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Archive | Restaurant Trends and News

Keep up to date on restaurant and food service industry news and trends, from serious analysis to more lighthearted fare.

Telling The Customer “No” In The Name Of Culinary Perfection

Culinary PerfectionFor most restaurateurs saying no to a customer is something you just don’t do.  Being accommodating is an integral part of what service businesses like restaurants do, and therefore the customer gets what the customer wants.

As the New York Times reported recently, a surprising number of restaurants in New York have no problem telling a customer no – as long as it serves a higher artistic purpose.

Some examples include:

  • A bagel shop that will not toast your bagel for love or money
  • A bistro famous for its fries does not serve ketchup
  • One restaurant serves their burgers one of two ways: with or without Roquefort cheese

The reason for putting limits on customer preferences is the same in each one of these establishments: special requests compromise the original vision for the taste and presentation of the dish.

In most cases, especially in a place as saturated as New York City is with restaurants, these picky chefs can get away with imposing some ground rules on their patrons.  That’s because there’s a large pool of people who have an enormous amount of choice in a small area when it comes to eating out.  If you don’t like go next door.  There’s enough people here who do.

That feeling of exclusivity actually appeals to a lot of guests, and probably works in the chef’s favor, at least in an environment like New York City.

For the rest of the country, however, where the pool of customers is smaller and the amount of choices fewer, restaurants must and do play the role of catch-all.  The hard reality is that turning people away because they don’t subscribe to your vision of culinary perfection is typically bad for business.

And when business is bad there’s no money to prepare perfect dishes.

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Why You Should Tell Your Guests To Order Themselves

Ordering KiosksIf you do it right, guest prefer to order themselves.  This has been proven by the advent of interactive electronic ordering kiosks, which have quickly become commonplace in European and Asian quick service restaurants.

Americans are finally catching up to their European counterparts when it comes to self-service kiosks.  Early adopters like Jack-in-the-Box have already seen the benefits these electronic order takers can provide, including a boost in sales, higher customer satisfaction, and increased order volume.

What’s so great about a kiosk?  And what exactly is a kiosk anyway?

Kiosks are electronic ordering systems that provide a touchscreen menu for guests.  The newest generation of kiosks integrate directly with the restaurant’s POS system, making order processing extremely easy.

Kiosks add a couple key benefits to a guest’s experience, at least in a quick service restaurant environment:

Improved order accuracy. Whether or not kiosks actually reduce the number of botched orders is up for debate.  Regardless, guests feel like orders are more accurate because they are directly involved in the order taking process, and that perception can go a long way towards improving a restaurant’s overall customer service.

Guests buy more. Having an interactive menu that automatically suggests upsells, lists the best menu items first, and advertises specials without forgetting is a potent weapon for restaurants.  Guests who use kiosks are more likely to spend more and order more than those who order from a human.

This means a restaurant using kiosks can shift staff from being order takers to order fillers and service providers.  In fact, the restaurants that have introduced kiosks did not have to cut any staff because order volume went up significantly.

Ordering kiosks certainly make sense for quick service restaurants, but what about independents?  Is there a place for an automated menu and order taking system in the more traditional dining experience?

That certainly remains to be seen.  However, here are a couple ideas for ways independents could bring kiosks to bear:

Make waiting interactive.
If you’re fortunate enough to be a restaurant that regularly makes guests wait for a table, then a kiosk could become your very best friend.  Instead of making customers sit on a bench staring blankly at the wall next to the host stand, invite them to place their order on a kiosk, then time their meal to drop 10 minutes after they are sat.

The potential for slashing your table turnover times with that kind of system is tremendous.  That kind of system also gives your servers more time to provide top notch service as well, especially when things get hectic on a busy night.

Make kiosks part of your concept. Remember restaurants with telephones at each table for calling in orders?  Their success depended on the novelty of ordering via phone but eventually it proved much too hard to create a quality experience when the guests’ only interaction with staff was through a phone.

Kiosks could be different.  If they are used to replace menus at tables servers can still interact with guests while they order, have more time to attend every detail, and benefit from the kiosk’s tendency to make customers order more.  All of this could be accomplished without sacrificing face-to-face service, and in fact the iPad has already proven itself to be a great replacement for the traditional menu.  Kiosks at tables just takes that concept one step further.

Change the way you take reservations. Especially if your restaurant is in a high foot traffic area, plop a kiosk on the sidewalk in front of your establishment and invite guests to place their order and then come back to dine at a time of their choosing.

Guests that have already chosen their meal are going to be more likely to come back, reducing reservation no-shows.  That kiosk would also serve as some great advertising for your restaurant and take some pressure off your host stand and servers on busy nights.

Naturally kiosks are going to have to run their course in the quick service segment before independent restaurants start considering them.  But a future where all menus are electronic and interactive is not that far off, and restaurateurs stand to benefit immensely from this new technology.

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What Kind Of Website Is Hurting Restaurants The MOST??

SURVEY IS OVER.

5 years ago Facebook was in its infancy.  Twitter was a year away from conception.  Yelp was no more than the apple in the eye of a creative Silicone Valley entrepreneur.  And Groupon was still 3 years away from development! In 5 short years the restaurant marketing landscape has changed.  These sites and many more have changed the way the game is played – and many restaurateurs have had both good and bad experiences trying to keep up with the unrelenting pace of technology.

That’s why The Back Burner wants to know: which websites are helping you?  Which are hurting your business?

Take the short, 1 minute survey and tell us what you think!

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Is The Restaurant Dead?

You know the old saying: “desperate times call for desperate measures.”  The past two years have certainly been a rough time for the food service industry, and even though things are looking up now, the lean times have left an indelible stamp on which way the industry is trending.

In lean times the most efficient restaurant is the most likely to survive, and increasingly restaurateurs all over the country have taken to moving their operations outside of the traditional restaurant setting.  This trend has been propelled by many more factors than just the economics of opening and maintaining a traditional restaurant space, to be sure. But it’s undeniable that the downturn got a lot of influential chefs in the industry to start rethinking the fundamental assumptions of the business, like spending inordinate amounts of money to develop and stock a full-blown restaurant. This has resulted in some revolutionary ideas that have since become some of the hottest trends in the business, like the Kogi Taco Truck in L.A. and the “underground” fine dining movement that germinated in San Francisco and has since taken the country by storm.

Now a growing number of chefs are thinking short term when it comes to defining their next project, and stripping all the trappings of a concept down to the bare bones.  A great example was featured in The New York Times recently: What Happens When is a restaurant that opened last week on a nine-month lease in New York’s SoHo district.

Conventional wisdom says it’s pure folly to sink a ton of cash into a location that won’t be around all that long.  But everything about What Happens When is unconventional.  Used furniture, a short-stocked bar on a mobile cart, and replacement flatware in drawers beneath the tables are all ways in which this restaurant plans to save cash.

In addition, the building in which the restaurant plans to reside has been condemned, so rent is cheap (at least by New York standards).

The short lifespan of this restaurant has a certain freedom to it – with low overhead and a Spartan setting, What Happens When can focus on what’s truly important – the food.

So is the traditional restaurant, with a carefully groomed dining area and state-of-the-art kitchen, dead?  As more and more restaurateurs find new and creative venues to showcase their food, the conventional restaurant will certainly seem like more trouble than it’s worth.

As long as customers continue to enjoy the idea of stripping the dining experience down to the food at the expense of atmosphere, keep a careful eye on how restaurants in more traditional spaces compete with these leaner and much meaner upstarts.

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The Holidays Are Coming: Is Your Restaurant Going To Give Back?

Open Present BoxAs the holidays approach, giving back to the community is something that should be important to any business, and not just as a shameless marketing ploy.  Being authentic about your business’ involvement in charity is something that only time and commitment can communicate.  Having a genuine passion for charity work is a huge plus, and well-run businesses of any type aren’t shy about showing it.

But all too often it’s easy to get swept up in busy schedules and the hectic day-to-day effort that comes with running a restaurant.  It’s not that you don’t have the passion, it’s that you don’t know where to start.  Here’s two ideas for jump starting your involvement in the community during the best time of year: Christmas.

Hold a food drive. This is a great way to get butts in seats, engage your customers in the charity work you’re doing, and do something a little more meaningful than writing a check, all at the same time.  The concept is pretty simple: give a percentage point discount off the final bill for every pound of non-perishable food your customers bring in during a designated dinner rush.

This concept is great because it works on so many levels.  Customers are happy because they feel like they participated in the event, plus they get a discount.  You get to make a big show out of weighing the goods and talking about how much food you collected for needy families.  And underneath it all, feeding hungry people at Christmastime is truly a worthy cause.

Donate surplus food to the Food Donation Connection. Sponsored by the National Restaurant Association (NRA), the Food Donation Connection takes surplus food from restaurants and gives it to local food banks in a timely way so that it feeds people before spoilage.  The NRA ‘s partnership with Food Donation Connection is a perfect opportunity for any restaurant to get involved with a great cause.

No matter how you decide to give back to your community, make it a priority this holiday season.  Yes, it’s an especially effective method for marketing your restaurant.  But on another level, a well-run charity program has reward all its own.

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Is ZapHour A Groupon Killer?

ZapHourEver since Google tried to buy Groupon for a reported $1 billion last year the buzz has been incessant around the group discount site.  Now, with rumors flying about a public offering later this year and more big tech companies trying to get into the Internet coupon game, it seems that the only people not all that excited about all the hype are those in the food service industry.

That’s because it’s hard to find a restaurant that has good things to say about their experiences with Groupon.  The discounts are steep, the customers usually never come back after they redeem their coupon, and restaurants run the risk of upsetting regular customers when the house is packed with one-timers.

The problems presented by Groupon for restaurateurs prompted a Portland, OR owner to create his own coupon site, called ZapHour.  The site functions a lot like popular travel industry sites like Hotwire.com in that it addresses a perennial restaurant problem: how to get butts in seats NOW, when it’s slow, not on Saturday night, which has been booked for months already?

ZapHour does this by letting restaurants be very specific with their offers.  Unlike Groupon, which decides the discount amount and usually makes coupons redeemable for a full year after issue, ZapHour lets a business owner create deals for a short time frame on specific days that can only be redeemed a certain number of times.

That means if you’re really slow on Tuesday night, you can send out a coupon for that night and try to drum up some quick business.  On Friday, when you’ve got a packed house of full-paying regulars, you don’t have to worry about a bunch of foodie nomads armed with 50% off coupons clogging your tables.

The site has signed on 12 food service businesses in the Portland area so far and has a patent pending for the concept. What have your experiences with Groupon been like?  Would you support a ZapHour concept if it was available in your area?

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The Time To Upgrade Restaurant Equipment Has Come

Restaurant EquipmentThere’s always some good reasons for upgrading your kitchen’s restaurant equipment: better energy efficiency, better performance, increased ease-of-use, increased output, etc. There’s always an equally pressing reason why you try to get one more year out of that same equipment: money doesn’t grow on trees, and there’s plenty of other costs your restaurant faces.

That’s understandable.  But if there ever was a time to buy restaurant equipment, that time is now.  Food service industry revenue forecasts are up, the newest equipment is more energy efficient than ever, and to top it all off, a recently passed bill will let you write off up to $500,000 in equipment purchases through 2011, meaning you get a tax credit now instead of depreciating bit-by-bit over the next ten years.

Of course, you’ll want to conduct a total cost analysis before you make the decision to buy, but when you factor in all those tax write-offs, that decision can sure be a compelling one.

Get more info about this tax credit here.

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Brazilian Chef Recognized On The International Stage

Chef Alex Atala, son of Lebanese immigrants and raised in Brazil, is himself a blending of cultures separated by huge geographical distances and divergent attitudes.  Perhaps this is why he is perfectly suited to bring the flavors of Brazil to global prominence.

Chef Atala achieved recognition by creating a hybrid cuisine from two very different worlds.  After receiving formal training in Europe, Atala returned to Brazil and began applying the French and Italian techniques he had learned to Brazilian ingredients like banana, maracuja (Passion Fruit), and tangerine. The result has been a refreshing, tropical take on traditional dishes like ravioli, mushroom consommé, and breaded oysters that has earned the rising chef an international name.

The tireless Atala has expanded to a new restaurant, called Dalva e Dito, which opened this January less than a block away from the legendary D.O.M.  The new restaurant features all the best dishes of Atala’s Euro-Amazonian cuisine, served tableside family style, just like a traditional French restaurant. The globalization of culinary techniques, ingredients, and flavors has led to unusual pairings like Atala’s Brazilian fare, with fascinating results.  A new generation of worldly chefs are creating exciting new cuisine that hails from very different cultures.  If the results are as delicious as Chef Atala’s, then the world is in for a golden age in fine dining.

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Restaurants Use Nutrition Info To Add Value For Customers

Restaurants Nutrition LabelingIn a world of discounts, something besides price has to get your customers in the door.  It’s the new reality facing the food service industry these days, and many restaurants have already started devising ways to go the extra mile for customers.

Soon enough restaurants will be required to post nutrition information about each item they serve.  Study after study has shown that consumers prefer to have nutritional information available about the dishes they order – whether that information is good news for their diet or not.

Some restaurants have taken the trend towards healthier menu items and nutrition labeling and used it as a way to add value for their customers.  Moon Under Water, a restaurant in St. Petersburg, FL developed a computer program that allows you to punch in your meal and get back a full report of nutritional data about your choices.

The program doesn’t mean the restaurant’s high-calorie items don’t sell anymore, or that customers have been turned off by the numbers on their favorite dishes.  Instead, putting the program together helped Moon Under Water’s owner find some particularly unhealthy ingredients, like high sodium stocks, and replace them with healthier substitutes.  Many customers were surprised by the relatively low calorie counts of the dishes they ordered.

Mod Market, an eatery located in Boulder, CO, adds nutritional information to the items customers ordered on their receipt.  The restaurant is focused on fresh, healthy offerings, and adding calorie counts to the receipt gives them an opportunity to remind customers what they’re getting (or not getting, in the case of calories) out of a Mod Market meal.

These two restaurants gain two things from making nutritional information an after-meal interactive experience for customers.  First, it’s a way to showcase the menu and reinforce your brand in the mind of the customer.  Second, it gives restaurants a fresh look on their menus.  What items are customers ordering despite the high calorie count (“indulgence” items)?  Which items are customers choosing because they work into their diets well?  This gives you a third factor besides price and taste to rate your menu.

Naturally, providing nutrition information in the way Moon Under Water and Mod Market are doing doesn’t make sense for every segment of the food service industry.  But if you serve a customer who sees a real benefit in knowing the nutritional information associated with the dishes they ordered, providing a creative, interactive way for them to access this information is a great way to  add value to every visit.

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Does The Rise of the Spanish Mean the Death Of French Cuisine?

Classic Spanish FareFrench food has always been the gold standard in fine dining.  Over the years the fusion of French cuisine with flavors from around the world has bred a culture of ingenuity and dynamism that helped perpetuate French style cooking as the center for culinary excellence.  But recently some trends have started pointing in other directions, and author Michael Steinberger even argues in a new book that the decline of French cuisine will lead to the rise of Spanish fare.

Stepping into the opening void is internationally renowned Spanish chef David Munoz, whose Asian/Spanish fusion restaurant in Madrid, Spain has earned wide accolades and remains booked months in advance.  Munoz is a devout follower of Asian style cooking, and has turned in time at prestigious Asian fusion restaurants like Nobu of London.  The result of his obsession with Asian cuisine is exciting and fresh Spanish style dishes heavily seasoned with the rich flavors of the Orient.

Spanish chefs and new Spanish-themed restaurants have been gaining notoriety in major U.S. cities like New York and Los Angeles.  For David Munoz, Spanish cuisine is less about Spain and more about combining flavors from all over the world to create exciting new cuisine.  And maybe the new found trendiness of Spanish food has less to do with the decline of the French and more to do with a new willingness by diners and chefs alike to try new combinations and types of flavors and foods.  In an increasingly globalized world, it seems the domination of the French is giving way to the fusion of the rest of the world’s cooking styles.

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