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Archive | 2010

Want To Start An Independent Restaurant? Start With The Incubator

Mama's Small Business Kitchen IncubatorEvery restaurateur has been through the baptism by fire known as Opening Night.  Those who have survived can testify to the nerve-racking experience of preparing menu items for the first time for a dining room full of people.  Many hopeful entrepreneurs have had their dreams realized or crushed on opening night, and anyone wanting to start a restaurant had better be prepared for the big night.

The problem many new restaurant owners have is that building out a new kitchen often runs right up until opening, and that leaves precious little time to test out batches and recipes before the Big Night.  Any new kitchen is inevitably going to run into some kinks, but surprisingly few new owners get the chance to practice their chops before they have to come up big on the first night.

Luckily for new restaurant owners in Pasadena, CA, a local non-profit has styled itself as a “restaurant incubator.”  Mama’s Small Business Kitchen Incubator provides a state-of-the-art kitchen for rent at an extremely reasonable rate for aspiring restaurateurs.  Anyone serious about opening a restaurant can have full access to Mama’s kitchen for a small hourly fee and after taking a safe food handling course.

The opportunity to try out recipes and batch sizes, as well as experiment with the latest restaurant equipment, means that a new restaurant owner can identify problems before they start well before the most important night of a restaurant’s life.  Mama’s is also available for other segments of the food service industry like caterers, concessions, and even institutions.

The best part about Mama’s is that affordable access to all that shiny new restaurant equipment isn’t even the best part.  Entrepreneurs who have been there rave about the people at the non-profit, all of whom are veteran restaurateurs who can provide a lot of golden advice to the newbies.  Those that survive the reality check that Mama’s provide will more than likely find their opening night a lot less daunting.

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Text Message Ordering: Why Your Customers Already Love It

Text Message OrderingOne of the biggest shifts in customer behavior over the past few years has been the preference for take-out food.  All the major national chains (Applebee’s, Chili’s, etc. etc.) have added drive-up service for their customers.  And I’ve written on this blog about taking your restaurant’s food out, whether it be catering, drive-up service, or delivery as a way to diversify your revenue streams.

Consumers love using technology to make their lives faster and more convenient.  The explosion of “smart” phones and text messaging in the past five years is a perfect example of how the masses have adopted a new technology because it streamlined how they communicate.  The challenge for those of us in the food service industry has always been finding ways to leverage these technology trends to the benefit of business.

A new company has developed an easy way for restaurants to make their food more accessible: text message ordering. Zingle will give you a terminal that receives text message orders and prints them out for you as part of their service.  They’ll also provide you with some customized marketing materials to promote your new service.  The company charges a flat monthly rate for their service.

Text messaging is an unbelievably easy way for your customers to place orders, and from the looks of it, the service Zingle provides makes it easy for you to take orders via text.  Quite a few franchises have already started taking advantage of the service, including Subway and regional coffee chains.

The benefits to quick service restaurants from a text ordering service are pretty obvious, but what about all the independent operators out there?  For any independent that caters to younger customers, text ordering has got to be about as close to a no-brainer as you can get.  Even if you don’t do carry-out, let customers place their orders before they arrive so you can turn tables faster during the rush and cater to your regulars in a more timely way.

As technology changes the way we communicate, the traditional model for restaurants has begun to change.  Incorporating that technology into your operation not only makes things easier for your customer, it implants your brand in the evolving channels of communication where your customers are moving.

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How To Take Restaurant Marketing Underground

Restaurant Marketing Underground StyleSince last August, when I first posted about the blossoming underground fine dining scene in San Francisco, the phenomenon has grown exponentially and started spreading up and down the west coast.  From Vancouver to L.A., chefs are ditching the kitchens of established restaurants and setting off on their own, and using shrouds of secrecy, weird locations, and social media to create an entirely new scene in the struggling fine dining segment.

What is underground dining? It can take many forms, from sumptuous seven course meals served in an abandoned warehouse to super-secret, invite-only seats in a chef’s home kitchen.  The common threads binding this movement together is five star cuisine served in a novel environment, prix fixe, and usually to a limited number of lucky invitees.

Underground dining even has a website, called The Ghet, which allows those searching for a coveted invite to an underground event a way to connect with those in the know.  Social media has also played a huge role in the success of the movement, with many underground chefs posting coded messages on Twitter, Facebook, and even Craigslist informing members where the next event will take place.

The combination of superb food and a sense of exclusivity and adventure has fueled the success of underground dining.  For traditional restaurants, the phenomenon has perhaps raised the bar of diner expectations.
So what can the fine dining establishment take away from the success of the underground movement?  The most important lesson here has got to be variety.  As baby boomers retire and a new generation enters its peak earning years, the rules of the game in fine dining are changing.

Many restaurants are ditching old dress codes and revamping menus to draw this new crowd of younger affluent diners.  But the time has come to take things further and start infusing the spirit of adventure and unique experience into the traditional sit-down restaurant.

Some ideas for taking your restaurant underground:
gilligans island
Theme nights. No, don’t put up a couple plastic palm trees and call it Gilligan’s Island.  Transform your restaurant into something completely different.  Dress your staff differently.  Serve some unique specials and really take things to the next level.  Make your regulars feel like they’ve never been in your restaurant before.

Seasonal menus. You probably already have seasonal dishes that you sprinkle into your menu’s repertoire over the course of a year.  What if you took a week out of each season and completely changed your menu and promoted it to all your customers?  That underground feeling of a once-in-a-lifetime experience would start to sink in for sure.

The ultimate take-out. Abandoned warehouses?  Defunct wine cellars?  Just because those underground chefs have started making weird places cool places for eating doesn’t mean you have to be stuck in your restaurant for all time.
Take what you do, sign up 50 or 100 of your best customers, and put on a prix fixe meal extravaganza in some cool, quirky place outside your restaurant.  If it can work for a rebel chef it can work for you, and your customers will love the unique experience.

The underground dining movement is surging in popularity, and like any new trend, there’s some gems of innovation behind the success.  Taking an “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” attitude may just give you some ideas that can make your restaurant really appealing as more and more customers get on the underground bandwagon.

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If It Makes Sense For McDonald’s, It Probably Makes Sense For You

McDonald's Wi-FiMcDonald’s has been an increasingly lone bright spot in the dark world of food service during a recession.  Sales are up, new restaurant layouts appeal to a wide range of customers, and Starbucks has a serious competitor on their hands.  McDonald’s success can be attributed to a lot of things, including their bargain basement pricing, but one factor stands out above all others: McDonald’s ability to rebrand themselves as an upscale, hip gathering place rather than a junk food distributor.

Giving customers a sense of place is a great way to add value to your restaurant’s brand.  Making your restaurant a place where people enjoy gathering is the strategy McDonald’s has pursued, and it seems to be paying big dividends.   McDonald’s corporate offices announced recently they will be offering free Wi-Fi internet access in 11,500 U.S. locations.  Clearly this move is another part of their strategy to create “stickiness,” or ways to get customers to come in and stay for awhile, which drives more sales and reinforces that sense of place in customers’ minds.

More than likely your restaurant has different priorities and customers than McDonald’s.  That doesn’t change the fact that their restaurant marketing model is working, and there’s a lesson in their success for everyone.

With that in mind, I’d like to point out an article I wrote last year for The Back Burner called Become A Hotspot! which gives you the how and the why on setting up a Wi-Fi network in your restaurant.

Hey, if it’s working for McDonald’s it will probably work for you.

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What To Watch For In 2010

Food Service Trends 2010About this time every year the food service industry starts buzzing about the trends that will shape consumer preferences and affect business in the next 12 months.  We are lucky enough (or unlucky, depending on how you view it) to be in the midst of a transition period for many restaurants, and that makes the trends for 2010 even more compelling.

These trends have already been covered extensively, but if you need a refresher course, here’s the synopsis:

  1. Familiar, simple foods sell well. Unique spins on burgers and other classic foods save restaurants R & D and are popular with customers looking for value.
  2. The ethnic twist. Korean BBQ tacos and other ethnic flavors are making their way into the mainstream more and more.  Combine those flavors with comfort foods and you’ve got a sure winner.
  3. Ingredient sourcing is more and more important. Restaurants growing their own produce and sourcing from local organic farms retain a particular appeal to customers and allow you to attach a unique value to your brand.
  4. All day breakfast. Everybody loves breakfast, and since these menu items are usually hearty and affordable, consumers have grown to love them even more.  Many chains are starting to make their breakfast menus available all day, and other segments in the food service industry will probably follow suit soon.

So what do these trends say about where food service is headed?  Overall it looks like restaurants are responding to the consumer watchword of 2009: value.  Your customers aren’t looking for something flashy and never-before-seen.  They just want the same things they’ve always enjoyed, with maybe a little Korean BBQ sauce on the side.

Many trend watchers are also focused on the menu side of the equation rather than the business side, but if large national chains are any indication of what’s to come in 2010, then it seems apparent that heavy discounting and health consciousness are the watchwords of the day.

Several chains have redoubled their efforts at attracting new business with continued discounts.  Meanwhile, even Taco Bell is getting into the healthy food game, with new ads claiming that items of their new healthy menu will make you a whole new kind of Subway Jared.

Again, it looks like everything comes back to value: discounted food that’s familiar, tastes good, and is even healthy to eat.  For restaurants walking that edge between survival and profitability, positioning yourself in the sweet spot where customers find value in what you serve while you gain revenue is paramount.

The recipe that works is going to be unique for every restaurant.  Many failed in 2009 while searching for it, and unfortunately more are going to fail in 2010.  But for those that survive, the lessons learned in providing value to every customer will be essential to their success for years to come.

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