You may not need one – yet. Without a doubt, nailing your loyalty program can pay off: Harvard Business Review reports that increasing your loyalty following by just 5 percent can drive profits up by between 25 and 95 percent. However, Fast Casual reports that although the average consumer belongs to 14.8 loyalty programs, they are active in only 6.7 of them. So while much has been said in recent months about how restaurants can use their loyalty program to set themselves apart and drive business at a highly competitive time, a loyalty program on its own can become simply a discount program – and no great help to you – if it’s not deployed properly. That means tying it to consumer buying behavior, driving more frequent visits, and then learning more from those repeat visits. Your existing guests are your most important ones to focus on here. Before you get to launching a loyalty program, start with maximizing your tech stack – specifically your customer relationship management and customer data platform (CRM/CDP) – to collect information about your existing guests, what they buy from you and when. Once you’re armed with those insights, you will have a clearer path to using that information to influence their future buying decisions (and making them truly loyal members of your loyalty program).
Restaurant sales are up 8 percent over where they were in June 2019, according to NPD Group’s David Portalatin. While that’s positive news for sure, business conditions are far different from what they were in 2019. People are preparing more meals or meal segments at home than they did back in 2019, whether from scratch or from meal kits. The business-lunch and happy-hour set is now spending more days working (and eating) from home, and the delta variant of the coronavirus is causing anxiety about eating out where it didn’t exist before. That may mean that your once-busy urban location isn’t getting as much traffic and that your suburban location is seeing more delivery and carry-out business. It’s more important than ever to know your guests’ habits – where they are eating, when they are most apt to order a restaurant meal, and what promotions would tempt them to buy a meal or drink from you instead of staying home. Treat each transaction as an opportunity to gather helpful data that you can use to plan your next menu item or promotion – or even your next investment in technology or real estate. At every order, are you gathering information on what items are selling the best and what channels those orders are coming from? Are you incentivizing guests to join your loyalty program and analyzing their orders so you know which promotions are most likely to inspire them to return? Your systems for automatically gathering, understanding and acting upon consumer data are what will help you flex with the fluctuations of the current environment – and better weather whatever challenges might arise down the line.
After a tumultuous year, restaurants are coming back in a big way – though the landscape is looking different than it did before the pandemic. According to Yelp’s Economic Average report released in April, which tracks the number of restaurants listed on Yelp by restaurant operators and consumers, more new restaurant businesses opened in the U.S. during the first quarter of 2021 than at any other period over the last 12 months. The restaurants across the nation that experienced the most growth during the quarter, the report said, tended to be those that offer takeout, outdoor dining and other Covid safety precautions. Restaurants with food-delivery services experienced the greatest increase – a 22.1 percent spike. This trend is likely to last for some time – at least for restaurants beyond fine-dining establishments – particularly as consumers have taken on new habits over the past year. Does your restaurant have a seamless system when it comes to offering food for off-premise consumption? A Restaurant Business report says it will continue to be important for operators to streamline their processes – e.g. continuing to offer curbside pickup and trimming menus to include items that travel the best, as well as leaning on data a bit more to predict traffic surges and lulls, craft new promotions to drive demand, and manage orders coming from multiple sources.
As the pandemic has called for people to work, learn, eat and shop from home, attitudes about the best places to live have shifted too. The suburbs and some rural areas have experienced a lift as people have left cramped urban quarters behind. A survey conducted by Zillow last spring found that the rise in remote working was generating a property-buying spike in suburbs and smaller cities. What’s less clear is how temporary that suburban shift will be. As a result, it’s become a bit more difficult for restaurant operators to know who their customers are – and how their preferences may differ from those in pre-pandemic times. Your in-store technology should be providing real-time updates to help you manage business day to day, but it’s important to keep an eye on the larger picture too. Datassential’s Firefly database is one new tool that lets users examine the restaurant landscape in any city or geographical region. It pulls from demographic data including average household income, median age and other factors to help operators get a better sense of how their community is changing – and how they will have to adjust as a result. Overall, the suburban shift has much to offer restaurant operators, including greater flexibility with space, lower costs, and less competition from other chef-driven concepts. A recent report from US Foods says succeeding with
current suburban diners is about offering value and variety, while accommodating their interest in being adventurous.
When you think of top-notch restaurant service, it probably doesn’t look like it did in early 2020. It’s yet another aspect of the restaurant experience that operators have had to reinvent. If you consider your menu alone, your ability to provide the kinds of options customers want is key to providing the kinds of memorable experiences that bring them back. Food trend specialists Innova Market Insights produces an annual report of top 10 trends for the year based on responses from consumers around the world. In their latest report, half of the trends listed are about the need to inform customers about the foods they are eating, explain what health-related benefits they can provide, and offer the option of customizing foods to particular dietary needs and preferences. The research found that 60 percent of global consumers care about where their foods come from – and if they meet key ethical, environmental and clean-label standards. They put their money toward the businesses that meet those standards: 64 percent of consumers surveyed said they have found more ways to tailor their life and products to their individual style, beliefs and needs. They support restaurants that can find ways to bring the restaurant experience home to them with restaurant-branded products, meal kits and sophisticated ingredients to go. And not so surprisingly in a pandemic, consumers are increasingly interested in their immune health and eating foods that meet their individual nutritional needs: 60 percent of respondents are increasingly seeking out food and beverage to support their immune health – with one in three saying their concerns about immune health increased in 2020 over 2019. When you consider your menu, look at it through the lens of consumer transparency and customization. What equipment and cooking processes will enhance not only the taste but also the nutritional value of the food you’re preparing? How can your technology help you proactively select suppliers you’re proud to promote to customers? How can your access to real-time inventory information help you prepare more dishes with fewer ingredients while also adapting to a range of nutritional needs? What special aspects of your menu are specific to your brand and can be packaged up and enjoyed at home?
If you’ve been in business long enough, you likely have a strong idea of what your ideal customers look like, how they order from you and what they like to see from you. But COVID-19 has changed this in a couple of ways. For one, the pandemic has persisted long enough to have created lasting – or at least long-term – shifts in consumer habits and expectations. The times when people eat, what they eat, and who (and how many) they eat it with have all changed. Further, as we power through what we hope are the final months of the pandemic, recovery from it will be uneven across consumer segments. Older guests may hesitate to dine out. Families may sustain their level of takeout ordering or perhaps dine out more often, particularly if they have spent months at home managing home learning. Instability in the economy may dissuade younger consumers from using discretionary income for restaurant meals and beverages as often as they once did. Or you may not see clear demographic-specific sales patterns overall. All told, if you leaned on hunches or impressions to sustain your business before, you will now need to mine your data and be able to make actionable decisions about it every hour and every day. This will enable you to respond to small, frequent shifts in consumer behavior with promotions and menu items that connect with them – and avoid wasting food and money within your business in the meantime.
You may have decided by now that you don’t need to hire new hosts or waitstaff as you prepare your restaurant for post-pandemic service – but what about staff whose expertise is in technology? A recent report from Hospitality Tech references the southeastern U.S. restaurant brand Sonny’s BBQ, which relies on the skills of two full-time, highly skilled data analysts. These analysts synthesize industry data, sales and profits, marketing statistics and other data to develop and fine-tune strategies for data analytics, customer relationship management and personalized guest experiences. Strengthening your business and brand in these difficult times is about harnessing information – about elements ranging from your market and customers to each item and promotion on your menu. That may require you to rethink how you manage your business and what expertise you need most. Doing so can help prepare your business for future bumps – and bring some needed predictability to your business in 2021.
In 2019, the annual employee turnover rate in the restaurant industry reached 75 percent – an all-time high. Labor challenges – whether in finding and hiring talent, providing training, allocating resources to pay and reward staff, or some combination of the above – are a key concern for the vast majority of restaurant operators. COVID-19 has added yet another wrinkle to those challenges. If labor is a challenge for you, you might learn something from Susan Reilly-Salgado, a former doctoral student who, more than 20 years ago, wanted to write her dissertation on the successful hospitality culture that restaurateur Danny Meyer had developed. She approached Meyer, agreed to work in his restaurant for six months, and then partnered with him to create the Hospitality Quotient (HQ) – a set of six soft skills they thought a high-performing employee in Meyer’s restaurants should possess. These skills – curiosity, empathy, integrity, kindness, self-awareness and work ethic – comprise just over half of the skills an employee should possess to do their job well, they believed, with the remaining skills being the technical skills needed to do a specific job. Even if your restaurant offers very different food or serves a different clientele, these qualities should translate. An empathetic employee will make an effort to ensure a guest with a severe food allergy receives the correct dish – and will be mindful of their safety as we emerge from the pandemic. A curious employee will take an interest in learning new skills on the job and will likely spark the kinds of new ideas you need to operate successfully in the current environment. As you look to bring employees back on board or even hire new staff, consider it an opportunity to elevate your service. When you screen applicants, what questions can you ask that will bring HQ qualities to the surface – or demonstrate that a person lacks those qualities?
At a time when restaurant finances are getting squeezed from many directions, do you know which budgetary battles are most important to fight? In other words, when you’re managing such expenses as labor, ingredients, rent and third-party delivery, does your balance sheet give you clear answers about how much each of those expenses is impacting your bottom line? It needs to, since your gut instinct may not be correct. Case in point: The results of a recent study by New School Center for New York City Affairs and the National Employment Law Project found that restaurants in New York City were more negatively impacted by rising occupancy costs and the fees charged by third-party delivery services than they were adversely affected by the near-doubling of the minimum wage paid to hourly employees in the past five years, Restaurant Business Online reports. The Fight for $15 wage battles of recent years had many operators concerned they would need to boost menu prices beyond what guests were willing to pay – and minimum wage escalation isn’t an insignificant expense for operators to be sure. But while New York isn’t like every market, the rising minimum wage in the city has had a smaller-than-expected impact in a diversity of regions, whether in Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn or the Bronx. As the minimum wage has been ascending in geographical regions across the country for years, you may be able to protect your bottom line by focusing on negotiating more favorable terms with a third-party delivery company, adjusting your business model so you can occupy a smaller or different footprint, or getting a stronger handle on hidden back-of-house costs.
How much science is behind your menu? In other words, to what extent do you review your restaurant’s sales, inventory, scheduling, loyalty program and other areas of your operation where you collect data to better understand how these predictive analytics work together? Doing so can help you predict what will sell, so you have sufficient inventory on hand and won’t lose sales opportunities. It will also help you put your ordering on autopilot by considering both the historical and day-to-day sales of your business when you order supplies. By having a better handle on what you will need, you can plan your food preparation tasks accordingly so you minimize your waste. Best of all, being able to predict the cravings of your guests goes far in bringing them back.