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.
Of all restaurant segments, fine-dining restaurants have arguably met with the most challenges in the past year as many of their hallmarks – from a sole focus on in-dining-room service, to higher-touch interaction with staff – became safety hazards practically overnight. But like much of the restaurant industry, there are disruptors within it who are transforming the experience of fine dining for the current times. One new concept, dubbed The Finishing Gourmet, aims to replicate the experience of fine dining in a home-based setting. Restaurant Hospitality reports that a former Four Seasons executive chef is part of the team that conceived the business, which includes the in-house delivery and upscale presentation of high-end foods that are ready (or very nearly ready) to be eaten, along with such additions as complimentary steak knives and even a chef’s torch to add the finishing touches to a crème brulée. The foods are intended to be delivered contactless and, unlike a meal kit, may require just a few minutes of cooking by a home chef (to sear a steak, for example). If your business once relied on in-dining-room service and prided itself on its human touch, how can you offer those benefits to people at home? Taking cues from catering businesses and meal-kit companies may help you identify new hybrid approaches to recreating the experience of dining in your restaurant – or delivering something close to it.
Your take-away menu is carrying a lot of weight these days. It needs to offer a sufficient range of items to satisfy guests (though not so many that you overwhelm them with choices or generate waste). It must communicate the experience of eating these items (but without too many words). And it must accomplish this all without the person ever having to walk through your doors to experience your brand. Chances are we’ll be looking at another several months of dining room restrictions and being limited to take-away and delivery – particular during the winter months, when it can be hard to get people to come out even in normal years. So give your menu a reality check now. Aside from organizing items by category, ensuring everything travels well, explaining options with a handful of carefully chosen words that help communicate the texture, freshness and aroma of an item, and including appealing photos, try to add some intrigue. Beyond your popular standbys, think about what regular tweaks you can make that will entice people to come back and see what creative menu items – or even new categories – you are offering. New research from Postmates, for example, found that sales of family meals had climbed 175 percent and alcohol sales 49 percent over last year. Special occasions have resulted in food and beverage spikes too: National Ice Cream Day in July led to a 118 percent increase in ice cream sales, and Election Day resulted in sharp increases of orders of pizza, alcohol, cupcakes and ice cream. Clearly this is a year when people crave comfort. What kind of comfort can you cook up for upcoming occasions this winter?
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.