The challenges of 2020 are some for the history books. So when food products are available that can make running a restaurant a little bit easier, why not jump on them? Ingredients that are convenient and versatile in the kitchen are in high demand right now: According to recent research from Datassential, 38 percent of foodservice operators say they need more speed-scratch ingredients that remove some steps from the preparation process. They also want the products they buy to be versatile and flexible. In other words, they should have broad applications on the menu and – in case COVID-19 restrictions need to tighten down the line – be easy to store for a later date. There are important labor-related benefits to these foods as well, since they can be prepared (more quickly and with less stress) by a smaller, potentially less-experienced team. So what specific foods might help lighten the load in your kitchen? Datassential says more operators are using more pre-cut vegetables, opting for canned or frozen products in place for fresh, and cutting back on the variety of ingredients they buy. Other products to consider on your menu: ready-made hummus, sauces and marinades, pre-cooked meats, and brown stock reductions that can serve as a base for a range of soups and sauces, as well as add flavor to grain bowls.
Many operators are reworking their business models right now in an effort to keep business going while people are quarantined. Even restaurants that are providing meals through takeout and delivery are branching out and offering a menu of meal boxes that contain various combinations of seafood, meat, produce and appetizers. This approach can tick a number of boxes (and it is the first item suggested in a recent report from FSR Magazine about tactics restaurants should be implementing right now): Meal boxes allow operators to sell larger packages of food at higher price points and with fewer customer interactions, appeal to couples or families who are quarantined together and crave quality meals, help keep suppliers going in these unstable times, demonstrate a restaurant’s values and brand, and reinforce connections with customers. At the UK-based restaurant Little French, operators are offering boxes full of local fruit and vegetables that promote their support of local suppliers, as well as boxes of various cuts of meat and seafood – along with a recipe – to demonstrate the care they put into the preparation of their menu ingredients. To sweeten the deal, they sell home-baked bread, suggest different bottles of wine that complement each box, and offer other specialty items like olive oil, vinegars, cured meats and olives. For those looking for an interactive cooking experience – or a little help with restaurant-style preparation – the restaurant’s chef will be posting videos of himself preparing dishes that use the ingredients in each box. How can you box up the best parts of your brand to keep business flowing right now?
Reusables are on the rise, if the latest news from McDonald’s and Starbucks is any indication. The brands are backing a pilot program called the NextGen Cup Challenge, which involves developing reusable plastic cups with trackable QR codes or RFID chips. Bloomberg reports that the cups are intended to be returned by customers, cleaned and then reused in an effort to take a large bite out of the billions of plastic-lined paper cups discarded by customers of the two brands each year. Is there opportunity for returnable, reusable cups, plates and utensils in your operation? A number of brands – large and small – are providing models for how it can be done. Nation’s Restaurant News reports that the 40-unit fast-casual brand Just Salad has offered a reusable bowl program for close to 15 years – guests who choose their reusable bowls get a free topping on their salad each time. (The brand recently launched a sustainability initiative that rivals those of much larger brands.) It remains to be seen if such incentives will become necessary as restaurants offer more reusable items. Other chains are taking different approaches: The Counter reports that the fast-casual brand Dig, which estimates that 80 percent of its business is take-away, recently launched a program called Canteen. Enrolled guests install a smartphone app and pay $3 each month for a hard reusable bowl that they can return to Dig for washing (and subsequent refilling).
Has your restaurant resolved to use less plastic in 2020? It seems everyone has some plastic guilt nowadays – and there are businesses cropping up to help operators replace plastic and also find new uses for the plastic that already exists. Take Riegel Linen, which was among eight companies to win Restaurant Technology News’s “Restaurateurs’ Choice Award for Environmental Good” competition. The company, which makes linens for a range of industries, found a way to integrate leftover plastic bottles into its textiles. Riegel Linen collects, sorts and inspects plastic bottles, then sterilizes and dries them before crushing them into chips, Restaurant Technology News reports. Once melted down, the material is made into a new fiber that Riegel Linen uses to make napkins and tablecloths. Its RieNu napkins are made from 100 percent post-consumer recycled polyester.
As consumers have demanded packaging that’s friendlier to the environment, operators have quickly replaced plastic straws with paper alternatives, and plastic containers with packaging containing natural materials. But as an investigation by the New Food Economy found recently, the fiber bowls that are widely used in place of plastic contain chemicals known as PFAS that don’t biodegrade and aren’t really compostable, despite being labeled as such. On the contrary, they may actually be making compost more toxic. San Francisco is the first city to ban the bowls, effective in January, and to date, there are no known commercially viable alternatives according to the report. In the meantime, Eater reports that after McDonald’s in the U.K. and Ireland phased out plastic straws in favor of recyclable paper ones that generated customer complaints, the brand introduced a thicker paper straw to replace the first solution. But new reports indicate it is non-recyclable. So what is a restaurant brand to do to become more eco-friendly? Modern Restaurant Management advises operators to first understand the terminology. The term “biodegradable,” for example, sounds eco-friendly but is only indicative of a product that will decompose – and that could take several hundred years. Working with organizations that research and certify environmentally friendly options can help too. Modern Restaurant Management suggests Green Seal, an environmental standard development organization that tests and certifies products, services and venues like restaurants and hotels, then awards certification based on performance, health and sustainability criteria.
At a time when restaurant businesses are feeling pressure to identify new revenue streams, the CIO of Mattson, a food and beverage innovation firm based in Silicon Valley, says many operators are missing out on a potentially lucrative opportunity: meal kits. Barb Stuckey of Mattson told Restaurant Dive that she has long been urging operators to take a look at offering the kits to at least determine if they make sense financially or operationally, but few are following through, save for perhaps Chick fil-A. The brand tested meal kits to positive results last year, according to Forbes, though they haven’t announced future plans for them. Stuckey likes the kits because she thinks they can help operators attack some of the quality-control issues they may experience with delivery. For instance, kits may be worth a shot if you have menu items that could do well off-premise but may not travel as well when they are fully cooked (like fries and sandwiches). Or, if you have brisk lunchtime traffic, promoting the kits during lunch may help you sell to guests who want to sort out their dinner plan in advance. At least, the category could help restaurants tap into a less saturated segment that is ripe for reinvention. According to Packaged Facts said, meal kit market expansion in the future is likely to rely more on alternative purchasing venues than on the traditional subscription model, which can clash with the on-demand mentality of off-premise customers. Restaurants can provide that on-demand experience.
Even small commodity fluctuations can have a substantial impact on restaurants. Take Chipotle, one among thousands of restaurant brands where guests expect to find avocados. Aaron Allen & Associates reported that in 2017, surging demand for avocados, paired with smaller crops in Mexico and California, had analysts predicting that every 10-percentage-point increase in avocado prices would lower Chipotle’s earnings-per-share by 30 cents on an annual basis. And that was for just one ingredient. Developing a plan to track global shortages and surpluses can help you avoid similar scenarios. Restaurant Nuts recommends several strategies: When you plan promotions to bring people in, make sure the items you promote are those whose ingredients are more widely available and profitable. During periods when producer costs are stable, anticipate times when they may fluctuate and build in incremental price increases early so you can maximize your profitability and avoid shocking guests with price surges. Cost out your menu. Add items that don’t use volatile commodities, and for popular but less profitable items, identify areas where you can easily make substitutions. Mine your data so you understand your most popular menu items and pairings, then design your menu and promotions so you direct guests to those items. Securing long-term contracts with suppliers can help you weather potential market fluctuations. Where this isn’t possible, you can always tell your guests about the challenge (without overusing this tactic). If a major hurricane wipes out a crop of an important ingredient you feature on your menu, for instance, guests are likely to understand if you’re transparent about why that ingredient is temporarily unavailable — and what appealing item you’re offering in its place.
As consumers are demanding their favorite foods whenever and wherever they like, an important trend has taken shape that may be here to stay: The barriers between meal times are becoming more fluid. NPD Group expects that afternoon and evening snacking will continue to grow in popularity, and industry analysts are looking at the trend as a reason for operators to offer all-day menus and extend their hours to make better use of their real estate. Skift Table reports that Taco Bell has made a push to claim lucrative late-night business, McDonald’s has won over customers with its all-day breakfast, and Starbucks has even shifted its employees’ administrative tasks to closing time so they have more opportunity to engage with guests in the afternoon and give stores a more homey feel that encourages snacking.
The state of your glassware can tell a story about your restaurant, sending a (usually not-so-good) message to your guests about your attention to detail. Glassware with a gray film or limescale deposits can indicate that your water hasn’t been properly treated. If your glassware has an odd odor, it’s a sign that you may need to store it in a different place or rinse it before use. Your washing methods are important too. Hospitality and Catering News suggests you use a short, gentle, not-too-hot cycle to minimize cloudy buildup on glasses, and ensure your washer can hold glasses in place and at an angle so they can drain properly and won’t come into contact with other glasses or dishes during the wash.
It’s a model that has long worked for the hotel and transportation industries: Charge a higher rate at times when there is high demand and offer a discount during slower periods. When a high-end London restaurant launched a dynamic pricing framework in early 2018 (regular prices at peak times, 25 percent off the bill at off-peak times and 15 percent off at mid-peak), it faced ample criticism for what the public interpreted as “surge pricing.” But now a lot of other operators are following suit. Alinea cofounder Nick Kokonas praised dynamic pricing at a recent Bloomberg conference and other panelists deemed it among the trends likely to transform dining out in 2019.