As the coronavirus has spread and restaurants have had to transition to a takeout-only model, what are restaurants to do to protect themselves and the customers they serve – and to somehow keep business coming in? Despite the many tech advances that have swept the industry, restaurants – until very recently – have been social places where people are on the front lines. A recent Restaurant Business report, which includes advice from a law firm specializing in employment issues, advises clear communication with employees in several areas: share your plan with them (and make sure it covers employee concerns such as your sick leave policy and your plan of operation during school closures) and provide training to ensure everyone knows what procedures to follow if they develop symptoms of COVID-19 or are diagnosed with it. Day to day, increase your efforts to sanitize door handles and kitchen and bathroom surfaces more often. Some operators are placing hand sanitizer at their building entrances, as well as outside the restroom and at stations in the back of the house. And while delivery was once considered a nice-to-have service, it’s now critical. Even if you don’t currently offer mobile ordering tech, now is the time to adjust your menu and offer a simple takeout menu that can be picked up outside of your establishment or dropped off outside a customer’s door for contactless delivery. Right now food delivery is considered a public service for people who are elderly, vulnerable and isolated, so promote on social media and to neighborhood news groups that you are open and ready to help, and provide your menu and contact information. Finally, encourage people to pick up the phone and call you – it’s old-fashioned but people are missing the social connections that restaurants have long been able to provide. You can provide a valuable way for people maintain those community ties as the industry pulls through this time of uncertainty.
When it comes to restaurant food delivery, the numbers don’t often add up – for the operator, the customer or even the third-party delivery company. A recent New York Times report found in a survey of GrubHub, DoorDash, Postmates and Uber Eats – the four largest third-party delivery apps in the U.S. – that customers were paying as much as 91 percent more for food delivered via these apps. In the meantime, operators are trying to carve out razor-thin profits from delivery orders and delivery companies are struggling to make money in a sea of competition. But since off-premise demand continues to climb and restaurants are adjusting their sales models and even their physical structures to accommodate it, how can operators make the costs easier to swallow for both customers and themselves? Offering delivery by hiring in-house couriers can help, though it isn’t necessarily feasible for everyone. A Restaurant Dive report says industry analysts predict restaurants will adjust prices, use virtual kitchens, adopt their own branded platforms or renegotiate their commission rates with third-party delivery companies in an effort to get ahead. Renegotiation may come in the form of changes in sales structure too: Technomic says a key way that providers are evolving right now is by offering delivery subscriptions – all-inclusive delivery for a monthly fee, as well as delivery discounts for loyal customers – incentives that can come directly from restaurants too.
In these shaky times for the restaurant sector, many operators are facing steeply lower guest counts and cancelled catering orders as the spread of the coronavirus – as well as fear about its spread – continues to grow. In light of that, there may be some actions you can take to ease the concerns of guests and keep business coming in over the next couple of months. First, these are times when your email list may prove its worth. Contact your customers and share what you have done in recent weeks to help ensure your restaurant is a safe place to dine – talk about your efforts to enhance your standard cleaning and sanitizing procedures, as well as more recent steps you may have taken, such as replacing your buffet with an à la carte menu, monitoring employee health more vigilantly, increasing the distance between tables or limiting seating. Promote your delivery and the precautions you are taking with it – from packaging food more securely or accommodating no-contact food drop-offs. Share similar messages on your website, voicemail system and social media. This is a time when people are becoming more community-minded and are making a concerted effort to look out for people who are at risk – if you have stories about how your employees are helping people in need right now, share them. Finally, look to other income streams – if you sell merchandise such as packaged food products or gift cards, market those items now and partner with other organizations that might cross-promote them with their own products. You can believe that once fears over the virus have subsided, people will be eager to get out of their houses and gather with friends over food and drinks. Plan now to be part of the comeback.
Last year, restaurant prices climbed 3.1 percent year over year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and they are set to increase again this year between 1.5 and 2.5 percent. If you’re among the many operators that must raise prices this year, consider how you might achieve that without turning off your guests. First, try adding some value to the dishes you serve and the experience you provide. Some low-cost ideas that guests may perceive as adding to their experience could include offering fresh-baked bread or a larger side salad with a meal – or finding ways to make your menu more memorable, whether that means writing a guest’s name in chocolate sauce on a dessert plate or creating specialty artwork in the foam of a latte. Could you do a better job of explaining the quality of the ingredients you use? If guests get some extra detail about the steps you’re taking to provide a quality product, they may not mind paying a premium. If you have plans to upgrade your branding or marketing materials (to include your menu design), make pricing changes at the same time so you’re not simply taking your existing menu and plugging higher prices into it. Next, focus on your loyalty program – if you’re offering your best guests a chance to get something at a discount or for free, even if it is just once in a while, you can make higher prices easier to swallow. Finally, at a time when consumers value transparency, consider sharing your cost dilemma with them via social media or your email list – it helps if you haven’t raised prices in a while and can say you’re not willing to cut corners on quality. Of course, be sure to encourage them to share their feedback about what’s working well and what isn’t so they feel they are contributing to your success.
Looking to streamline your off-premise business? Many restaurant industry experts are placing their bets on ghost kitchens as the future of the industry. They have their benefits: For small brands and large, these spaces can help ease labor and rent burdens, meet growing off-premise demand and help restaurants connect their food with customers quickly. On the negative side, restaurants with ghost kitchens are generally relying on (and paying) third-party providers to deliver food to customers, and in the absence of a front-of-house team, they may also encounter challenges in connecting customers with their brand – unless it’s already well established. As the ghost kitchen industry expands, various models are emerging. Check out this map of the landscape from Spoon to get a sense of where different providers and restaurants are building a presence – and where you might fit in.
Are you sending customized promotions to your guests based on their past orders? Adjusting your menu or specials based on guest data you have collected? Changing the items you promote on your digital menu when changes in the weather make guests crave different items? The era of hyper-personalized marketing is here – and the more personalized you can make the experience for guests, the better. There are important payoffs for restaurants: A study from Deloitte found that one in five consumers who expressed an interest in buying personalized products was willing to pay a 20 percent premium, and 22 percent of consumers are happy to share some data in exchange for a more personalized service or product. Hyper-personalization was a key prediction in a recent report from Modern Restaurant Management that collected a roundup of insights from restaurant industry experts about the trends to expect in 2020. In the report, Dan O’Connell, CEO of Foodmix Marketing Communications, said he sees the industry taking personalization even further than the “you may like” recommendations that restaurants are using widely now. Think matching flavors to personalities, offering guests personalized recipes and packaging, and serving up customized latte art for every guest who orders coffee. Of course, hyper-personalization makes it all the more inspiring for guests to talk about it on social media. After all, when you feel like a business knows you well and celebrates what you like, you want to tell friends about it.
Want to boost your traffic? Develop a strategy around limited-time offers. According to Technomic, limited-time offers have increased 64 percent at Top-500 chain restaurants and retail businesses in the past five years – and they aren’t going anywhere. But LTOs are not a slam-dunk for restaurants: While they can help brands boost traffic and generate excitement on social media, they can also be expensive and risky for a restaurant, not to mention time-consuming to plan and execute. According to a Restaurant Business report, Brian Hipsher, vice president of City Barbeque, says developing an LTO can involve up to 150 steps for that brand, with phases including ideation, marketing, trial and test, and feedback and survey. Want to boost your LTO success rate? The restaurant software company Eat advises you tap into seasonal appeal, much like Starbucks with its pumpkin-spice latte or the Shamrock Shake at McDonald’s. Make sure your offer is in fact only available for a limited time, since scarcity drives demand. Restaurant Business also suggests pricing the item carefully – you don’t want it to be too expensive for guests to want to try – and using vivid photography, special ingredients and a novelty factor to help elevate an offer over those of competitors. Finally, consider collaborating with a partner to increase your reach, promote your values or demonstrate your efforts to support the community: POS Sector suggests partnering with organic vegetable producers on a limited-time salad offer, for example.
The new year has gotten off to a shaky start across the restaurant industry, according to Modern Restaurant Management magazine’s Research Roundup, which assesses the industry landscape. According to data from Black Box Intelligence based on weekly sales from more than 47,000 restaurants and $75 billion in annual sales, same-store sales growth was down 2.1 percent in December, the worst result for the industry in more than two years. Still, there have been pockets of good news – such as in the family dining segment, which experienced strong same-store sales growth throughout last year. Kids often drive a family’s decision about where to dine – but you don’t have to turn your restaurant into a playground to attract families. If you’re looking for simple ways to boost your family appeal, Restaurant Rockstars advises offering each child a helium balloon (labeled with your restaurant logo) on the way out the door. Host a coloring contest that requires a parent’s email for subsequent contact, then send all applicants a $5 gift certificate to be used on a return visit when they can view their winning entries on display. But even some menu ingenuity – or ideas that appeal just as much to adults as kids – can work. Restaurant Business, for instance, suggests such ideas as offering kid-friendly “flights” of fries, dipping sauces or ice cream in place of alcohol, customizable menu courses or promotions related to local sports teams.
Team Four’s corporate chef identified the rise of food halls as a trend to watch in 2020, and for good reason: There are many significant food hall projects under development throughout the US and worldwide right now, the ones in operation have a strong track record of success (only three projects have failed of the more than 100 that have opened across the U.S.), and they offer low-risk, potentially high-reward environments for restaurant operators looking to take part. If you’re considering adding food halls to your restaurant marketing plan, Touchbistro says they offer a number of benefits and can reduce the substantial risks of opening a new restaurant, such as lower startup costs, shared maintenance expenses, shared infrastructure and shorter, more flexible contracts than you would have to agree to when signing for a conventional restaurant space. Newly added restaurants can hit the ground running in a food hall, benefitting from pre-existing foot traffic and fewer up-front marketing costs. Just bear in mind that a food hall experience may challenge your brand and require you to adapt your existing menu, service approach and marketing efforts. For instance, when you’re one stall in a crowded food hall, the experience of eating your food may feel different for guests than it would in a standalone restaurant – and the hundreds of options and long queues for food can cause overwhelm for some. How can you make your food memorable and your customer experience positive when your surroundings may be beyond your control?
What would it take for your restaurant to eliminate its trash cans? While it may seem like an impossible feat for a business that churns through goods ranging from food products to linens to cleaning supplies each day, thinking about how you might operate if you didn’t have trash cans – at least in the traditional sense – might help you rethink how your operation manages its waste. A recent article in the New York Times relates the stories of a Brooklyn restaurant, Rhodora, which has strived to become a “zero-waste” business in recent months. While its owners readily admit that its practices aren’t perfect, it has taken important steps – largely with suppliers and within its kitchen – to make it possible to winnow its waste down to nearly nothing. With consulting help from other restaurant operators who have minimized their own waste, Rhodera’s owners have researched and switched to suppliers that deliver (by bicycle) bread, eggs and pickled vegetables in reusable containers, and others that have ditched plastic wrap and committed to packaging foods in compostable materials. In the kitchen, they have introduced tools including a shredder that turns wine boxes into compostable material. As a result, they are able to save money and share a positive story with their eco-conscious clientele at a time when food waste is costing restaurants $2 billion in potential profits, according to the USDA. If you’d like to take a bite out of the waste your restaurant generates each year, there are many potential actions you can take, including and beyond packaging and composting. Consider these steps from Toast as a starting point.