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Online Ordering: Is It Your Future Blessing or Curse?

You can do anything on the Internet these days, and increasingly people are relying on the web to do all kinds of things that make their daily lives more convenient.  On paper, the idea of introducing an online ordering service sounds exciting to restaurateurs.  After all, who can complain about making sales before your customer ever steps through the door?

At this point, it’s mostly national chains that have introduced online ordering, many with some considerable success.  But as the technology gets more advanced, like order integration with your in-house POS system and cheaper to implement, many smaller operators may seriously consider implementing an online ordering system.

And as this technology trend continues, many can probably learn from the school of hard knocks Chipotle Mexican Grill has been through with online ordering.  When Chipotle launched their online ordering feature a couple years ago, it was almost too successful.  Orders poured into some chain locations, and staff trying to fill online orders frequently got in the way of staff trying to take care of customers in the store.

How many times have you walked up to a restaurant, taken one look at the line, and walked right out again?  Traditionally, this is how food service has regulated its peak periods and prevented extremely long wait times.  When customers are ordering online, however, they have no idea how many people are already waiting in line.  That created all kinds of problems for Chipotle, because online orders kept pouring in even though the restaurant was already full.

A great problem to have, right?  Chipotle responded by adding a dedicated prep line for online orders in their busiest locations.  They also streamlined the order generation process and added staff for those peak times.

For smaller operators, there’s a couple lessons to think about.  Because sooner or later, you will probably have online ordering, especially as customers catch on and start expecting everyone to provide the same service as Chipotle and other big operators.  Besides, an online ordering system can really help boost sales and customer convenience, which makes the concept very appealing to any restaurateur.

Be prepared.  Internet sales aren’t going to come in during the afternoon lull.  They’re going to pour in when everyone else is hungry: right at lunch and during the dinner rush.  When you first start out, assign some extra staff.  You don’t know how online orders are going to shake out, and the last thing you want is to compromise service to your in-house customers because you can’t keep up with online orders.

Manage order flow.  As Chipotle learned, having two teams, one working on walk-in customers and the other devoted to Internet sales, is a great idea in theory, but when those two teams are competing for the same food prep resources, problems and inefficiencies arise.  Make sure you develop a way to either give both teams their own resources or a way to integrate orders from both sources that allows your staff to deal with them in a timely manner.

Be flexible.  Every restaurant is different, and each one trying an online ordering service is going to be presented with a unique set problems.  No matter how well you prepare, something is going to go wrong.  Be ready to make adjustments and continue to tweak your service until you get it right according to your circumstances.

For many restaurants, online ordering seems like a distant prospect.  But I’d be willing to bet it’s a trend that sneaks up on the food service industry faster than most realize, and when the day comes for your restaurant, no matter how large or small, to accommodate customers coming in from the Internet, be prepared.

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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 Big Red F Restaurant Group: One Vision, Many Places

big red  fIf you’re at all familiar with the favorite local haunts of Boulder and downtown Denver, then you probably know a Big Red F restaurant or two, even if that name doesn’t ring a bell.  Big Red F is a group of unique concepts started by Culinary Institute of America graduate, former Q’s Restaurant owner, and Boulder native Dave Query.  Big Red F’s concepts are as varied as they are fun, including Zolo Southwestern Grill, Jax Fish House, Centro Latin Kitchen & Refreshment Palace, and The West End Tavern.

As differently as each concept approaches their cuisine, all of Chef Query’s restaurants take a singular approach to guest services, and anyone who has visited a Big Red F restaurant can tell you exactly how that feels.  Anyone who walks through the door is treated as a friend and a welcome guest at an exclusive party where the host knows exactly what he’s doing.

Chef Query sums it up the best: “Running a successful restaurant is like juggling ice cubes on a hot day: you have to be quick and precise, sourcing the freshest foods, being the home of all things seasonal, and keeping the chalkboards constantly fresh in an effort to do your very best to serve an incredibly fresh product smack in the middle of the Rocky Mountains. This is what we try to accomplish at our restaurants every single day.”

Big Red F restaurants view sustainability as an integral part of customer service, and since service is a thing they take very seriously, each restaurant is dedicated to reaching a high bar.  All paper products and many plastic products, including straws and trash bags, are either compostable or recyclable.  Big Red F offsets 100% of its energy usage with wind power and CFL light bulbs are used whenever possible.  Most Big Red F restaurants are also either PACE (Partners For A Clean Environment) certified or in the process of getting certification.

Bryce Clark, Big Red F’s PR director, explains why sustainable practices are so important:  “Some things like having CFL light bulbs save us money down the road, but most of our eco-friendly practices are just important to us and our customers.  Our customers come into our restaurants not only for the experience, but also because we care about being socially responsible.  To us it goes hand in hand with helping out the community.”

The synergy between Big Red F and their community reveals how powerful great customer service can be when you’re in tune with more than just a customer’s desire to eat great food.

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This Isn’t American Idol: How Chipotle Went Platinum

Chipotle Platinum LEED CertifiedA Chipotle restaurant in Gurnee Mills, IL recently gained Platinum level certification through the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program, which is run by the United States Green Building Council.  The restaurant was built on the cutting edge of environmentally sustainable technology, boasting a six-kilowatt wind turbine, a 2,500 gallon cistern for storing and reusing rainwater for sprinklers, and a building built using various recycled materials.

LEED is a voluntary program, and participants are independently certified by the Green Building Certification Institute.  The program focuses on sustainability and green practices in several areas, including site selection, water conservation, energy efficiency, building materials, and design innovations.  Buildings are evaluated on a point system and then awarded different levels of certification.  The Gurnee Chipotle has achieved the platinum level, which is the highest available.

To get platinum certification, Chipotle had to score at least 80 points on a 100 point scale in the different areas of emphasis in the program.  More and more restaurant chains are looking to LEED certification and other green practices as consumers continue to indicate they prefer companies that do so.  Chipotle has long been a leader in sustainability, including sourcing food locally, using recyclable materials, and minimizing packaging waste.

For small independent restaurants, things like LEED certification probably seem like a pipe dream reserved only for the rich big chains that can afford a PR stunt.  But in reality consumer expectations are changing fast, and sooner or later smaller restaurants will be expected to belly up to the green movement trough by their customers.  Starting that transition now makes it easier to finish later, and besides it’s great publicity.  Just ask Chipotle.   The Back Burner has all kinds of green restaurant and sustainability tips.  You might as well start digging in now, because green is here to stay.

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Green Restaurant Tips: Looking Past Your Kitchen

Green Restaurant TipsWhile your kitchen may be by far the biggest energy user, it is by no means the only thing that racks up your monthly bills. Paying a little attention to some of the other energy drains in your business can help bring your overall energy use down considerably.

Some tips to help you manage those costs:

  • Use fans instead of the central unit. For every degree you adjust your thermostat, you can save 4% – 5% on heating or cooling bills.  Energy Star rated ceiling fans are a great way to circulate air and allow you to turn your thermostat up or down depending on the time of year. Use fans to bring in cooler outside air when you need to cool things down, or use them to circulate hot air from the kitchen when you need to heat things up.
  • Conduct regular maintenance on central air units. Clean the heat transfer coils on air conditioning every month.  Clean or replace air filters regularly.  A dirty air filter not only makes the unit work harder, but it can affect the air quality in your building as well.
  • Repair and seal ducting. Leaky ducts means the air you spent all that money heating or cooling is escaping before it gets to your customer.  Regularly check ducts for leaks and seal them as needed.
  • Set up a service contract with a local company to check and service ducts and the central air unit if you don’t have the time or energy for do-it-yourself.
  • Install an Energy Star thermostat. Programmable thermostats automatically reduce heating or cooling for non-business hours, saving you money and time over a manual thermostat.
  • Use windows to your advantage. Ideally, you should use Energy Star rated windows with the proper solar energy heat gain coefficient (SHGC). Low SHGC windows are used in places with long, hot summers to minimize solar heat and reduce cooling costs. High SHGC windows are used where there is a long, cold winter to maximize solar heat and reduce heating costs.  If you are remodeling or starting a new business, use Energy Star to help you select energy efficient windows.

Since budgets and buildings usually aren’t in sync, use the following tips to help you make do with what you have:

  • Use a UV-resistant window film, blinds, and curtains to insulate and reduce heat gain.  These techniques vary in cost and effectiveness, with the best solution probably being a combination according to your specific needs. No matter what, use something that allows you to block sunlight when it’s hot and add an extra layer or insulation when it’s cold.
  • Have new windows professionally installed. Framing and insulating new windows can make a huge difference in maintaining green heating or cooling.
  • Also caulk and seal existing windows annually to maintain an airtight barrier between your customers and outside weather.
  • Buy Energy Star skylights and doors. Just like with your windows, regularly check and seal doors and skylights to minimize air leaks and reduce your heating and cooling costs.
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How To Price Local Foods On Your Menu

Local Food Restaurant MenuIf you’re in the food service industry then you’ve heard about “local food” – ingredients sourced locally that are usually marketed as fresh, organic, and environmentally sustainable.  And while local has fast become a red-hot trend in the restaurant business, some in the industry have wondered how to make local profitable.  Food cost is usually higher for local ingredients, and in an era of price wars and mass discounting, margins have become razor thin as it is.

Well, at least according to one recent study funded by the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University, consumers are willing to pay somewhat more for meals that are sourced locally.  In the study, restaurant patrons were given the choice between locally and non-locally sourced meal selections.  When the two options were priced the same, customers showed no significant preference one way or the other.

But when the locally sourced option was priced 18% higher than the non-local one, customer preference for the local option soared.  This doesn’t mean you can price locally sourced entrees wherever you want, however.  At 36% above the non-local option, customers went with the cheaper selection every time.

So what does this mean? Well, customers obviously value local food up to a point.  This most likely stems from the perception that local food is fresh and more sustainable.  If you’ve started sourcing some or all of your ingredients locally, then this study indicates you have some wiggle room on pricing, especially if you employ the Menu Engineering Theory of Relativity.

On the other hand, going through a major menu revamp just so you can offer local ingredients may not make a whole lot of sense.  Remember that consumer tolerance for large price hikes on entrees with local ingredients did not do well.  So unless there are readily available local ingredients that fit naturally with your menu and concept, the slightly higher value consumers place on local foods may not be enough to make economic sense.

This rings especially true when another aspect of this study is taken into account: that consumers did not seem to have a special preference for restaurants that offered locally sourced food versus those that did not.  That means consumers place a higher value on local ingredients when they encounter them, but those ingredients do not seem to change buying habits in any significant way.

Therefore, sourcing food locally makes sense for restaurants only when ingredients that are easy to incorporate into an existing menu at a reasonable price.  If you focus on keeping it simple, then local ingredients can mean some extra margin.  Finding that sweet spot will take some experimentation, but it can definitely pay dividends provided your pursuit of local ingredients doesn’t interfere with the bread-and-butter options on your menu.

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Why Google Is The Future Of Restaurant Marketing

Google Restaurant Marketing“Favorite Places On Google” is a new feature that provides maps, directions, reviews, and photos of 100,000 businesses across the U.S.  Many of these businesses are restaurants, and that’s significant because eventually users will be able to post reviews and other information about your restaurant and have it display on Google.

You’re probably thinking: “Great, this sounds like Yelp, Zagat, or a hundred other websites that try to get me to pay to get listed online.”

Well, naturally Favorite Places is done the Google way.  There’s no paying to play, which makes it certainly cheaper than sites like Yelp.  And Favorite Places is on the cutting edge of technology – Google has already mailed out decals with a scannable barcode on it to the first group of businesses.  Mobile device users can immediately access deals and information about that business when they scan the barcode, and will even be able to post a review directly on site.

What makes the Favorite Places concept more democratic than other restaurant directory sites is that it pulls from multiple sources.  You can access reviews from Zagat, photos from UrbanSpoon, and search results from Google.  This dilutes the biases that tend to plague other restaurant review sites, because those sites pull from only one source – their own.

So how do you get your site listed on Google’s Favorite Places?
It won’t happen overnight.  Google identifies popular local businesses by analyzing who’s searching for what on their site.  The most popular searches in geographic areas get designated as Favorite Places.

But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing you can do.  You can help the process along by adding information about your restaurant in the Google Local Business Center.  After you “unlock” your business listing by providing key information, your restaurant’s ready for consideration for Favorite Places.

So how is this going to change restaurant marketing?  By democratizing the process that sites like Yelp and UrbanSpoon have started.  Taking away payments and diversifying information sources means the most popular restaurants in a given area will be featured, and they will be able to take advantage of that through the decal system.

Favorite Places also gives restaurant owners a free place to create an online presence that can have a real effect on business.  And being able to engage customers through the decal barcode will definitely change the way restaurants target their customers.

Google plans to send out more waves of decals to Favorite Places in 2010.  If you’re one of the lucky restaurants that gets a decal, consider yourself lucky, and immediately start thinking about how to take advantage of it.  If not, start thinking about how to get that decal in the mail.  The future of restaurant marketing is upon us.

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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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