The past couple of years have brought about a shift in what – and when – consumers eat. While they have hurried back to restaurant dining rooms for conventional meals, they have also embraced snacking in a new way. Eating several mini meals throughout the day is just about as common as eating three squares. A recent Nation’s Restaurant News report notes the growth in small plates and shareable items on menus around the country, including savory items like deviled-egg flights to sweet items like fried cookie dough bites. As a result of consumers’ greater openness to smaller, shareable plates, the boundaries between dayparts have come down. Most any new idea can find a place on the menu. This change opens up opportunities for restaurants looking to adjust opening hours, pivot to new formats, launch inventive limited-time offers, or simply entice people to order at different times so an operator can spread the lunch and dinner rush more evenly across the day (and perhaps make do with less labor). Focusing on snacks and shareable items also helps restaurants emphasize the experience of enjoying restaurant food with others – something which, during these times of high inflation, can help entice consumers to order from a restaurant instead of preparing food at home.
If being short-staffed has had a negative impact on your online reviews, take heart that you’re not alone: According to Yelp’s State of the Industry Report, complaints over short-staffed restaurants shot up 229 percent in the first quarter of the year. But some positive – and telling – news came to the surface as well: Slower service and higher prices have not deterred guests, who have shown continued interest in both indoor and outdoor dining options. In fact, NPD Group reports that on-premise restaurant visits climbed 38 percent during the first quarter as compared to the 45 percent drop at the same time last year. At the same time, people are being drawn to dining options that offer an experience: Yelp reported openings for conveyor sushi spiked 500 percent, dinner theater increased 240 percent, supper clubs rose 200 percent and themed cafes climbed 75 percent over the same period last year. Of course, last year looked quite different from this year in a number of ways – and now we’re looking at the likely prospect of a minor recession (and a rise in unemployment) on the horizon. To be sure, the constant fluctuations in the economy and ongoing labor challenges will keep operators on their toes in the months ahead. But the good news is that consumers will continue to look for positive experiences that provide an escape. Where possible, consider what experiences you can offer guests that require minimal labor – whether through automation, pop-ups, or rotating menu items that have an experiential element.
When inflation is high and consumers are minding their budgets a bit more, they may need some extra incentive to dine out. Your special events and promotions can provide it. Looking at what you do best, as well as entertainment options that could complement it, what event might you create that would draw a crowd? Whether it’s hosting an Oktoberfest celebration, World Cup party or simply developing a menu that relates to a popular community event already in the works, find a vehicle to make the choice to dine away from home an easy one.
Amid high inflation, you’re likely having to make some tough decisions with regard to your menu right now – whether that has involved raising prices, swapping in more economical cuts of meat, shrinking portion sizes, or all of the above. While consumers are noticing the changes, there are some they mind less than others. In a recent Bloomberg report, Nailya Ordabayeva, a marketing professor at Boston College, said size reductions tend to go over better with consumers than price increases. “People tend to underestimate changes in object sizes,” she said. “It’s pretty convenient for companies to actually move size, move around size, more than they do price, because people do notice price changes more.” Since American restaurants have been serving up larger portion sizes for some time, there is room to shrink them – and there are benefits to this. Aside from helping you cut back on waste and better manage your inventory, reducing portion size can also help your kitchen focus more on quality than bulk. What’s more, your kitchen can be more nimble. You will be able to make quick and creative menu adjustments based on what ingredients are available, giving guests a good reason to come back and see what new items you’re offering. To deemphasize the reduction in portion size, serve entrées, sides, beverages and condiments with smaller plates, glasses, ramekins and to-go containers – and plate foods creatively, filling empty space with high-value ingredients wherever you can. Once this inflationary period is behind us, it may make sense to keep these smaller sizes around for the control they are able to give you in the kitchen.
For many Americans, mealtime has increasingly become snack time. According to a Harris Poll conducted last year, 70 percent of millennials say they prefer snacks to meals. Further, industry research indicates that a large percentage of Americans replace one meal each week with a snack – and some eat no formal meals at all. This means there’s room for expansion on your snack and appetizer menu. As the pandemic has shifted people’s eating patterns, could any of your offerings serve as mini meals for guests who aren’t eating as many entrées?
Chances are you’re offering more plant-based options on your menu nowadays – whether due to supply challenges, escalating food costs, evolving guest preferences or some combination of the above. At a time when uncertainties abound, it’s helpful to be able to successfully steer guests toward the items you prefer to sell – and some new research has shown how simple changes to menu language can lead guests to choose plant-based dishes more frequently. World Resources Institute researched the reaction of 6,000 people in the U.S. to 10 menu descriptions. A number of them generated some dramatic results. For example, when guests read the text, “Each of us can make a positive difference for the planet. Swapping just one meat dish for a plant-based one saves greenhouse gas emissions that are equivalent to the energy used to charge your phone for two years. Your small change can make a big difference,” they chose a vegetarian dish 25 percent of the time. That’s more than double the rate of guests who were shown no message at all. Another phrase, “Ninety percent of Americans are making the change to eat less meat. Join this growing movement and choose plant-based dishes that have less impact on the climate and are kinder to the planet,” resulted in 22 percent of guests opting for a plant-based dish, again far higher than those shown no messaging. Related messages about the taste of the food and the need to protect the planet for future generations also led to more guests selecting vegetarian meals. How do you explain plant-based options on your menu? If you currently stick to plain labels – vegetarian lasagna, veggie burger, etc. – you may not be driving as much traffic to those items as you potentially could.
The pandemic has taught restaurants the value of generating new income streams, and virtual brands – which have been on the rise since the pandemic started and are presumed to continue their climb in the future – are an appealing way to do that for many operators. But as restaurants work to capacity to meet demand from their dining rooms and virtual brands amid supply shortages, how can they best keep everything running? At the Restaurant Leadership Conference in December, Wow Bao CEO Geoff Alexander said menu simplification could help. He suggested that while many restaurants slashed their menus early in the pandemic to ease the burden on staff, that approach could now help restaurants free up critical capacity by absorbing the work and production know-how that the discontinued items once required. If you’re looking to create or sustain a virtual brand, take a closer look at your existing menu and look for opportunities to trim and simplify what you offer.
Covid has changed consumers’ relationship with foods, their ideas about health and their perceptions about what ingredients mean. According to Health & Wellness 2021: Reimagining Well-being Amid COVID-19, a new report from the Hartman Group, health and wellness have become more top-of-mind considerations for a broader set of consumers in the past two years as they have seen first-hand how infectious diseases, immunity, vaccine effectiveness and safety and mental health all play critical roles in their lives. They are now applying that experience to the foods they consume and are approaching menus more mindfully as a result. So what does that mean for restaurant operators? After the greater amount of time consumers have spent cooking meals at home in recent years, expect more scrutiny of ingredients, as well as the pursuit of less-processed, naturally plant-based foods. For example, the report indicates that more indulgent brands that are making wellness claims will need to be able to back them up more precisely – and that more natural presentations of plant-based proteins are likely to emerge as preferred options by health-conscious consumers. If you have a brand that is built around wellness, or if you simply make wellness claims around specific menu items, aim for simpler, unprocessed ingredients and be ready to answer questions about what’s on (and in) the menu.
The pandemic has elevated consumer interest in breakfast – and not just at what is typically thought of as breakfast time. According to a recent survey of more than 2,000 adults by the Harris Poll and General Mills Foodservice, 24 percent of Americans say they have eaten more breakfast foods during the pandemic and 79 percent have eaten breakfast foods outside the hours of the traditional daypart, Winsight reports. Consider testing the boundaries of breakfast by offering traditional breakfast items – or creative twists on them – on your lunch, dinner, snack and even dessert menus.
When supplies are unpredictable and it’s more critical then ever to minimize waste, restaurants need to find ways to make use of every ingredient they have on hand – even when those ingredients are changing week to week and season to season. Being nimble with ingredients – and not necessarily hiding that from customers – can help. As described in a recent Nation’s Restaurant News report about how restaurants will be operating in the near future, Puritan & Company in Boston has gotten creative about adapting its menu to whatever stock it has on hand. The chef there has a $22 dish on the menu dubbed the “kitchen sink” lasagna. It incorporates whatever vegetables the restaurant happens to have available, as well as any excess meat it has at the time the dish is offered. If a kitchen-sink-type dish won’t work on your menu, think about how you might best cross-utilize ingredients across multiple dishes. It minimizes waste, utilizes labor more efficiently and typically improves overall business results. Restaurant brands ranging from McDonald’s to Olive Garden to Taco Bell have trimmed their menus in recent quarters. Instead of turning off customers, the move has improved performance across the board because it has enabled the restaurants to focus on churning out more of its most popular items to larger numbers of people.