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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.

How Is The Economy Affecting Your Business?


It’s been the talk of the country all summer long: the state of the economy.  There’s a lot of uncertainty out there, and that’s why we want to know: how is the economy affecting your business – good, bad, or indifferent?

We are preparing a report on the economy and its effect on food service and your input will help.  You could even be quoted in our official press release if you want!

We’ve put together a 2 minute survey to get an idea of how different economic factors are affecting you.  Fill out the survey and be entered to win a $100 gift card from Amazon!

Now that’s a good economic reason to talk economy!

Take the 2 min. survey right now!

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Why Restaurants That Offer Discounts Dominate Top U.S. Brand Rankings

Restaurant DiscountsThere has been much discussion about discounting in the restaurant business over the past few years.  Many in the industry worried that serial discounting would forever cheapen their brand and condition customers to be coupon hunters rather than loyal patrons.

That’s why it was interesting to see the results of a comprehensive study released by a British brand management firm recently.  The Nunwood Customer Experience Management (CEM) Top 100 surveyed 5,000 consumers in the United States in order to determine which brands have the best perception among the American public.

To many, Red Lobster’s third place finish was a shock.  The seafood chain beat out top brands like Apple, Southwest Airlines, and Marriot.  Red Lobster is known for their affordable seafood fare – in fact, they have been discounting what is usually considered an expensive menu item for years.

Respondents to the Nunwood survey raved about Red Lobster’s dedication to providing value and top-notch customer service.

Marrying the two seems to be the key to branding success in food service.  Other top 25 finishers included Subway, Applebee’s, and Chili’s – all brands that have engaged in some of the most aggressive discounting in the food service industry over the last three years.  Adding those discounts to a culture of customer service equals a combination these national restaurant chains have been winning with for years.

The time has come for those in the food service industry who fret about coupons and discounts compromising the value of their brand to realize that not only are discounts here to stay, they are the driver behind customer perception of your business.

As the top chains in the industry have irrefutably proven, the formula of getting customers in the door with deep discounts and then treating them like royalty is the way to earn their respect and loyalty.

Contrary to a popular belief among restaurateurs, the practice of deep discounting to get butts in seats has not hurt the images of these brands but enhanced them so much that they now compete with the biggest brands in America in terms of perceived value.  And that perception is certainly worth much more than any discount.

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Helping Food Service Workers In Need

Anyone who has worked for a significant amount of time in the food service industry has seen the dark side of the restaurant business.  While food service can be incredibly rewarding, and can provide many opportunities for advancement with little or no formal education, there are also many in the industry who struggle to make ends meet, fall on hard times without a safety net, and fall into alcohol and substance abuse.

That’s because the restaurant business is a tough business.  Half of all restaurants fail in the first three years.  Employee turnover rates are much higher than most other industries.  Because turnover is so high, both in operations and employees, benefits are much more restricted.

That means a lot of food service workers don’t get the support they need when they get into trouble, either financially, emotionally, or physically.

Kevin Finch, a Spokane, WA food critic, has been observing the restaurant industry for a long time and saw firsthand just how tough the business can be.  Realizing there was little support for the hardworking people in the restaurants he visited, Finch started Big Table, a non-profit that treats food service workers to a 5 course meal every other month. More importantly, Big Table uses their meal events as a way to find the people in the restaurant business who need help.  At the dinners, guests are asked who needs help in the local restaurant scene.  Once they’ve identified those who are struggling, Big Table offers no-strings-attached help.  They have fixed cars, paid medical bills, and even sent flowers to people in need.

Food service is the single largest job category in the U.S., and that means there are a lot of people who need support.  Big Table eventually hopes to expand their concept to other regions in the U.S., but in the meantime food service certainly could do a better job taking care of its own.

Striking the right balance between competing in a tough marketplace and taking care of staff at the same time is a difficult task for any business, and the restaurant business is tougher than most.

That said, the dark side of food service is a place most know about, but few discuss.  It took a food critic to shed light on the difficulties food service workers live with every day.  Now it’s up to the entire industry to work towards making the table big enough for everybody.

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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??


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 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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