At a time when consumers are eager to sample new trends, tire of eating the same dish repeatedly, and yet have highly customized dietary restrictions and preferences, how do restaurants respond? Operators might tune in to what’s happening at Sweetgreen, which made its mark as a fast-casual salad chain and is now in the midst of scaling up its brand. A recent New York Times report about Sweetgreen said while the chain used to update its basic menu of 10 items every 18 months and offer three seasonal options five times each year, its current lineup of 60 ingredients allows for nearly endless customization – all while ensuring each item tastes like a Sweetgreen salad. As one of the cofounders said in the article, “There is a physical limit to the number of items we can have on that line. Every item has to earn its keep.” You can beat menu fatigue at your restaurant by incorporating limited-time-only choices and seasonal items that guests will expect to disappear in a few weeks. Cycling in new ingredients on top of the foundational workhorse ingredients you use can help you test guests’ response to new items and audition potential keepers. What tactics do you use to make sure your inventory is stocked with menu workhorses – while also allowing for the breadth of new choices guests demand?
Team Four’s corporate chef expects the year ahead to bring an increase in smaller meal offerings – that includes more snacks on demand, as well as a range of smaller entrée portion sizes. These changes can be opportunities for chefs to test new ingredients, offer more health-conscious options and minimize food waste and cost. For example, as snacking grows in popularity and replaces the three-square-meals mindset in some cases, you can develop your menu with items that aren’t simply comfort food but also pack some nutritional value and dietary functionality. A recent Technomic report found that in the past two years, 40 percent of consumers said they were snacking on healthier foods. So when it comes to your snack menu, think plant-forward tapas, hummus sharing plates, vegetable-based dips and chips made from ingredients beyond the potato: lentils, quinoa, eggplant or kale to name a few. As for entrées, reducing your plate size – or offering the option of half-plates to help guests customize their experience with you – can ensure plates come back cleaner. A Danish study found that if the size of a plate shrinks by just 9 percent, food waste can be reduced by 26 percent.
One of the biggest restaurant industry stories – and challenges – of 2019 was about sustainability. Even brands that had taken the initiative to invest in compostable, eco-friendly packaging were surprised to learn that these materials were still ending up in landfills. Blue Bottle Coffee, which operates coffee cafés across the U.S. and parts of Asia, is one such business, and it is handling the problem in a way that’s worth watching if you’d like to improve your record (and story) when it comes to sustainability. Blue Bottle Coffee’s CEO, Bryan Meehan, recently announced that since discovering that too many of its 100 percent compostable, bioplastic cups and straws were ending up in landfills, the company created a policy that by the end of 2020, all of its U.S. cafés will be zero waste. (According to Zero Waste International Alliance’s definition, this means that at least 90 percent of the operation’s waste will be diverted from landfills.) The company is also testing out a program in the San Francisco Bay area to eliminate single-use cups – until now the company has gone through 12 million single-use cups annually in its U.S. cafés alone. Meehan also pushes a commitment to not only recycle but to reduce and reuse – and tells stories about his family’s efforts in these areas. He readily admits that it’s not an easy, inexpensive or convenient undertaking to make similar changes at Blue Bottle. He says on the company’s blog, “a commitment to reuse will wreak havoc on every aspect of our pilot cafe’s operations. We expect to lose some business.” But by taking an extreme stand and being open with consumers about its plans, the company also stands to increase its relevance – and win business in the process.
If you think restaurant delivery is big now, there is more to come: The NPD Group said in 2019 that restaurant digital orders have grown at an average annual rate of 23 percent since 2013 and will triple in volume by the end of 2020. At the same time, consumers have yet to commit to one third-party delivery provider, so they are willing to accept promotions from the many companies angling for their business. If you offer delivery or are considering it, now is a good time to see how providing it through your own digital platform might work for you. Nation’s Restaurant News expects more brands to take this route in 2020 in an effort to build more permanent relationships with customers – all while maintaining control of data and avoiding third-party delivery fees. Physical restaurant structures are continuing to change as well, with more restaurants not just creating separate prep lines and pick-up windows, but investing in virtual kitchens and other satellite facilities in close proximity to delivery customers in an effort to compete for business. In fact, Michael Schaefer, Euromonitor global lead for food and beverage, recently told Restaurant Dive that virtual kitchens and drop-off points will be crucial to compete in the future of delivery.
The past decade brought quality restaurants to just about every corner of the country – well beyond restaurant cities like San Francisco, New York and Chicago. This was among the eight trends that New York Times food critic Pete Wells identified in his recent look back at what has happened in restaurants since 2010. This shifting of the restaurant landscape has set the stage for a focus on all things local: Team Four’s corporate chef predicts that in 2020 we can expect more hyper-local food, with restaurants in smaller metro areas driving the push to connect consumers with the foods and flavors of the local region. Your marketing efforts should follow suit. The marketing website jeffbullas.com offers seven guidelines for hyperlocal business marketing: First optimize your Google My Business listing, representing your business in the way people would search for it (not necessarily its legal name). Then offer local content – blogs, videos, articles, graphics, quizzes – and build them upon events or special features of your region. Make your contact information stand out on your site. On Google, categorize your business as local, including structured data mark-up for your business to help the search engine find you. Your site should both help people locate you online and present itself in a way that converts online visits into sales. If you have multiple locations, create individual landing pages for each business location, which will help elevate your appearance in search and improve your local rankings. Finally, use hyper-local advertising, bringing together location-tracking features and geo-fencing to help you direct content to people in a specific location around you – and hopefully lead them to your business.
Storytelling is “the new strategic imperative of business,” according to a report in Forbes. A brand with a strong narrative is a powerful brand – and science backs up the power that stories can bring to a business. Studies have found that by telling stories, the brains of the storyteller and listener synchronize, creating a shared experience. The brand consultancy Buffer suggests three ways you can use storytelling to help your business as it relates to employees, vendors and customers: First, instead of offering suggestions to get people on board with your ideas, tell a story that has the outcome you’re hoping the suggestion would have achieved. Use persuasive language – bringing in quotes or stories from outside experts as needed – and simple, heartfelt words to get your message across. Then apply those actions to a challenge you’re facing using the communication vehicles you have at your disposal. Need to get your team to improve its waste management or food safety practices? Weave real-life stories into their training sessions. Want to make sure your guests know about your efforts to buy from local suppliers and support the community? Integrate language into your menu that describes the origins of your ingredients and make sure your marketing materials and social media communications tell stories about your local connections.
As waste management continues to be a top priority for restaurant operators, news headlines appear every day about new technologies that can give companies in the food supply chain a leg up. In recent weeks, edible coatings and stickers for produce, as well as sachets that can be packed in crates of fruit, have all made news for their potential to significantly prolong the shelf life of produce and other fresh foods. Your suppliers will no doubt be adopting such technologies in an effort to compete in the marketplace, but there are a number of steps you can take right now in your business to make sure you’re making best use of the fresh products you buy. As Restaurant Owner & Manager advises, follow the first in, first out rule by adding a use-by date to new products you receive and then placing them behind older products in storage. Store food in airtight containers to help protect the hygiene of your products and minimize the potential for cross-contamination. Keep meat on the bottom shelf of your refrigerator. Ensure proper temperatures in both your refrigerator (40˚F or lower) and freezer (0˚F or lower) and have employees check those temperatures regularly. Finally, store food without overloading your storage areas and clean your shelving, equipment and storage units daily to prevent the buildup of contamination.