Yet another aspect of restaurant life that has shifted in recent months is the typical hour when people are consuming restaurant meals. As people have stayed closer to home – both during and after work – they have also altered the lunch and dinner rush. Even as lockdowns have eased, those changes may persist: A Datassential survey of 1000 consumers that was conducted in May found that 35 percent of respondents planned to avoid peak busy times at restaurants – even after lockdowns eased. But instead of seeing this as a negative, could there be advantages to spreading traffic out through the day and evening and not having a crowd for dinner on a Saturday night? Consumers’ perception of time has shifted with the pandemic. Can your incentives capitalize on that? Getting your customers to come in for dinner on a Tuesday or a Wednesday night instead of a weekend may be easier to sell right now. Lunch may not need to fit squarely between certain hours when people are working from home. More people may be open to picking up an extra-early dinner. Case in point: QSR reported recently that Dunkin’ had significantly grown its year-over-year sales between the hours of 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. as a result of offers to “entice guests to join, reactivate, and use DD Perks to make their transactions.” In other words, the brand effectively enticed customers to come in during once-slow periods. How can you harness your rewards program and marketing efforts to drive traffic at odd hours? If you have a lot of customers who are socially distancing now, you may be giving them just the incentive they need to support you.
Everyone needs to eat – but the experience of eating at a restaurant or enjoying restaurant food is something that will keep consumers coming back to your business, particularly if they have had to cook for themselves for several weeks on end. Recent Toast research found that 78 percent of Millennials would rather spend money on an experience such a restaurant or activity than on an item at a store. Whether guests are dining at your restaurant right now or opting for delivery, you can fine-tune the experience you offer. First, focus on making your brand come through effectively via delivery. Ensure your menu of delivery items travels well and represents the best of what you can offer off-premise – and take care to update it online, particularly if you have introduced new items recently. When you send out an order, help customers connect with your business – Deliverect suggests small acts like a handwritten note or a smiley face on a receipt can go a long way, or you can enclose a small photo of your team to introduce customers to the people who are working hard for them behind the scenes right now. Provide vouchers or other promotions to increase future deliveries and in-house orders. Think about how you can get people back to your restaurant once people are ready to dine out again: Stay in touch with other business owners in your community to plan potential events together, and keep your conversations with guests going on social media (share some photos too) so you’re front of mind for them when they are ready to dine out.
To be sure, there are plenty of gloomy news headlines about the restaurant industry right now – and more than ever, restaurants need the support of their communities to recover. But at a time when it is easy to feel overwhelmed by the multitude of challenges standing in the way of rebuilding business, take heart in the examples of operators who are somehow doing better than ever right now. They are succeeding, seemingly, through a combination of letting go of ego, ignoring the desire to keep items on the menu out of sentiment, being willing to flex to new business conditions each day, and focusing on what people need right now – even if it doesn’t necessarily mesh with the polished brand the restaurant had in its beginnings. Take Alinea veteran Eric Rivera of the Seattle restaurant Addo. A report from Wired details, Rivera has been offering an ever-changing menu of items ranging from $9 food bowls, to meal-and-wine packs, to eat-at-home versions of his 20-course tasting menu during the pandemic. He has even thrown in some Game of Thrones- and Seattle Mariners-themed dinners to mix things up. The constant changes give him some new fodder for social media promotion on an ongoing basis, and people are linked from Addo’s social media posts to its Tock sales platform, which allows customers to order meals in advance (and Rivera to better manage inventory and waste). Addo’s dining room now looks more like a warehouse and the employees who once served a roomful of guests are now staffing in-house delivery for the restaurant.
In recent months, your business may have offered more bulk meals or meal kits to customers looking to enjoy restaurant-quality food during the lockdown. Are these options worth carrying over as people begin to return to dining at restaurants and gathering with more people? Simon-Kucher & Partners, a global strategy and marketing consulting firm that works with a range of major restaurant brands, addressed this question in a recent study they conducted about consumer behavior after COVID-19. The findings, as reported by QSR Magazine, indicate that the answer is a probable yes. Prior to the pandemic, it found that 33 percent of consumers favored home-cooked meals, while 67 preferred food prepared away from home. Contrast that with preferences during the pandemic (55 percent vs. 45 percent) and preferences projected between six and 12 months post-lockdown (37 percent to 63 percent). In many areas, it will likely take a number of months before consumer routines return to what they were like prior to the pandemic. Providing some core menu items that can be offered as family-style meals, or packaging up ingredients that can be combined and cooked at home, can offer some additional freedom to guests – and perhaps tip the scales in your favor when consumers are considering where to order their next meal.
Does your menu look different right now? Scrutinizing it will help you make sure you’re not only staying on trend but are also providing value, minimizing waste, spending money wisely, considering the production capacity of your staff, and offering foods that are best suited to where customers are most likely consuming them – whether that’s in your dining room or off-premise. New research from MicKinsey entitled “How Restaurants Can Thrive in the Next Normal” advises operators to start out by offering their usual menu, emphasizing core dishes and comfort foods. Then attract customers to your value items and upsell from there. It will likely be necessary to reprice some items to compensate for current market fluctuations. A separate report from Johnson & Wales advises operators to identify ways to reduce the work needed to prepare menu items, particularly if they’re working with a scaled-down team. Consider keeping a mix of proteins, pasta and vegetarian items on hand, then rotating in a new category on a two-week rotation to keep things interesting. Even if you have a loyal following looking to come in and dine with you, your current seating capacity guidelines limit how many in-house meals you’re able to serve. When in doubt, err on the side of bolstering your takeout menu and offering items that travel and reheat well.
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?
Many restaurant brands tend to look to millennials for hints of where foodservice trends may be heading, particularly when it comes to off-premise sales. But some recent research completed on behalf of the National Restaurant Association demonstrates that baby boomers are showing traits that operators would be wise to watch when it comes to offering food for take-out and delivery. Research conducted for the association found that 51 percent of boomers, which it defined as consumers between the ages of 55 and 73, say they aren’t ordering takeout and delivery as often as they would like. In comparison, 43 percent of millennials, consumers aged 21 to 38, shared that feeling. The data found that millennials are just about as eager to eat at a restaurant as they are to eat restaurant meals off-premise, while baby boomers are less likely to want to eat at restaurants more often – only 38 percent expressed that preference. If you’d like to fine-tune your efforts to market to boomers, consider several tactics: Provide a fair price and promote the value of your menu, since a majority of boomers will choose a restaurant based on its perceived value. Expand your breakfast menu options. Offer healthy menu choices with quality ingredients and make healthier items readily identifiable on your menu. Create new twists on classic dishes. Experiment with ethnic spices and dishes with bold flavors. Finally, when it comes to technology, offer tech-driven, mobile-friendly ordering functionality and loyalty programs that make it easy to not only place off-premise orders but also to reap rewards for continuing to order with you.
From the clattering of dishes to the blaring of music to the loud conversations of guests trying to hear themselves over the din, restaurants can be noisy places. It can be enough of a turn-off that guests will avoid your business. (Case in point: There is an app called Soundprint that dubs itself the “Yelp for noise” and allows users to search for restaurants quiet enough to allow for conversation.) If the sound levels in your restaurant bother guests and employees, take some cost-effective steps to lower the volume. Toast suggests minimizing the scraping of chairs on the floors by using felt pads on chair legs. Keep music at a level where people can have a conversation without shouting. Use textiles to absorb noise – curtains, tablecloths, area rugs, and soundproof panels on walls and ceilings can all help. Finally, keep noisy food preparation equipment in the kitchen, or if you have an open-concept space, consider installing a transparent barrier between guests and food prep areas.