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.
Are you sending customized promotions to your guests based on their past orders? Adjusting your menu or specials based on guest data you have collected? Changing the items you promote on your digital menu when changes in the weather make guests crave different items? The era of hyper-personalized marketing is here – and the more personalized you can make the experience for guests, the better. There are important payoffs for restaurants: A study from Deloitte found that one in five consumers who expressed an interest in buying personalized products was willing to pay a 20 percent premium, and 22 percent of consumers are happy to share some data in exchange for a more personalized service or product. Hyper-personalization was a key prediction in a recent report from Modern Restaurant Management that collected a roundup of insights from restaurant industry experts about the trends to expect in 2020. In the report, Dan O’Connell, CEO of Foodmix Marketing Communications, said he sees the industry taking personalization even further than the “you may like” recommendations that restaurants are using widely now. Think matching flavors to personalities, offering guests personalized recipes and packaging, and serving up customized latte art for every guest who orders coffee. Of course, hyper-personalization makes it all the more inspiring for guests to talk about it on social media. After all, when you feel like a business knows you well and celebrates what you like, you want to tell friends about it.
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.
Team Four’s corporate chef identified the rise of food halls as a trend to watch in 2020, and for good reason: There are many significant food hall projects under development throughout the US and worldwide right now, the ones in operation have a strong track record of success (only three projects have failed of the more than 100 that have opened across the U.S.), and they offer low-risk, potentially high-reward environments for restaurant operators looking to take part. If you’re considering adding food halls to your restaurant marketing plan, Touchbistro says they offer a number of benefits and can reduce the substantial risks of opening a new restaurant, such as lower startup costs, shared maintenance expenses, shared infrastructure and shorter, more flexible contracts than you would have to agree to when signing for a conventional restaurant space. Newly added restaurants can hit the ground running in a food hall, benefitting from pre-existing foot traffic and fewer up-front marketing costs. Just bear in mind that a food hall experience may challenge your brand and require you to adapt your existing menu, service approach and marketing efforts. For instance, when you’re one stall in a crowded food hall, the experience of eating your food may feel different for guests than it would in a standalone restaurant – and the hundreds of options and long queues for food can cause overwhelm for some. How can you make your food memorable and your customer experience positive when your surroundings may be beyond your control?
What would it take for your restaurant to eliminate its trash cans? While it may seem like an impossible feat for a business that churns through goods ranging from food products to linens to cleaning supplies each day, thinking about how you might operate if you didn’t have trash cans – at least in the traditional sense – might help you rethink how your operation manages its waste. A recent article in the New York Times relates the stories of a Brooklyn restaurant, Rhodora, which has strived to become a “zero-waste” business in recent months. While its owners readily admit that its practices aren’t perfect, it has taken important steps – largely with suppliers and within its kitchen – to make it possible to winnow its waste down to nearly nothing. With consulting help from other restaurant operators who have minimized their own waste, Rhodera’s owners have researched and switched to suppliers that deliver (by bicycle) bread, eggs and pickled vegetables in reusable containers, and others that have ditched plastic wrap and committed to packaging foods in compostable materials. In the kitchen, they have introduced tools including a shredder that turns wine boxes into compostable material. As a result, they are able to save money and share a positive story with their eco-conscious clientele at a time when food waste is costing restaurants $2 billion in potential profits, according to the USDA. If you’d like to take a bite out of the waste your restaurant generates each year, there are many potential actions you can take, including and beyond packaging and composting. Consider these steps from Toast as a starting point.
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.
The past decade brought quality restaurants to just about every corner of the country – well beyond restaurant cities like San Francisco, New York and Chicago. This was among the eight trends that New York Times food critic Pete Wells identified in his recent look back at what has happened in restaurants since 2010. This shifting of the restaurant landscape has set the stage for a focus on all things local: Team Four’s corporate chef predicts that in 2020 we can expect more hyper-local food, with restaurants in smaller metro areas driving the push to connect consumers with the foods and flavors of the local region. Your marketing efforts should follow suit. The marketing website jeffbullas.com offers seven guidelines for hyperlocal business marketing: First optimize your Google My Business listing, representing your business in the way people would search for it (not necessarily its legal name). Then offer local content – blogs, videos, articles, graphics, quizzes – and build them upon events or special features of your region. Make your contact information stand out on your site. On Google, categorize your business as local, including structured data mark-up for your business to help the search engine find you. Your site should both help people locate you online and present itself in a way that converts online visits into sales. If you have multiple locations, create individual landing pages for each business location, which will help elevate your appearance in search and improve your local rankings. Finally, use hyper-local advertising, bringing together location-tracking features and geo-fencing to help you direct content to people in a specific location around you – and hopefully lead them to your business.