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.
At a time when consumers are eager to sample new trends, tire of eating the same dish repeatedly, and yet have highly customized dietary restrictions and preferences, how do restaurants respond? Operators might tune in to what’s happening at Sweetgreen, which made its mark as a fast-casual salad chain and is now in the midst of scaling up its brand. A recent New York Times report about Sweetgreen said while the chain used to update its basic menu of 10 items every 18 months and offer three seasonal options five times each year, its current lineup of 60 ingredients allows for nearly endless customization – all while ensuring each item tastes like a Sweetgreen salad. As one of the cofounders said in the article, “There is a physical limit to the number of items we can have on that line. Every item has to earn its keep.” You can beat menu fatigue at your restaurant by incorporating limited-time-only choices and seasonal items that guests will expect to disappear in a few weeks. Cycling in new ingredients on top of the foundational workhorse ingredients you use can help you test guests’ response to new items and audition potential keepers. What tactics do you use to make sure your inventory is stocked with menu workhorses – while also allowing for the breadth of new choices guests demand?
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.
Storytelling is “the new strategic imperative of business,” according to a report in Forbes. A brand with a strong narrative is a powerful brand – and science backs up the power that stories can bring to a business. Studies have found that by telling stories, the brains of the storyteller and listener synchronize, creating a shared experience. The brand consultancy Buffer suggests three ways you can use storytelling to help your business as it relates to employees, vendors and customers: First, instead of offering suggestions to get people on board with your ideas, tell a story that has the outcome you’re hoping the suggestion would have achieved. Use persuasive language – bringing in quotes or stories from outside experts as needed – and simple, heartfelt words to get your message across. Then apply those actions to a challenge you’re facing using the communication vehicles you have at your disposal. Need to get your team to improve its waste management or food safety practices? Weave real-life stories into their training sessions. Want to make sure your guests know about your efforts to buy from local suppliers and support the community? Integrate language into your menu that describes the origins of your ingredients and make sure your marketing materials and social media communications tell stories about your local connections.
For many restaurant operators around the country, 2019 has been the year of the rising wage. As the restaurant consultancy Aaron Allen & Associates reports, 21 states announced increases for 2019, and several states that already had high minimum wage rates saw major rises. California and Massachusetts saw increases above 9 percent and Maine experienced a 10 percent climb. Further increases are coming in 2020. Can your menu prices alone accommodate these sorts of increases in your labor spending? It’s not likely. To help your restaurant thrive amid labor challenges, Aaron Allen suggests operators assemble a plan that involves strategies for menu development, marketing, labor optimization, brand relevance and rejuvenation, technology adoption and even robotics. For instance, crafting a well-developed menu can lift check totals, increase party size and help you identify opportunities for limited-time offers, upsells and new profit lines. Conducting an audit of your brand and what sets it apart, as well as of your past, current and future marketing activity, can help you fine tune your strategy and avoid overspending. Similarly, if you audit how tasks are completed in your restaurant and what you’re spending on the labor required to complete each one, you might identify ways to adjust your service model or uncover tasks that can be eliminated or handled by technology. Speaking of tech, what processes can you make more efficient and guest-friendly through the use of technology? Could a tech-based solution help you minimize ongoing labor challenges? You may not need to take action in every area but knowing where you stand in these aspects of your business can help you pinpoint weaknesses that can lead to financial challenges down the line – and help you identify and build upon your greatest strengths.
Most U.S. consumers rate their interactions with brands as simply “okay,” according to a Tempkin Experience Ratings report, which asked 10,000 consumers to rate 318 companies across 20 industries in the areas of success, effort and emotion. Not great (though to be fair, there were some food brands that consumers rated highly, including Wegman’s and Subway). On the positive side, though, that result leaves plenty of room for brands to deliver an experience that impresses guests and brings them back. CBInsights, which builds software that predicts technology trends, identified three components that generate positive emotional reactions and enhance the customer experience, turning “okay” experiences into “wow” experiences: sensory marketing, quality time and human connections. Restaurants have an automatic advantage on the first point. CBInsights points out that scents, for example, can trigger memories and emotions – and that consumers spend an average of 15 more minutes in places that have pleasant smells. So the aroma of the apple pie on your menu may have the power to trigger someone’s happy childhood memory (and connect it to your brand). On the second point, quality time, brands are creating immersive experiences that extend far beyond an initial transaction – Taco Bell’s recent launch of a pop-up hotel (featuring not-yet-launched menu items and other promotions tied to the brand) is one extreme example of how this can be done. Finally, brands are using human connections to bond with consumers. As companies delegate more tasks to technology, they are freeing up staff to engage in more face-to-face interactions with customers in order to help them and gather insights from them. How can your brand combine sensory marketing, quality time and human connections to provide memorable experiences for guests?
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.
Late this summer, the Mediterranean fast-casual brand Cava opened its first innovation kitchen, a technology-driven effort designed to collect and analyze consumer tastes and trends in real time – without the time-consuming hassle of organizing focus groups or experimenting with new menu items in test locations. Cava isn’t the first brand to launch such an effort and it’s further evidence of the increased pressure restaurant operators face to innovate their menus and to get them right each time. Even if you don’t have state-of-the-art technology to help you fine-tune your menu, you can still innovate your menu well if you start with the problem you’re looking to solve. Are you looking to improve the quality of your off-premise options? Increase your dine-in traffic? Then let that question drive your decisions. Chefify advises operators to keep several factors in mind when making menu changes. First, be able to back up your prices with market research and an understanding of what your guests will enjoy and are willing to spend for a particular product. Next, make sure your new menu items are extensions of what you already do well – not overeager attempts to follow the latest trends. Third, be clear about your ingredients and list them so guests (particularly those with food allergies) can make the best choice for themselves. Fourth, make sure that if you need to cut food costs, focus on your less-essential ingredients so you’re not sacrificing the quality of the core ingredients that make your restaurant appeal to guests. Finally, opt for a minimal, easily understood menu that allows guests to make decisions quickly when they’re hungry and allows you to both minimize your food waste and improve your order accuracy.
If you feel like the rising costs of ingredients, labor and transport give you no choice but to raise prices at your restaurant, you might take comfort in knowing that across the country, brands are following through and raising prices -- and customers (so far) aren’t blinking. As the Wall Street Journal reported recently, Chipotle, which raised prices last year, experienced a 10 percent rise in sales largely as a result of bigger orders. Mondelez and McDonald’s have been experiencing similar results after boosting prices. While talk of a recession looms, U.S. consumer confidence is still at near-record highs since the recession, according to the Conference Board. If you need to raise prices in the coming months, find ways to make consumers feel it’s worth their while to pay you a visit. Link your price increases to discounts and other promotions, particularly for your most loyal guests. As Psychology Today reports, those deals tend lead to greater overall spending – an item regularly sold at a stable, discounted price will seem more valuable and worthwhile when the price is raised and a generous coupon is offered to offset it. Be strategic about the promotions you offer. As Toast advises, for a promotion to be most successful for your business, you should take time to understand your target customers and tailor promotions to what motivates them; address the business operational challenges you face (and which your point-of-sale system – not your gut -- will best help you identify); tap into local media, which can broaden awareness and interest well beyond the time frame of your promotion; and know your margins so you can bundle items that will lead guests to try higher-margin items on your menu (i.e. offering free fries with every milkshake purchase is better than simply giving away fries).
If you operate a restaurant in or near a college town, you’re in a sweet spot: You have access to a large concentration of food-savvy consumers who are looking for their next meal or snack (and are likely not preparing it themselves). If you deliver food, you’re also more likely to be able to maximize your profits by delivering multiple orders in a single trip. But becoming a campus favorite takes some strategy, particularly if you offer higher-end dishes or are otherwise not an ideal match for a student on a budget. To appeal to the convenience- and cost-driven college consumer, Running Restaurants suggests partnering with the college or university on any programs they offer that allow students to use some of their on-campus dining credits at your restaurant. Encourage word about your restaurant to spread on campus by offering promotions in the campus newspaper, taking part in pop-up food events, and hosting happy hours or other social events. Your online presence is important with this demographic, so make sure you offer online ordering and encourage engagement via social media (your social media handle should be visible on all of your marketing materials). Finally, values and transparency count with this community, so if you have a good story to tell about the local produce you offer, or charities you support, or eco-friendly business practices you have long used, talk it up.