No doubt, the past year has been more difficult for restaurants than we care to think about. But the turning of foodservice on its head hasn’t been completely bad. In fact, it has opened some doors – particularly for nimble, entrepreneurial operators who have a knack for posting enticing food photos on social media and the ability to use tech to set up ordering and delivery. As the New York Times reported recently, there has been an explosion of inventive take-out food concepts on Instagram lately as foodservice operators have begun promoting small, rotating, deliverable menus on the platform – and with success. Some of these concepts are based on ideas that chefs have dreamed of trying for some time, but others are simply a temporary means of keeping money flowing in to pay employees, cover rent and essentially stay in business in some form until the pandemic winds down. Some chefs are even working out of simple home kitchens. Whether you’re in the position to try pop-up concepts like this or not, they are evidence of the newly stripped-down list of resources a restaurant truly needs to function, which are important to remember for the long term. Operating a restaurant is no longer about real estate but about being able to reach your customers where they are – and using the range of tools at your disposal to help. First, focus on making it easy and fast for customers to order from you online. Think about how you can profitably get food to customers – whether by aligning with a third-party vendor, offering a scheduled weekly drop-off of food (ready to eat right away or freeze), or even just making curbside pickup more appealing. Mix up your menu and promote the changes online – when you rotate new items through on a regular basis, you give your customers a reason to look for your updates each week and you naturally create new reasons to post those updates on your social media, website and email newsletter. Finally, take food photos that sing. You can do this on your mobile phone – just opt for warm, natural light, use a reflector or simply a light piece of paper to soften shadows, use color and contrast to make the food pop in the image, and add some simple decorative (or brand-specific) elements to elevate viewers’ perceived experience of eating your food.
Restaurant operators are natural creatives, but who would have thought that the past year would have required so much creativity – less for planning special events and more for just figuring out how to keep business afloat? The past year has hit caterers especially hard – and required near-constant reinvention across the hospitality sector. As we emerge from the pandemic, it’s likely that restaurant operators will continue to need new operating models and diverse streams of income to fortify themselves going forward. How can you make your business as nimble and adaptable as possible for the long haul? It might involve converting or scaling down your existing real estate for new purposes. Perhaps you can convert your food truck into a door-to-door meal delivery service. Or your former events business into a smaller specialty meal-and-dessert service for virtual meetups. Have a team with big personality and ideas? Create a series of YouTube videos that feature them showing viewers how to throw a festive dinner party at home – and offer a corresponding dinner-and-wine kit available for purchase. Becoming a more nimble operation may involve simply adopting technology to help fine-tune your inventory management, minimize waste and manage labor. Returning to business as usual shouldn’t be a long-term plan for any restaurant business, so what incremental changes can your business make this year to create new revenue streams and cushion against future challenges?
Do you remember what your marketing plan looked like from last year at this time? Chances are if you reviewed it today, it would look pretty quaint, considering the countless ways operators have had to reinvent business this year. While the development of a vaccine has provided signs of hope for 2021, the winter season will still require operators to rethink the ways they appeal to their customers. Your breakfast and lunch menus may hold some untapped potential here. For many people this winter, dining out in the evening could be a non-starter if eating outside is their only option. At the same time, the pandemic has also changed lunch from being a quick break in the day to a welcome chance to reconnect with colleagues and get out of the house – particularly for the large swaths of people who continue to work from home. How can you rethink your winter promotions to help capitalize on those changes in our habits? Can you draw people out for a hot lunch outside or entice loyal customers with a lunch delivery subscription? Could you offer a special menu of specialty coffees, breakfast burritos or grab-and-go breakfast items a person could collect following their morning run or school drop-off? Even snack times have new potential this year. The increased numbers of people working from home – and experiencing more blurred boundaries between work and life – may result in guests being more open to picking up a late lunch or meeting a friend for a late-afternoon appetizer. How have the habits of your most loyal guests changed this year? Keep them in mind as you plan for what could be another few unpredictable months ahead.
This year, consumers and restaurants alike could really use the morale boost that holiday gatherings and celebrations can offer – but those events will look a lot different this year (if they happen at all). But not so fast. Could you find a festive way to help people enjoy great company, food and drink in a new way? Could you still help them toast to a long-awaited 2021? Think about how you can bring the party to your guests individually or virtually. Are there businesses in your neighborhood who have always held their holiday lunches and happy hours with you but will miss them this year because their employees are working remotely right now? More than ever, they want to make their employees feel appreciated and connected to their work from afar, so promote some holiday bundles that can be delivered to individual employees as a special treat. Do your customers still feel the need for a party – even if it’s not a traditional one? If you don’t have access to a large outdoor space where you are allowed to plan a socially distanced gathering, don’t underestimate the appeal of a virtual party, cooking class, quiz night or wine tasting held via Zoom. It can come together with a menu of festive food, cocktails and party bags for delivery, a few festive or funny Zoom backgrounds and some music.
The holidays are coming – though they are likely going to look a little different this year, with fewer work gatherings and indoor celebrations filling your dining room every night. But can you still make it a season of goodwill? If you’re looking at a likely downturn in business this year because of capacity restrictions and virus infection upticks, how can you use this time to ensure that you’re still taking care of the customers who can help you come back stronger in 2021? A recent Business Insider report shared the out-of-the-box ideas that Geoff Tracy, the chef owner of several Washington, D.C. area restaurants, has implemented in recent months. He and his teams took on a number of goodwill projects in the early weeks of the pandemic, including offering free car washes for customers and even calling their top-500 loyalty point members and offering to pick up prescriptions, drop off dry cleaning and give rides to doctor’s appointments. To be sure, these aren’t the kinds of tasks his staff signed up for when they started working with him. But the next time Tracy’s customers are looking for a takeout meal – or their first indoor sit-down meal after the pandemic – how could they consider ordering from anyone else? At a time when celebrating looks different, tap into your service mindset. How can you help brighten the day of your best customers? Maybe it’s with a custom meal package created for a loyal guest isolating at home. Maybe it’s something your restaurant has never done before that could supercharge guest loyalty like never before.
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.
A recent Forbes article pointed out that before the pandemic, the average person visited a store to buy food 2.2 times per week but, according to Zagat, went out for lunch or dinner 4.9 times per week. Pre-pandemic, were restaurants missing opportunities to create new business streams with customers via packaged foods and products – whether those products were directly related to the restaurant or not? As many restaurants are currently offering specialty food items, housewares, branded products and even everyday household goods like flour to bring in business during the pandemic, these changes are ones that could well be worth making permanent if they can help you build closer connections with your customers. As many people are getting into a cooking rut during the pandemic, could you provide a recipe along with specialty olive oil, sauce, cheese, wine or bread could help them recreate a part of your restaurant experience at home? Partnering with other local businesses to find opportunities to cross-sell products or plan future events can bolster your public perception too. Brand perfection isn’t necessarily critical right now either – your ability to be human and understand people’s needs is most important. Are there hidden revenue streams – or opportunities for community support – that you can uncover right now?
While the news headlines may be gloomy, don’t lose hope – there actually are foodservice operators who are managing to make lemonade from a whole lot of lemons right now. The ones forging a way through these stressful times are getting creative: Wingstop, which is experiencing an uptick in sales right now, is tapping into an oversupply of chicken and offering a free delivery promotion that is driving sales. Farmers Restaurant Group has shifted to a bodega concept that sells meal kits customers can schedule for pickup using OpenTable. Another operation that has nimbly shifted its approach is Front Burner Restaurants, which operates eight restaurant brands in six cities in the southern U.S. At the start of the pandemic, Front Burner had to furlough 4,000 employees, but it quickly shifted gears to create Furlough Kitchen, a non-profit concept that offers one free meal kit a day from its restaurants to hospitality workers who have been furloughed as a result of COVID-19. Through the support of community donations and anticipated federal stimulus funding, the company rehired employees working in its catering operation, as well as some of its hourly employees who take orders, post on social media and carry food out to customers for curbside pickup. Regular customers, suppliers, vendors and others in the community have been generous with donations and other support, and tips are collected into a pool that is distributed on the pay cards of furloughed employees. Furlough Kitchens currently has two locations and expects to open five additional locations from its existing restaurants soon. In a recent Restaurant Business podcast, Front Burner CEO Randy Dewitt said they are currently funded through the next 60 to 90 days. He thinks that finding a way to keep his restaurants open – even if they’re not profiting right now – should help with their eventual recovery. The community goodwill he is building in the meantime won’t hurt.
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.