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Your Restaurant’s Guide To Commercial Composting

Every to go container, every disposable cup, and every plastic fork your restaurant uses ends up in a landfill somewhere.  Over the course of a year that adds up to millions of tons of trash from all the restaurants in the United States.  For most restaurants, these disposable items are a necessary part of doing business, and the lower the cost, the better.

Yet more and more restaurants are turning to compostable versions of these disposable items, even though they tend to be more expensive than their styrofoam and plastic counterparts.

Why?  Two main factors are driving the trend towards commercial composting:

Connecting with your customer.
Overwhelming majorities of Americans support sustainable products like compostable cups, plates, and food containers.  They may not be particularly motivated to spend more money for them at the grocery store, but when consumers encounter these products in places like restaurants, they tend to give the establishment high marks.  When you connect with customers on issues they care about, you’re going to see loyalty and repeat business increase.

Adding another facet to your overall green program. Whether driven by pure moral conviction or a desire to connect with customers (or both), more and more restaurants are instituting green programs as a part of their business.  The use of commercial composting and recycling systems have become widespread, and many restaurants employ programs to improve energy efficiency, reduce water use and carbon footprints.  Using compostable products can add a powerful element to any restaurant’s green efforts.

Your Restaurant’s Guide To Commercial CompostingSo how do compostable food service supplies work and why are they so great? Some common questions and answers:

What does compostable mean? Compostable products break down into carbon dioxide, water, and biomass at the same rate as cellulose (paper) in an industrial composting facility.  It may take these products longer to breakdown in a non-composting environment like a landfill, but in general these products break down exponentially faster than regular plastics and even biodegradable products.  For a more complete explanation, check out this article: Understanding Green Restaurant Terms: Compostable, Biodegradable, and Recyclable.

What are the benefits of corn-based compostable products? Corn cups and other compostable products made from corn are beneficial because they use a crop that is already produced on a massive scale in the United States to replace petroleum (oil) based plastics that rely on a substance we must import.  Corn-based products are also carbon neutral because the plants they are made from absorb an equal amount of carbon dioxide as is produced to harvest the crop.

What is PLA? PLA stands for polyactic acid, which is a polymer that is used to make a replacement for oil-based plastics.  PLA is made from lactic acid, which is created when the dextrose (starch) found in biomass like corn is fermented.  Today almost all PLA is created from corn, but in the future PLA will be made from other crops, including sugar beets, sugarcane, and rice, depending on what’s available locally.

How are sugarcane food containers, plates, and bowls made? Sugarcane has a long, fibrous stalk that contains a sweet juice.  Sugar and many other things are made from the extracted juice, leaving the stalk behind.  This leftover is called Bagasse, and it has traditionally been burned or discarded.  Disposable sugarcane products are made using Bagasse, taking a previously unusable byproduct and turning it into a fully compostable plate, bowl, or food container for your restaurant.

What does post-consumer recycled material mean? Post-consumer means the materials are recycled after they are used by consumers and discarded.  Compostable hot cups are partially (about 25%) made from post-consumer recycled materials.  Not only is it sustainable to use recycled materials, buying products made from those recycled materials helps stimulate demand, meaning more will be recycled in the future.

What kinds of compostable products are available for use in my restaurant? Corn cold cups (PLA), post-consumer recycled fiber hot cups, sugarcane food containers, and high heat PLA cutlery are all examples of products you can put to use in your restaurant.  Make sure any compostable product you buy is BPI certified, as this is the gold standard for compostable products.  Checking for BPI certification helps you avoid “greenwashed” products that claim they are compostable but really aren’t.

Using commercially compostable products in your restaurant has a clear marketing benefit for your business because your customers will appreciate your decision to use them.  If your restaurant has already decided that going green is a part of your business model, then compostable products are a must to round out your program.  If you haven’t yet decided whether greening your restaurant makes sense, check out The Back Burner’s Going Green section for more information on everything food service is doing to meet the increasing demand for sustainability in food service.

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The Quick Guide to Commercial Refrigeration Problems

Commercial refrigeration is key to the success of any restaurant and keeping your units properly running can save you both time and money. Whether your commercial refrigerator won’t stop running when you want it to or simply won’t run at all, this quick guide will help you to troubleshoot all of your refrigeration problems and find the right solution.

If your commercial refrigerator won’t run at all or won’t stop running, you’re probably looking at a defective thermostat.  You can test this easily. First, unplug the unit and open the evaporator housing. Locate the wires attached to the thermostat, remove and connect together with electrical tape. If the unit runs properly when turned back on, simply replace the thermostat.

Encountering difficulty with rising temperatures? The first step towards a solution is identifying what type of refrigeration thermostat your refrigeration unit uses.  If you’re dealing with either an air-sensing thermostat or evaporator-sensing thermostat, you can replace the part yourself. But be aware that the two are not interchangeable, so be sure to correctly identify which you’re working with first. If your commercial refrigerator uses a low pressure control, you’re going to have to call a service technician to get the part repaired.

The Quick Guide to Commercial Refrigeration Problems

Problems with a broken or malfunctioning fan motor need to be dealt with immediately, because without proper refrigeration your food is at risk of going bad quickly.  First off, you need to identify whether your unit uses a condenser fan motor or evaporator fan motor. A condenser fan motor will be found outside the refrigeration interior while an evaporator fan motor is found within the interior. Replace the motor fan by identifying the specific model of motor and blade (both are usually stamped into the back of the product and are easily accessible) and ordering a new one. Installation is usually brand-specific and can be found in your unit’s accompanying guidebook.

If the door to your commercial refrigeration unit is improperly closing, you could potentially be throwing away energy and money. The quick fix to this problem is simple: you need to update your gaskets. This do-it-yourself fix merely requires you to ascertain the dimension, brand and style of the existing gasket and order a new one. Replacing old gaskets is as easy as popping them off and snapping the new ones on.

The Quick Guide to Commercial Refrigeration ProblemsIf you need to replace faulty hinges or latches in your commercial refrigerator, start with simple identification. With both hinges and latches, you must determine whether you’re working with flush or offset parts, which is determined simply by running your hand over the part, looking to see if it is smooth, or flush, or not. If you’re working with offset hinges and the offset size is not available on the back of the part, you’ll need to measure the distance from the wall surface to the door surface to find the correct size. In terms of latches, there are two different types: magnetic  and those with a strike-and-latch lock. These latches will have an easy to identify number on them. With both latches and hinges, the easiest method is always to look for their ID number to order the right part the first time around.

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50 Restaurant Resolutions For A Successful Year

If ever there was a good time to make some positive changes to your restaurant’s operation, now is that time.  The time to kick things up a notch and really go after more business.  If you’re going to beat out the competition then you need to trim down, work harder, and be smarter.  Here are 50 resolutions to help you get there.

Marketing

1. Build a good website By good we mean “informational.” When a customer visits your website they want three things: a menu, a map, and a phone number.  Take down all the fancy pictures and put those three things first.

2. Stop being afraid of Yelp – Yes, a bad review by an influential Yelper can be disastrous for a restaurant. But instead of trying to limit Yelp you need to engage.  Respond to bad reviews, reward good ones, and take that bull by the horns.

3. Stop hating Groupon – Many restaurants have used it, few have liked the results. Like it or not Groupon is here to stay so stop being a hater and start getting the most out of your coupon-cutting patrons by collecting as much information from them as you can so you can try to turn them into regular customers.

4. Get new menus – Drop the dollar signs, highlight the good margin stuff, and put your best sellers in the middle of the list – all proven ways to get your customers buying your bread-and-butter entrees.

5. Stop pretending social media doesn’t matter – Despite the ongoing rise of social media marketing restaurants have mostly ignored the trend, preferring to engage customers in more traditional ways.  Well, the time has come to engage using social media.  The investment is small, the potential gains are big, and as adoption continues to increase so will the cost of not participating.

6. Get your food out of the house – Whether you cater events, start delivering your entrees, hold exclusive off-site events, or participate in summer food festivals, your food needs to leave the house to be seen and recognized. The free press these initiatives usually generate are only the side benefit to reaching your customers no matter where they are.

7. Source locally – Local food is great for marketing because when you talk about partnering with other local businesses to bring local food to your tables you become a part of the community, and the word-of-mouth this generates is invaluable.

8. Let customers pay what they want – Some restaurants have gone as far as making pay-what-you-want their only pricing plan.  You may not have the sand for that, and understandably so, but that doesn’t mean you can’t hold special events with pay anything as the core of the promotion.  Even if you only break even, the buzz around the event will help you snag more regular customers.

9. Give away your cooking secrets – Yeah, then it’s not a secret anymore, right? Maybe so, but your restaurant isn’t a secret anymore either, and that means more customers.  Nothing makes a customer remember you like being let in on all the stuff going on behind the curtain in the back of the house. Heck, you could even put on a cooking class in the restaurant and watch the foodies swarm in.

10. Sponsor a local sports team – Little league, amateur softball or soccer, or even create your own league for your favorite sport – no matter what you sponsor you’re getting your name out there as a part of the community and that word-of-mouth advertising is the best kind.

11. Claim your Google places page – It’s easy to do, free of charge, and gives you an automatic presence every time someone searches for restaurants in your area.  All you have to do is enter your business address and then watch out for the mailer Google sends you.  Enter the confirmation code and your business is now activated.

12. Raffle for charity – Everybody loves a raffle, but you probably haven’t done one in your restaurant because you’re not sure why you would give stuff away to people who are paying to eat there anyway.  This is why: you collect every single email address in the room when they enter the raffle.  Now you have a way to entice all those customers back over and over.

13. Create a YouTube channel – You or someone in your restaurant already has a Flip video recorder (heck even the latest iPhone will work!).  Put these wonders of modern technology to work making behind-the-scenes videos about your establishment.  Uploading them to YouTube is free and pretty simple,  and now you’ve created another way to talk to your customers when they’re not in the restaurant.

14. Hold an exclusive event – Regular customers love nothing more than feeling special, and nothing will make them feel more special than an exclusive event at your restaurant.  Set up a prix fixe menu, throw together some new dishes, and set aside a slow Tuesday night to really impress your biggest fans.

15. Host live music – from a single piano or singer/songwriter to a full-on rock band, every restaurant can use some type of live entertainment. If you’re just trying to improve the ambience then run some drink or food specials to coincide with the live act and turn it into a regular event.  If you’re booking hot local bands, use their performance in your establishment to access their fan base and turn them into regular customers.

Management

16. Stop micromanaging – Making sure everyone is doing their job right all the time is part of owning and/or managing a small business.  On the other hand, double checking people makes them incapable of taking responsibility themselves.  Trust but verify: have a quality control system in place but let your employees take ownership of their jobs.  You just might find that productivity will go up while you actually do less.

17. Get a handle on inventory shrink – Food product is one of your biggest expenses, and because there’s always a lot of it laying around it can be easy for some to go missing.  Sometimes this is unintentional and other times it is very intentional.  Either way you’re losing money.  Start with a good inventory system and then put some checks on employee misuse like clear trash bags (so you can see what’s getting thrown away), ban backpacks and other personal baggage from your kitchen, and train staff to minimize waste.

18. Learn to repair equipment yourself – There are a lot of simple fixes to big equipment items like refrigeration, ranges, and fryers that you can handle yourself.  Learning how to be a restaurant equipment mechanic can save you tons of money in parts & labor and save you a lot of downtime as well.  The Back Burner blog (http://blog.etundra.com) has dozens of equipment repair guides available for free.

19. Stop serving dishes that don’t sell – It can be easy to fall into the trap of adding more and more variety to your menu just for the sake of variety.  The problem is, if a dish isn’t moving then it’s costing you money to buy those ingredients and store them.  Go through your sales numbers regularly and ax anything that isn’t turning over quickly enough.  Printing new menus is a much less expensive effort.

20. Add an over-the-top entréeMenu pricing is all relative.  Things are only as expensive as the next item on the list, so why not give your customers something to compare against – something so over-the-top expensive that everything else on your menu will seem affordable by comparison.  Bonus points for putting your highest margin items right next to the expensive one!

21. Get new distributors – You buy A LOT of food product, and it’s about time you started leveraging your buying power to get better deals.  The big guys like SYSCO may not give you a discount but you also don’t need to buy everything from them either.  Shop around, and do so regularly, and make it clear to the guys you already do business with that they had better treat you right before you move on.

22. Train employees to make you more money Anybody can write down an order and bring out drinks and food at the appropriate times.  It takes a true server to be able to connect with customers and recommend a bottle of wine or sell a few specials.  Ongoing training will not only help your servers raise check averages but will also turn them into money machines for your business as well.

23. Separate the campers from the turn and burn Table turnover is the key to maximizing a busy night in any restaurant.  At the same time, you don’t want to push customers out the door who are there to enjoy a nice evening out.  Not sure how to strike the right balance?  Segment your customers into cozy booths or busy open tables in the middle of the floor depending on how they got there – advanced reservations probably want to relax while late walk-ins are probably on their way to do something else.  Let the former camp in the booths and turn and burn the latter out in the open.

24. Refuse reservations Reservations are a necessary evil in the food service business, or at least that’s how the traditional thinking goes.  Sometimes, though, reservations just don’t make sense at all.  Peak holidays – New Year’s Eve or Mother’s Day, for instance, are far too busy for you to risk leaving a table empty because someone is running late or decided to go elsewhere.  So refuse reservations or take a deposit.

25. Clean up your restroom – There’s no denying it: customers are judging you by your bathroom.  If it’s shabby or dirty then they wonder if other places they can’t see (like the kitchen) looks the same.  Send a strong message when your customers visit the restroom: show them the tight ship you run by taking care of the details behind the bathroom door.

26. Start managing portion control – A simple side like mashed potatoes doesn’t seem like a big deal at first glance – just whip up a large batch and serve them till they’re gone (or they go bad) – but for every extra ounce you put on a plate you’re losing money.  Using portion control tools like scales and sized ladles will help your busy staff avoid overserving, and help you reduce leftovers.

27. Actually sell desserts It’s far too easy for full customers to turn down a server who walks up to the table, check in hand, and asks “Did you save any room for dessert?”  There’s good money to be made in dessert sales, especially if you know how to sell them.  Start by making desserts small and very affordable, thereby removing the “I’m too full” excuse.  Next, make real models of your desserts for display.  Being able to see desserts rather than imagine them has an enormous effect on the decision making process.

28. Secure your data You are in charge of a lot of very important data.  Between customer credit cards and employee social security numbers your business is an identity thief’s dream.  All too often this data is far too easy to access, so clean up your act and get that stuff secured by limiting who can access important databases and/or files and possibly even using a security company solution to manage valuable information.

29. Stop losing business to allergies According to a study by AllergyEats.com, accommodating people with food allergies could boost business by as much as 9%.  This is because if one person has an allergy in a group of people deciding where to eat, everyone will change their mind according to which restaurant can accommodate the allergy.  This “veto vote” means you’re losing a lot more business than just the allergic person, so start developing methods for accommodating allergies today.

30. Hand out paid sick days The National Restaurant Association may lobby against them, but paid sick days for your employees are worth far more than they cost.  Here’s why: when one worker comes in sick they will inevitably contaminate something in the kitchen, and before you know it the rest of the staff is sick and then customers get sick.  Retaining good, reliable staff is certainly worth the effort, and perks like a couple paid sick days will help you retain the best.

31. Stay open all night Urban areas are increasingly becoming 24/7, and that means there are hungry customers peering into your dark windows late at night.  If you run a late kitchen with a skeleton crew you can generate some great extra business by capturing the late crowd, especially on weekends.  Pare down your menu to high-margin munchies, find a couple reliable people to work the late shift, turn up the house music and watch your restaurant work for you while you sleep.

Energy Efficiency

32. Get a rebate when you upgrade equipment – upgrading restaurant equipment is no small expense, but sooner or later it will be a necessary one for your business.  As long as you are upgrading, you might as well maximize energy efficiency with an EnergyStar rated piece.  That way you can save on monthly energy bills and also qualify for local, state, and federal tax rebates.  Go to energystar.gov and check out their Rebate Finder.

33. Set equipment schedules – Powering up restaurant equipment puts a huge load on your gas and electric meters all at the same time – and that costs you more money than it should.  Create power up and power down schedules that space out your usage and try to set them for off-peak hours when rates are cheaper.

34. Stop thawing meat with running water – It’s a common practice at home and in many restaurants, and if your kitchen is using hot running water to thaw meat then you’re throwing dollars down the drain.  Create a thawing schedule for every day of operation and see that your staff sticks to it.  Sticking frozen product in the refrigerator 8 hours before the dinner rush is so much cheaper (and safer) than sticking it in the sink an hour beforehand it’s not even funny.

35. Starve the dishwasher beast – Commercial dishwashers are energy hogs, pure and simple, but that doesn’t mean you can’t at least cut down their usage.  Start by washing only full racks of pre-rinsed dishes.  Next check the water pressure in the unit against the manufacturer recommendation.  If it’s more then cut it down to save water.  Finally, turn off booster and tank heaters at the end of the night to save energy.

36. Get LEED certified The Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design is a program that rewards many types of buildings, including restaurants, with a certification for sustainable and efficient practices.  Getting certified involves earning points for different types of sustainable design elements in your commercial kitchen, and probably only makes sense for certain types of restaurants.  If your customers are very conscious about the going green trend, however, LEED certification starts to make a lot of sense.

37. Replace refrigerator door gaskets Cracked, compressed, and worn door gaskets on refrigeration units are costing you money!  That’s because cold air is escaping the unit through these old, worn-out gaskets.  Even worse, there’s a food safety threat involved: grime and dirt breed bacteria in those cracks and the temperatures of food product near the door may enter the danger zone.  Do yourself a favor and get those gaskets replaced today.

38. Optimize the kitchen ventilation system The ventilation system above the cooking line in a restaurant kitchen is constantly running – and that means it’s also constantly costing you money.  Some simple tricks will help you control that cost, like getting the system rebalanced, pushing your equipment up against the wall underneath the hood to maximize suction, and installing a demand control to automatically tone down or rev up the system according to cooking volume.

39. Replace steam table pans
If you use a steam table then you’ve probably got more pans than you know what to do with, and that’s why the new year is a perfect opportunity to get rid of the ones that are costing you money.  Over time the corners and edges of steam table pans bend and crumple from use.  Every crack between the edge of the steam table and the lip of the pan is allowing heat to escape – and that means your table is working far harder than it should be.  Flatten out your pans so they fit snugly against the table and replace the ones too far gone to repair.

40. Install a three compartment sink – Not everything needs to go through your commercial dishwasher, and you can really save some money by resorting to good old-fashioned hand washing, that is, as long as you’re using a three compartment sink.  Using three compartments, one each for washing, rinsing, and drying is much more efficient than trying to do all in a single compartment.

41. Grow your own food – Not that you needed more work in the coming year, right?  Even so, many chefs have started growing their own herbs and vegetables in little vacant lots, on rooftops, or right behind the restaurant as a way to source the ingredients they need as locally as possible.  Customers love the idea and you can also save some money by gardening at least a few of the many ingredients you use daily in your operation.

Trends

42. Craft your own cocktails Specialty cocktails have made a serious comeback in restaurants and bars, and if you’re not serving them then you’re missing out.  Add some culinary creativity to bar offerings with specialty cocktails and market them during happy hour.  Just make sure you use quality, fresh ingredients, a witty name, and a unique combination of flavors to make the perfect cocktail.

43. Brew good coffee – It’s sometimes easy to forget about the quality of the coffee you serve, but with the rise of premium coffee you can bet your customers care deeply about sipping only best cup of joe.  Revisit basic brewing techniques like making sure the bed of grounds is only 1-2 inches, the water is filtered, the coffee machine is clean, and the temperature is between 195 and 205 degrees.

44. Cook with quinoa – Quinoa is a grain native to South America that is becoming increasingly popular in the U.S.  It’s high in protein, relatively cheap to buy, and very versatile when it comes to preparation.  If you’re looking for some new flavors and textures, quinoa is as good a place as any to start.

45. Buy some iPads Some restaurants have begun using iPads as menus or wine lists, and the interactive nature of tablets turns out to be an extremely effective marketing tool, with some restaurants reporting a 30% jump in wine sales after introducing an iPad wine list.  Obviously, the cost is pretty steep, but digital ordering is definitely the future.

46. Go induction Induction ranges are energy efficient and don’t need to be vented which means you can place them in some creative places in your restaurant.  They do require stainless cookware to work but they are also much faster at heating up whatever you’re cooking.

47. Shrink portion sizes – Smaller portions are all the rage since the Great Recession hit the American economy.  That’s because a smaller portion means less cost to both you and your customer.  And in an increasingly health-conscious world, smaller portions mean you can still use decadent ingredients without blowing up calorie totals.

48. Serve sake without sushi Sake is gaining mainstream appreciation in the U.S., and not just when people go out for sushi.  Try adding a couple premium sakes to your drink list for variety.  You might be surprised how many people order it up.

49. Add nutrition info to menus – This isn’t the easiest task in the world but it can have a real effect on your customers, who have said over and over they would prefer to have access to nutrition information in restaurants, even if they still go with the richest item on the menu.

50. Don’t ignore food trucks –
Yes, they have multiplied like flies across every city and town in America, and for good reason – people love them.  Whether you want to try out a new concept or find some new marketing channels for your existing restaurant, food trucks are the perfect vehicle for hitting the streets with your brand.

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New Super Fast Pathogen Tester Could Change Food Safety

New Super Fast Pathogen Tester Could Change Food SafetyIt seems like every year there are a growing number of food product recalls in response to outbreaks of illness caused by nasty bacteria like E. coli and salmonella.  In 2010 we had outbreaks in lettuce, tomatoes, and alfalfa sprouts that sickened hundreds of people.  In fact, there are 48 million reported cases of food borne illness every year and an estimated 3,000 deaths.

Restaurants often fall victim to blame for contamination that happened earlier in the food supply chain, but that doesn’t excuse them from responsibility.  Instead, food service businesses have to be more vigilant than ever when preparing food for customers.  You simply can’t trust that the ingredients coming in your back door are completely safe.

That’s why it was such encouraging news to hear that a Denver based biotech company called Beacon Food Safety has developed a comprehensive, super fast testing device that can detect up to 112 different kinds of food borne pathogens within a couple hours, and often within just a few minutes.

New Super Fast Pathogen Tester Could Change Food Safety

Visit www.beaconfoodsafety.com for more information

The tester resembles a standard thumb drive, but instead of a couple gigabytes of disk space, this USB device has a chip inside it with 112 individual detectors filled with a protein that was synthetically recreated from a deep sea creature.  When this protein comes into contact with a pathogen, it emits a light that can be detected by a computer when the tester is plugged into the USB  port.

Whoa, that’s high tech.

The device is revolutionary because pathogen testing has traditionally taken days or weeks to complete.  That’s because a sample has to be taken and allowed to steep in a petri dish.  The problem has always been that as few as 10 E. coli cells can make a person gravely ill, and it takes a long time for 10 cells to multiply in large enough numbers in a petri dish to be detected.

The Beacon device can’t detect as few as 10 cells just yet, but it can detect pathogens in very small numbers very quickly compared to traditional testing methods.

This kind of technology stands to revolutionize how pathogens are tracked in the food supply chain.  The ability to catch contaminated food almost in real time will mean outbreaks can be controlled and sources of illness can be found much more quickly.

For restaurateurs, the Beacon tester can add an extra layer of security to any food safety program.  Did some product arrive not quite at temperature?  Test it.  Has something been sitting in the walk-in a little too long?  Test it.  Are proteins getting cooked thoroughly enough?  Test it!

Beacon plans to make its device available for $20 a pop – a little steep for testing everything every day, but certainly in the realm for random spot checking to help ensure your restaurant’s food safety program is definitely working.

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Huge Money Saver Or Needless Middle Man? KlickKitchen Offers Online Ordering For Chefs

The website KlickKitchen allows chefs to source food products for their restaurant or commercial kitchen exclusively through the web.  Vendors upload their food products and restaurants log in and order what they need from the website’s catalog of foodstuffs.  The site is the creation of Jordan Glaser, formerly of the Institute for Culinary Education.  KlickKitchen contends that it saves chefs valuable time because the ordering process is streamlined and saves them money through reduced errors.

Overall, food service industry media has been very friendly to KlickKitchen, giving it positive reviews and repeating the company’s mantra: that their service will save chefs out there time and money.  But what do actual executive chefs in the real world think?  Surprisingly, there’s not much out there when it comes to talking about the KlickKitchen concept.  There was a spate of comments in forums that were started by people associated with the website last year, when it first launched.  Since then, there hasn’t been much, save for a QSR magazine reference in this month’s issue, which again repeated the mantra: this site will save you money and time.

After $300 in setup fees and a $30/month membership fee afterwards, it seems like KlickKitchen  had better be very effective at making your current method of ordering from food vendors more efficient.  Some have pointed out that they already order online from their food vendors.  Mostly, however, the food service industry seems pretty quiet about this website.

So what do you think?  Do you struggle with ordering errors and time spent trying to maintain your inventory?  Or do you find a third-party vendor like KlickKitchen to be just another middle man between you and your vendor?  Weigh in with your thoughts below!

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4 Steps To Managing Your Reputation Online

4 Steps To Managing Your Reputation OnlineEveryone’s got an opinion.  And in the internet age, everyone can and does voice their opinion online.  A short search online will bring back at least one person’s opinion about every kind of business under the sun, from eye doctors to painters.  Restaurants are particularly targeted by the masses of opinion makers out there, since the very nature of making and serving food is so subjective.

So do you have any idea what people are saying online about your restaurant?  I have talked about Yelp in previous posts, the restaurant review site that has had a tenuous relationship with restaurant owners at best since its inception.  But Yelp is only the tip of the opinion iceberg, and the restaurateur who ignores the behemoth that is social media is doomed to the same fate as the Titanic.

This is not to say that the opinion machine driven by social media is all bad.  It is, however, a decidedly double-edged sword.  On the one hand, positive reviews and feedback coming from your happy customers can bring new customers in droves.  On the other, one jerk who may or may not have actually had a bad experience can pick up the megaphone and start screaming nasty things about your restaurant.

84% of American consumers say online reviews affect their decisions on products and brands.  That’s a number you simply cannot ignore.  So what should you do?  4 steps to manage your restaurant’s reputation online:

Step 1: Listen to what people are saying.  You can’t manage something if you don’t know what you’re dealing with.  So tune in to the internet and start listening.  Some places to start: Yelp, OpenTable, and UrbanSpoon are just a few of the myriad websites that post restaurant reviews.  An even better option is to use Google Alerts, which will scour the entire internet for new content with your restaurant’s name in it and send you a report on what it finds.

Of course, don’t forget about the social media behemoths either: you should be on Twitter and Facebook anyway, talking about your restaurant, but if you’re not, go there today and get started!

Step 2: Respond to your critics and thank your fans.  The new internet (a.k.a. Web 2.0) is all about conversation.  You’ve listened.  Now it’s time to answer.  Yelp gives some helpful tips on how to respond to both positive and negative reviews.  No matter how you respond, do it with a healthy dose of common sense: e.g. don’t insult people, don’t act defensively, don’t act like a jerk, don’t pat yourself on the back, etc.  Basically, all the things that annoy you about people at a dinner party are the same things that are going to annoy your customers online.  So avoid them.4 Steps To Managing Your Reputation Online

The most important thing here is the creation of a dialogue.  When you interact with customers, you cement loyal fans in place and you blunt the negative effects of the critics.  You also appear open and engaged, which will earn you serious points with all your existing and potential online customers.

Step 3: Take the initiative.  Don’t let the naysayers define your restaurant’s reputation online.  If you’re not offering an alternate narrative, then people will start to think everything they read about you is true.  Here’s where Twitter and Facebook come in.  As I already said, if you’re not an active member of these two sites, then stop reading this blog post and go create an account with both.

The reasons for this are simple.  These services are free.  These services are popular.  These services are also considered culturally important.  Take the time to learn how to use them and then start talking about how great your restaurant is.  You’ll be amazed how many people want to listen.  All this costs you is your time, and the potential for new customer development is virtually unlimited.

Step 4: Gather intelligence.  This goes hand in hand with Step 1, but you can’t really gather effectively until you’ve started the conversation that follows from Steps 2 and 3.  Once you’ve established your own presence online, you can start to really learn exactly who your customer is and what they want.  This is the revered Holy Grail of marketing: knowing customers better than they know themselves.  You can achieve this through effective online reputation management.

That’s because when you converse with your customers in the realm of social media, you are going to start noticing trends and patterns.  If you are careful about tracking and analyzing this data, you’ll be able to learn the habits of your customer, which means you’ll be able to serve them better, which in turn means they’ll write nice reviews about you online….

You get the point.

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When Will The Restaurant Industry Finally Get Labor Right?

When Will The Restaurant Industry Finally Get Labor Right?It was taken as a good sign recently when the Nation’s Restaurant News reported that employee turnover in the restaurant industry was on the rise for the first quarter of 2011.  This means more jobs are being created and more vacancies need to be filled in the restaurant business than any time since 2008.

All the hiring is good news.  So is the sales forecasts by industry researchers Technomic and the National Restaurant Association (NRA), which have both been revised upward recently.

But why does that automatically mean employee turnover should go up? And why is this an accepted part of being an employer in the food business?

Restaurants need to finally get their labor practices right if they ever hope to keep competing in the new, post-recession economy.  This has always been a high turnover industry, full of people holding down a job while they wait for something better to come along.  In the last couple years, with unemployment at 25 year highs, restaurants had their pick of talent.  Now that the economy is improving, that talent is looking for, and finding, a better job.When Will The Restaurant Industry Finally Get Labor Right?

Complacent restaurateurs shrug their shoulders: we’ll just hire someone else, they say.

Meanwhile, Gallup just released an in-depth study that analyzed the average spending per customer per visit based upon their level of “engagement” – how valued they felt as a customer and how positively they viewed a restaurant’s service, taste of the food, and value for the money.

Gallup found that no matter the segment, many restaurants were leaving money on the table by not effectively engaging customers.  Even worse, their polling shows that a significant number of consumers have permanently lowered their dining spending, despite the improving economy.  The lone exception to this rule are engaged customers.

What does all this mean?  To borrow a phrase from Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign: It’s the experience, stupid.

A good experience happens for a customer when the food, the service, and the atmosphere are perfect.

All three of these factors are dependent upon the performance of the staff.  Your people.  Day after day.  That’s why it’s interesting to see the California Restaurant Association reject a proposal in that state to give workers up to nine days of paid sick leave per year, despite the release of a recent study that found a similar law in San Francisco was largely embraced by the restaurant community there.When Will The Restaurant Industry Finally Get Labor Right?

It’s also interesting to watch the NRA oppose bills like Card Check or Missouri restaurants fight a minimum-wage increase.  These organizations seem to be choosing profit over people every time.

The new reality is that people are a restaurant’s new source of profits.  And to get good people, you have to pay for them.  Sure, you can keep paying the minimum hourly rate plus tips, never give a paid day off, even for sickness, despite the food safety risks, and casually shrug your shoulders when the economy improves and all your best help finds a real job, leaving you to train a greenhorn teenager to keep your customers engaged.

You’ll also be history before too long.

The restaurants that survive the new reality in food service are the ones who know how to recruit, train, and keep top-notch staff.  Whether they accomplish this through creative compensation strategies, a people-first corporate culture, or by actually giving a few paid sick days a year doesn’t matter.

What matters is that restaurants need to wake up.  Accepting that turnover will go up just because better jobs are available in an improved economy simply isn’t good enough.

When are restaurants going to wake up and finally get labor right?

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

Why Restaurants That Offer Discounts Dominate Top U.S. Brand RankingsThere 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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How To Turn Coupons Into Restaurant Marketing Opportunities

How To Turn Coupons Into Restaurant Marketing OpportunitiesDespite the fact that a majority of restaurateurs view discount sites like Groupon as the biggest threat to their business, and despite a lot of talk in the restaurant industry about how discounts devalue a restaurant’s brand, new market research reveals that coupons and deep discounts are probably here to stay.

The recession may be fading, but the price-based behavior consumers have become accustomed to over the past two years isn’t going anywhere.  This was the most interesting point made in a survey conducted by Radius Global Market Research last month.

According to Radius 86% of diners said they look for ways to cut costs every time they eat out.

The study went on to point out some areas consumers indicated would motivate them to dine out besides price, including:

  • More calorie and nutrition information
  • Social media promotions
  • More chicken, breakfast, and snack options
  • More premium burgers

Consumers also indicated that most of these factors are more effective for the quick service and fast casual dining segments, which leaves fine dining and independent restaurants with precious few ways to motivate increased visits from their regulars.  Besides, that is, coupons.

That’s depressing news for restaurateurs who had hoped to start moving away from discounting and towards a value-based approach – good food, great service, nice atmosphere.  All of those factors are still what make a successful restaurant, but if patrons aren’t coming in the door then there isn’t much chance to show off the things your restaurant does best.

If the hated coupon is indeed here to stay then there is only one way for independents to compete: jump on the coupon bandwagon.  That means if you’re taking a bath on a lot of discounts then you might as well find some creative ways to get as much as you can out of your penny-pinching customers.

Some ideas:

Get an email address. Don’t give coupons away for nothing!  While you would much rather get full price on check amounts, a discount doesn’t have to be a complete loss.  That email address can be worth a lot of extra visits to you if you plug it into an effective email marketing program.

Limit the coupon then work the upsell. Groupons aren’t going to allow you to give discounts on specific menu items or times of the week, and that’s why you should develop your own coupon program and cut out those margin-eating middlemen.

Send out your own coupons to regulars that gives a discount on your high-margin menu items then set your servers to work upselling on everything from appetizers and cocktails to desserts.  Alternatively, offer a blanket coupon, but only for the slowest night of the week.
How To Turn Coupons Into Restaurant Marketing Opportunities
Advertise to customers while you’re paying dearly for their presence. Those deep discounts hurt your margins but they do at least give you an opportunity to advertise yourself to a captive audience.  Menus, waiting areas, bathrooms, receipts, servers, and tabletops are all great areas to subtly but forcefully advertise how great your restaurant is and inform guests about upcoming events and deals.

Just because check averages dip every time you discount doesn’t mean you can’t get something of value out of all those deal-hunters.  Being creative with the ways you get compensated for providing a coupon can help you drive more visits in the future and help ease the pain of taking money off the bill.

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Improve Restaurant Sales And Brand Recognition At Food Festivals

Improve Restaurant Sales And Brand Recognition At Food FestivalsSummer food festivals have been a fixture in American culture for years.  From the Taste of Chicago to the Alabama Crawfish Festival , food festivals large and small have kept growing and expanding, even through recent economic turbulence.

Tens of thousands of restaurants participate in these festivals across the country.  Participation often means closing down their establishment and spending a significant amount of money setting up and serving food at the festival.  But the general attitude is that the cost and loss of revenue is definitely worth it.

That’s because you simply cannot beat the exposure and customer engagement any restaurant gets at a food festival.  Potential customers are much more likely to experiment with new types of cuisine and new restaurant brand names in the festive atmosphere, making a local food festival an important avenue to gaining new customers for young establishments.  For the more experienced restaurants at a festival, reinforcing your brand in the community is a priceless commodity, and nothing communicates stability than customers seeing you year after year at the local food festival.

Restaurants in large metropolitan areas should choose the food festivals they attend more carefully than those in smaller communities.  Obviously, they’ll have more choices, and a big city restaurant should look for the festival that is most likely to cater to the type of person you want in your restaurant.  In small cities and rural areas, it’s much less about market segmentation and a lot more about making an appearance.  Just showing up at the local food festival communicates your involvement in the community.

In an age when it seems like all marketing gurus talk about is engaging customers through social media on the internet, food festivals provide a unique opportunity to engage customers face-to-face in a positive and friendly atmosphere.  Don’t expect to make any money at your local food festival.  But do expect to recognize the same smiling faces you see there in your restaurant in the months afterwards.

For a complete list of food festivals in your area, check out this food festival guide.

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