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?
To be sure, the vast majority of restaurant operators wouldn’t want to relive the challenges of the pandemic. But it hasn’t been all bad: The past year has also stripped away the clutter and forced operators to focus on making the kinds of improvements and adaptations that kept business running. As times improve, those changes should become permanent – while other possibilities should be considered with a more wary eye. Here are five key pandemic-era changes to embed in your operation (if they aren’t already permanent): Be transparent with your guests – about the origins of the food you serve and how you protect consumer safety – and make those elements central to your brand. Keep your menu simple to enable you to more flexibly manage your inventory and waste. Harness data to help you stay current about customer preferences, supply-chain challenges and areas of your business that are generating excess costs. Find ways to offer a personal touch while allowing guests to minimize physical contact with surfaces and other people – whether they are using your restroom or paying for their order. Finally, embrace structures that will allow you to be more nimble in the future. That could mean having a real estate footprint that can easily adapt to different service models, or adopting technology that allows you to more easily scale up and scale down your staffing based on changes in the weather.
This year has demonstrated the power of managing your inventory like a pro. As operators have had to shift to offering takeout only, inventing new business models, partially opening their dining rooms, and responding to evolving consumer habits all within the space of days or weeks, they have had to ensure their inventory can keep pace. The next several months could bring even more ups and downs for restaurant businesses, so what is the best way to ensure you’ve got enough (but not too much) of the right ingredients at the right time, when you your traffic may be difficult to predict? Befriend your freezer and stock it with batches of foods ranging from soups to sauces to vegetables in an effort to extend your inventory and minimize waste. Prepare some extra portions of frozen meals that can be promoted and sold individually to guests – or offer a promotion to dine-in guests who may want to purchase extra portions of their favorite fresh dishes. Consider brining vegetables as shelf-stable (and on-trend) side dishes – and preserve fall fruits in dried form or in sauces or chutneys. If you have operated as a grocerant in recent months, keep it going. Do a detailed assessment of each item on your menu to confirm its actual cost to make sure you’re minimizing waste and maximizing profit.
Even before the pandemic, ghost kitchens were on the rise for their ability to ensure faster, less expensive food preparation and more efficient delivery to customers looking for off-premise dining options. Now, many restaurant operators are looking at ghost kitchens as a critical way forward at a time of great uncertainty for the industry. They may be on to something: Recent research from Euromonitor found that the global market for ghost kitchens could reach $1 trillion by 2030 – and in the process, capture big slices of industry segments including drive-thru sales, take-out foodservice, ready-to-eat meals, pre-packaged cooking ingredients, dine-in foodservice and packaged snacks. But when you’ve been running a traditional brick-and-mortar restaurant, what actions (and investment) are required to pivot to the ghost-kitchen model? Food distributor US Foods is aiming to give operators a hand with that transition through its newly launched US Foods Ghost Kitchens program. The company promises that for an average start-up investment below $5,000, they can help operators open a ghost kitchen concept in about three weeks and achieve an average profit margin exceeding 35 percent. The program includes market research, marketing support, a digital technology framework, menu optimization and management guidance.
As if it wasn’t important to know your true food costs before the pandemic, it’s all the more crucial now as many restaurants around the country are having to operate at a reduced capacity, rethink their menus and determine where to best allocate diminished resources. By getting an accurate handle on your waste, over-portioning, theft and even the shrinkage of ingredients, you can see what menu items are really costing you – then adjust your promotions so you encourage guests to select your highest-margin items. A recent webcast from Restaurant365 reinforced the power of tracking actual vs. theoretical food costs as a means of accomplishing this. Theoretical food costs are what your food costs should be based on the cost of your ingredients, while actual food costs are what your restaurant actually spent. There will be variance in those numbers, but getting a more precise understanding of where it comes from can help you minimize it. While there are a number of places to focus to help cut waste, it can be most helpful to analyze your individual ingredients and identify those with the greatest cost variance. Drilling down like this can help you zero in on what needs attention or adjustment, whether it’s your portion control of a certain dish, the prices you are getting from a supplier, or the need for a substitute dish on the menu.
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.
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.
More isn’t more when it comes to your menu. As Fred LeFranc, managing partner of Results Through Strategy, told Restaurant Dive recently, operators can expect menus across restaurant segments to become simpler this year. There are a number of benefits your restaurant can generate by slimming down its menu – both for your financials and for your guests. The blog Chef Works suggests that a smaller menu will help you ensure your menu is a clear reflection of your brand, since extra items can muddy guest perceptions of a restaurant and the values behind it. It can also help your chef shine by focusing on the dishes and concepts that are his or her central strengths. As for your guests, you will make their decision simpler and easier to customize, minimizing the potential regret they may feel after ordering an item they’re uncertain about and making it easier for you to adapt items to their tastes and tolerances. (On that point, a smaller menu makes your business more efficient too, with fewer ingredients to prepare, potentially fewer suppliers to manage, fewer invoices to pay, and less waste.) Finally, having a smaller menu may give your restaurant more of a boutique feel, making each dish feel more special – not like a large collection of items offered in the hopes of appealing to every possible appetite.
Team Four’s corporate chef expects the year ahead to bring an increase in smaller meal offerings – that includes more snacks on demand, as well as a range of smaller entrée portion sizes. These changes can be opportunities for chefs to test new ingredients, offer more health-conscious options and minimize food waste and cost. For example, as snacking grows in popularity and replaces the three-square-meals mindset in some cases, you can develop your menu with items that aren’t simply comfort food but also pack some nutritional value and dietary functionality. A recent Technomic report found that in the past two years, 40 percent of consumers said they were snacking on healthier foods. So when it comes to your snack menu, think plant-forward tapas, hummus sharing plates, vegetable-based dips and chips made from ingredients beyond the potato: lentils, quinoa, eggplant or kale to name a few. As for entrées, reducing your plate size – or offering the option of half-plates to help guests customize their experience with you – can ensure plates come back cleaner. A Danish study found that if the size of a plate shrinks by just 9 percent, food waste can be reduced by 26 percent.