Amid supply shortages, rising food prices and wages, and inflation increasing at the highest rate since 1982, restaurant operators have had no choice but to pass some of their costs on to customers. Accordingly, menu price inflation hit a 39-year high in November. Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics indicated that prices for limited-service restaurants, which have been hit especially hard by labor shortfalls, have increased nearly 8 percent in the past year, while prices for full-service restaurants have increased 6 percent. While the environment continues to pose challenges to restaurants, there are steps operators can take to strengthen their position. In the back of the house, it’s more important than ever to have a keen grasp of menu costs and to use forecasting tools for inventory and sales in order to minimize waste and find suitable substitutes for ingredients that aren’t available. In the front of the house, it’s crucial to show customers that you provide an experience worth paying for – and one that many of them continue to crave as the pandemic keeps people at home. Consider how to make your offerings special – by elevating the dining experience in-house and developing creative menus that guests wouldn’t prepare for themselves at home. Finally, while you don’t necessarily want to draw guests’ attention to price increases, you can share the efforts you are making to contain costs and source quality ingredients. After all, consumers are paying more at the grocery store now too – so a higher bill at their favorite restaurant shouldn’t come as a shock.
Restaurants and consumers alike have experienced the effects of the current supply-chain crisis, whether in the form of product shortages, delayed shipments, or changes in store hours due to reduced labor availability. (According to a recent National Restaurant Association survey, 75 percent of restaurants have been forced to change menu items due to supply chain issues.) While the challenges are widespread, many of them can be minimized. Consider these actions: Where possible, shrink the number of links in your supply chain between a food item and your guest: Pre-pandemic, this was about helping the climate and cutting waste, whereas now it’s also become a necessity for any restaurant that wants to be more certain of the items it will be able to offer on its menu. Plan farther down the line. According to FSR Magazine the casual dining brand Twin Peaks now places orders 12 weeks in advance when four to six weeks used to provide ample time. Focus on your relationships. In addition to communicating effectively with suppliers and paying bills on time, lean into existing and new collective agreements that enhance your purchasing power. Consider your branding. As operators focusing on chicken wings have learned in the past 18 months, it’s important to give yourself some leeway to broaden your offerings – perhaps to include new cuts of meat, or plant-based alternatives, or different presentations. FSR Magazine also suggests restaurants might consider building up a just-in-case inventory buffer – depending on the perishability and size of items that must be stored.
Consumers are expecting things to be a bit different as a result of the pandemic – and at a time when supplies continue to be short, labor is difficult to find and customer traffic is unreliable, restaurants can use this expectation to their advantage. Many restaurants already are: Take Michelin-rated Eleven Madison Park, which announced it would be reopening as an entirely plant-based restaurant after its closure during the pandemic. As you have managed your restaurant throughout the course of the pandemic, have you come to conclusions about major aspects of your business that need to change in order to preserve the longevity of your restaurant? Would you be better able to stabilize your menu by making it entirely plant-based? Have you always relied on a dine-in customer base but believe this can no longer be your main source (or even a small source) of sales? Do you think you should serve a different demographic of customers than you did before? Are you too reliant on labor shifts – and burdened by the need to provide higher wages and benefits? Now is a good time for reinvention. Identify your primary pain points when it comes to your supplies, staffing, marketing and day-to-day operations management. By changing things that may have needed changing for a long time, you can give yourself a new story to tell customers, refresh your brand and generate renewed interest in it as we emerge from the pandemic.
There’s plenty of pressure on restaurant prices lately, whether from the increased competition for labor, shortages of key ingredients, or other demands. How have you responded? According to recent research from Fitch Ratings, pent-up demand and fiscal stimulus have driven a recovery in restaurant sales in recent months – and that has enabled restaurants to pass increasing costs on to customers. Plenty of businesses have needed to (think of the restaurants who specialize in chicken wings), but others have hesitated due to the strains of the pandemic on customers in the past year. Where is the line for your customers when it comes to food prices – and what might you do to help smooth it out? Start by analyzing your menu and identifying your most costly and difficult-to-source items. Where might a less expensive or easier-to-source item be substituted? In cases where you need to keep a more expensive item on the menu, where can you incrementally boost the price of another item to help make up for the higher cost? Also consider the demographics of your customer base. According to recent consumer research from RMS cited in Nation’s Restaurant News, most respondents said upticks in food costs, the minimum wage and safety precautions justify price increases at restaurants – with Baby Boomers being most receptive to higher menu prices. Finally, you could consider adding an overall service charge to each order – with a brief, carefully worded message on the menu explaining why you need to do it – and how it ensures your restaurant can sustain itself and take care of employees.
At a time when everything from labor shortages to supply chain kinks are posing challenges for operators, doing anything you can to manage and minimize waste is especially important. To be sure, there are plenty of tech-driven solutions designed to help prevent over-ordering supplies, measure ingredients, condense leftovers and reroute excess inventory – but a number of simpler solutions exist that restaurants can start using today. Most of them have to do with skewing small when it comes to portion size and accommodating size preferences. For instance, you can offer a choice of portion sizes and provide smaller container sizes of any refillable items. Make sure that whatever side dishes or even garnishes you’re serving are ones the guest has chosen, so you’re not perpetually throwing away the potato chips and coleslaw you have always served with your sandwiches. Pricing items à la carte can help. The National Restaurant Association also suggests offering guests the option of splitting an entrée or having part of it wrapped to go before it is served. To help minimize waste once your meals have left your establishment, you can provide reheating instructions on food packages to-go to ensure the meal retains its quality as much as possible when eaten as leftovers.
Other than labor, the top challenges for restaurant operators right now are escalating food costs and short supplies, according to recent commentary from Larry Reinstein, industry consultant and president of LJR Hospitality Ventures. (And of course, labor shortages can impact both costs and supplies.) When you look at your operation, where might there be room to flex when the foods you are known to offer are priced out of your budget or are simply unavailable? First, consider what dishes and ingredients on your menu are more variable and adaptable. You may be able to be more flexible with ingredients than you think. Case in point: When Wingstop, which literally has chicken wings in its name, had to keep business going amid a wing shortage in recent months, it offered the alternative of chicken thighs, the National Restaurant Association reports. For every dish you serve, consider how you might reinvent it without a perceived loss of value for the guest – or if you should temporarily replace it until cost and supply challenges shake out. Of course, you may have some room to raise your prices – media reports are spreading the word to consumers that they have not been paying sustainable prices for restaurant food in recent years. But if you must raise prices, look for other ways to elevate the experience you’re providing guests – particularly if you’re already short-staffed and out of popular menu items. This is where the human side of the restaurant business has an opportunity to demonstrate its worth.
In the past year in particular, it has often seemed like restaurant operators have been asked to accomplish the impossible: Simplify the ingredients you use but accommodate everyone from carnivores to vegans to customers with allergies. Increase wages for employees but avoid noticeable pricing spikes on your menu. Make your menu feel special and unique, but it should not be complex or time-consuming to prepare. The list goes on and on. And as consumers venture back into restaurant dining rooms and order delivery in the months ahead, expectations will continue to climb. It’s a good time for you to take a look at your business and decide what you value – and just as important, what you don’t care about as much – so you can do your best with the people and resources you have and then filter out the noise. What are your core values? What impression do you want your customers to have of your business? In which aspects of your business are you not willing to compromise or accept a substitute? Assess each area of your business and identify things that are out of your control and can’t be negotiated – like managing food safety requirements and government-imposed business restrictions. Where you do have some control, where are your biggest pain points? Where are things going especially well – and how can you apply those positives to other areas of your business?
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.
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?