people, you set the tone for an experience with your greeting, eye contact and demeanor. They joke that they are actually an institute for living masquerading as a restaurant.
Cybersecurity incidents have become so widespread and increasingly sophisticated that it may not be a question of if your business is targeted, but when. Smaller businesses tend to be easier targets than larger ones, but even the biggest players can be caught unawares. (Note the breach that recently impacted Marriott and wasn’t announced until 11 weeks after the fact.) But regardless of the size of your business, there are a number of steps you can take to fortify your operation against cybercriminals. Cybersecurity expert Steve Tcherchian told Restaurant Insider that operators should first manage the devices connecting to their wireless network. Make sure your operating system is up-to-date so you’re less vulnerable to security loopholes, your system is accessible via PIN or password only, your staff isn’t using POS devices to access the Internet, and that you use a firewall to separate parts of the business that have different functions. Train your team to identify phishing emails and to avoid clicking on suspicious attachments. Make sure your staff have access to just the information they need to do their job and nothing more — and that you use online password managers (Dashlane is one) to manage and monitor access to files. Any vendors you hire should have security practices at least as strong as yours, so stay aware of how they store and protect data. Finally, hold your staff accountable by conducting employee background checks (Team Four can help you here) and by issuing each person a unique identifier on your POS, which can help you pinpoint where data breaches and staff shifts overlap.
Plant-based menu items have skyrocketed 800 percent in four years, according to research from the taste and nutrition company Kerry. If you’re not making your menu more plant-based to suit your guests’ tastes, do it to help your bottom line. Severin Nunn, the director of food and beverage at The Omni Homestead Resort in Hot Springs, Va., told FSR Magazine that a restaurant’s food cost for plant-based entrées is about 15 percent compared to 30 percent for meat-based dishes. That differential gives operators more room to shift menu prices while retaining an item’s profitability. To beef up your plant-based offering, so to speak, the FSR report advises you approach these dishes with the same care and creativity you’d apply to meat-based entrées, and weave in nutrient-dense, on-trend protein sources such as quinoa, lentils and spirulina.
Long relegated to side dishes and light options for the calorie conscious, vegetables are getting comfortable in the center of the plate as entrées, presented as filling and complete on their own. A GrubHub report found that its customers ordered vegan food 19 percent more in the first half of 2017 than in the same period a year earlier. Sports icons are also lending their star power to the plant-based trend — Shaquille O’Neal and more than a dozen other top athletes recently invested in the vegan Beyond Meat to promote the performance-enhancing benefits of plant-based diets. Menu trends analyst Nancy Kruse told Nation’s Restaurant News that vegetables are standing out on menus in three key categories. One dish doesn’t necessarily work for every restaurant, however, so if you understand who your guests are and what they crave, you can add subtle nuance to your vegetable-based dishes in ways that boost sales. First, veg-focused foods feature vegetables in place of grains and meats in dishes such as the potato lo mein (with potato strands standing in for noodles) at Philadelphia’s Vedge. Veg-forward options promote the craveability and health of vegetables, with well-sourced animal proteins playing a supporting role as condiments or a condensed choice of entrées. At DC’s Beefsteak, for example, the BEETSteak burger features marinated beets and condiments like pickled onion, lettuce, sprouts and vegan chipotle mayo. Finally, veg-friendly options vie for the attention of carnivores, flexitarians and vegetarians alike. Operators have to get creative here to stand out. Kruse says Park City, Utah’s Twisted Fern succeeds with dishes such as a root-veg cassoulet with stewed white beans and herbs, then adding roasted root vegetables in place of animal protein. If you need help with plant-based menu and ingredient development, new options are appearing on the horizon all the time. (One example is Fieldcraft, the Austin-based startup that is rapidly developing a large B2B marketplace for plant-based ingredients.)
It’s not enough to have a loyalty program: 59 percent of millennials quit loyalty programs because the rewards were not valuable enough, according to a recent study by Software Advice. Other common complaints: Guests feel like some restaurants string them along too long before they can earn a reward, and they feel bombarded with emails and other notifications. The right use of tech can help. The Rail suggests operators first find ways to clarify the path to rewards. So instead of saying “50 points earns you a free appetizer,” show the guest how many meals she has purchased or points she has earned toward that free offer. If you have a mobile app, integrating mobile payment into it is a bonus because it helps guests speed past the steps typically required to make an online purchase. Finally, when you send notifications, aim to customize them based on the guest’s past buying behaviors to better your chances of translating promotions into sales.
Shift seamlessly into a higher minimum wage
The start of 2017 meant an increase in the minimum wage in 19 states and a number of municipalities, with more increases expected in the next couple of years. How does a restaurant operator cope? Restaurant Hospitality recommends you take these steps: Cross-train your team, especially back-of-house employees. You will then have fewer people doing more (but higher-value) work. Then train those employees and encourage their input so they feel valued and stay. You can also adjust schedules and pay periods – try a two-week schedule instead of a one-week schedule to minimize shift switching and overtime, and shift pay periods to start midweek so instead of breaking overtime during busy weekend periods, you’re doing it when it’s easier to cut back.
What’s your overhead?
It’s hard to know how profitable you are if you’re not calculating your overhead accurately. Toast recommends you calculate it by collecting your indirect costs for a specific time period (e.g. rent, wages, utilities, advertising) and divide it by an allocation measure for the same time period (e.g. the total number of scheduled labor hours for the month). Then, reduce your overhead by cutting back on labor costs during slow periods where possible, swapping out legacy technology for newer technology that will be less expensive in the long run, reducing waste with a smart inventory system, subleasing space and asking staff where they see opportunities to improve practices.
Supermarkets step up their prepared meal game
As supermarkets become centers for fresh prepared food for people on the go, they’re proving to be worthy competition for restaurants. Now the Wegman’s supermarket chain is launching prepared Power Meals, nutritious combinations of main dishes and sides that might inspire (or compete with) restaurant operators. Each of the eight meals in Wegman’s Power Meals line has a maximum of 600 calories, 25 grams or more of protein, at least 5 grams of fiber, fewer than 1,000 mg of sodium, fewer than 10 grams of added sugar and at least one cup of vegetables, Food Dive reports. Priced between $8 and $15, the meals include entrée selections like kung pao chicken, king salmon tataki and tuna poke.
Technology can boost your wine sales
Looking to kick your wine list up a notch? Technology can help. Datassential says that even if you don’t have your food menu on a tablet, you can put your wine list on one, which makes it possible to update your inventory in real time – and avoid having to reprint your list throughout the week. A wine list app can suggest wines based on preferred flavors, prices and styles or even suggest a good pairing based on the dishes your table orders. These apps may help you tell the wine’s story by providing background videos about its makers, for example, or the origin of its grapes.
There’s no doubt restaurant delivery is taking off – and this year, much of that growth is coming from restaurants lacking a storefront. These restaurants are popping up across the country, according to a new report in Fast Company, and because they don’t need as many staff or as much square footage to operate, they’re cutting back on the costs that traditional restaurants must manage and benefiting from economies of scale. Delivery-only operators are seeing additional benefits too, notably the ability to quickly switch out a menu that isn’t working and offer a wider variety of food. For example, the foodservice company Green Summit operates a number of delivery-only brands. Peter Schatzberg, Green Summit’s cofounder, said when poke became popular, they could quickly jump on the trend because most ingredients were already available in-house for the company’s existing sushi concept.
Vegetables can be comforting!
Vegetarian comfort food is on the rise – and no, that’s not an oxymoron. As vegetables continue to appear in the center of the dinner plate, chefs are finding creative ways to disguise veggies as their guests’ favorite comfort foods. In an interview with Forbes about the top food trends of the year, Michael Whiteman, food consultant and president of Baum + Whiteman restaurant and hotel consultancy, said operators can expect more guests to order mashed cauliflower in place of rice or pasta, for example, or even vegetable-based crust on a pizza.
The return of a flavorful tomato?
Modern tomatoes have lost their flavor as growers have bred them to a size and strength ideal for shipping. But one professor of horticultural sciences at the University of Florida, Harry J. Klee, thinks he has found a way to bring the taste back to tomatoes while retaining the traits that make them ship well, the New York Times reports. According to the journal Science, Dr. Klee and his colleagues have identified flavor chemicals deficient in modern tomatoes, along with heirloom and wild varieties of tomatoes that produce better versions of these genes. The research is ongoing but Klee thinks he can produce tastier tomatoes for more widespread consumption in two years’ time.
Economic survivors: steak and seafood restaurants
Looking for a restaurant business that can weather the economic conditions that challenge most operators? Consider steakhouses – or upscale restaurants that combine steak and seafood. Technomic’s Darren Tristano says these operations succeed because they draw affluent guests who are in search of a premium meal and are willing to add alcohol to their tabs. And because the economy is currently in good shape, these restaurants will draw business groups as well as guests celebrating a special occasion. It’s important for these operators to focus on quality beef and sustainable seafood, and in the case of seafood, to offer it at a range of price points to make it more approachable to guests.
Prevent cross-contamination in your kitchen sink
Your restaurant’s kitchen sink can be a source for cross-contamination of food. The U.S. Deapartment of Health and Human Services recommends you take steps to prevent it. Namely, be sure to wash your hands with soap and running water for 20 seconds. Wash fruits and vegetables before you peel them and do not wash meat, poultry or eggs.
Plan ahead for a smooth tech rollout
Are you rolling out new technology in 2017? In an FSR report, Lee Leet, founder of restaurant technology firm QSR Automations, recommends operators take steps to ensure a smooth transition: First, ask yourself if the technology addresses your biggest pain points – and how you’ll quantify its success, whether in increased table turns or other objectives. The provider should have a thorough implementation plan, access to training, references and experience. Identify key stakeholders, from employees to executives to your bank, and communicate with them clearly about the rollout. As you develop an implementation timeline, consider the big days ahead for your business and time required for testing. When you communicate about the rollout, clarify what tools will change, what processes will be updated, how the change will help employees perform better, and what the expected timeline is. Once you have implemented the change and trained people, analyze the results and adjust accordingly.
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