The stock market keeps declining, unemployment remains stubbornly high and talks of a double-dip recession continue to permeate. Looking at consumer trends, many say they want to spend less, save more and are have become more fearful of the economic environment and their jobs.
What’s a restaurateur to do? Ignore it.
In this special report — found in-depth in the Sept. 26 issue of Nation’s Restaurant News and previewed here — you’ll find 10 ways to drive business from within your four walls.
Looking at just 10 major touch points consumers experience when they look to dine out, this report outlines ways capitalize on customer interactions with the objective of growing traffic and repeat business, and improving guest service and customer satisfaction.
Online: Make a connection
By Mark Brandau
Restaurant companies count online impressions — some in the millions of page views — from website redesigns or social-media campaigns as a way to calculate their marketing return on investment. But for increasingly Web-savvy consumers, the most important impression is the first one foodservice brands make on the guest’s computer or mobile phone screens.
Consumers don’t want restaurants merely to sell to them online, but rather to connect with them.
Here are four ways restaurants can effectively engage with customers via social media.
• Use YouTube as a “storytelling process.” Paul Barron, founder of online branding firm DigitalCoco, suggests restaurants upload their own videos for free or link to other relevant videos to help craft the brand message.
• Post photos. Sites like Flickr and Picasa allow users to upload photos for free. Restaurants may use the service to give customers a sense of the dining room décor, or tempt them with food photos.
“It also has a great impact on search,” said Tonia Ries, founder of social-media branding agency Modern Media. “It allows the photos you share via Flickr to be used in other ways — as well as on blogs and social-media accounts.”
• Track publicity. McDonald’s in-house marketing team regularly tracks online praise and criticism of the brand. Its vigilance paid off when social-media director Rick Wion and his team spotted on Twitter a fake racist flyer supposedly posted in a McDonald’s restaurant and quickly responded to clarify the hoax .
Twitter can also result in priceless publicity. When social-media consultant Peter Shankman tweeted his request for a Morton’s steak delivered plane-side when he landed at Newark International Airport in New Jersey, the brand greeted him on the tarmac with a porterhouse. The action created strong buzz when Shankman tweeted about it to his followers .
• Go mobile. CKE Restaurants created a Happy Star Rewards mobile app  for Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. that lets customers win prizes at the chains. The more a customer uses the app, the more likely they are to win a prize, spurring repeat traffic.
Domino's also got in on the mobile arena with its Pizza Tracker app, which lets customers follow their pizza from oven to doorstep.
On the street: Dress up your outdoor décor
By Paul Frumkin
A restaurant’s curb appeal can be as important to attracting guests as its decor, menu or service, experts say. Rick Van Warner, senior partner of Orlando, Fla.-based Parquet Public Affairs, a consulting firm specializing in the restaurant and retail industries, and a former Nation’s Restaurant News editor, weighs in on several external areas that can make a restaurant more appealing to new and repeat guests.
• Landscaping. This is one of the first areas that an operator can make a statement about the restaurant. Unkempt landscaping can create a terrible first impression on customers and even raise questions about how conscientiously the food inside is being handled. Well-kept trees, trimmed shrubbery, a mowed lawn and flowers all contribute to a restaurant’s first impression.
• Parking lot. Weeds poking up through cracks in the parking lot, dirty or greasy pavement, or garbage stacked along a wall all may prompt the guest to ask, “Is this a place I want to eat in?” If the restaurant is in a strip center, the operator should make certain the landlord is holding up his end of the bargain by keeping the parking lot clean.
• Entryway. An interesting entrance can help to attract customers. The main entry point can benefit from an extended awning, different elevations, a winding sidewalk or even a small, raised tower — any visual element that draws the guest in and sends a signal that this is an interesting place. The entryway can also provide a transition that takes guests from the “crazy world” to a place in which they are going to be nurtured.
• Lighting. The importance of good external lighting can’t be overstated. It should be something that draws attention at night and reflects the personality of the operation. Good back lighting for signage also is important.
• Signage. External signage is the first true brand message that you send to the guest, and it goes hand in hand with the architectural image you’re trying to establish. It can convey energy or lack of energy, a contemporary or dated feeling. For a restaurant that is in a turnaround situation or is just refreshing the brand, you must change out the signage if you’re looking to change the image of a place. It can be costly, but there are very few better ways to tell people that you’ve changed than by changing your sign.
• Music. External music often is overlooked. Many stylish or fashionable operations like to play music through external speakers into the parking lot as way of communicating with guests right from the time they leave their cars. It can be an added expense, but it starts to create a mood and helps to convey what the experience is all about.
At the counter/In the lobby: Make your greeting count
By Robin Lee Allen
A customer walks into a restaurant — and the last thing it should be is the beginning of a joke.
How guests are treated the moment they enter an establishment sets the stage for the rest of the dining experience and colors their long-term views of the brand.
“Customers drive by 30 to 40 other restaurants to get to yours, so make sure that first impression is a good one,” said Jim Sullivan, president of Sullivision.com and a columnist for Nation’s Restaurant News. “Cleanliness and friendliness are the cornerstones for a great first impression.”
Three entryway essentials restaurants should execute:
• The door area, lobby or counter should be neat and clean.
• The initial greeting should reflect awareness, hospitality and gratefulness — and it should be delivered the moment a guest arrives.
• Grace under pressure is critical. Even when employees are busy, they should give the customer a quick smile and acknowledge that the person will be taken care of soon.
At the bar: Tap your sales keg
By Vanessa Van Landingham
The bar is a hotbed of activity for many restaurants, abuzz with patrons killing time waiting for a table, popping in for a quick cocktail with friends, watching the game or even ordering a full meal. That activity can translate to a significant sales driver for operators — if they can avoid common pitfalls, says Sean Finter, global director and founder of bar consultancy Barmetrix. Here, Finter shares his advice for building a good rapport with customers and increasing sales at the bar.
• Staffing. Remember that guests are buying more than just drinks; they’re buying an experience. Hire based on your personal service philosophy and type of customer, then make sure you have the right mix of skill levels and personalities on hand at all times.
“It’s really about the experience you’re offering, and that experience is solely delivered by people.” Finter said. “If you can’t get the people side of it right, then nothing else matters.”
• Enthusiasm. Get your staff excited about a product, and that will come through to the customer, encouraging sales.
• Product knowledge. Bartenders need to be able to make informed recommendations and serve a uniform product, regardless of how busy they get.
• Consistent pricing. Unless it’s part of your business model, try to avoid discounting.
• Toolkit. Be proactive in providing your bartenders with everything they need to assist customers, including barware, ingredients and the ability to drive trial.
“Is your menu laid out in a way that you can show-and-tell the person as you’re walking them through the buying procedure? Does your business offer any sort of samples?” Finter said. “A person who’s great at sales is going to use all the tools the business provides them.”
At the table: Get a rave review
By Alan J. Liddle
If full-service restaurants are like theaters, with their “showtime” rushes and “cast member” staffs, then tables arguably are the stages on which the performance succeeds or fails.
As such, operators seek to bring guests back into their performance halls or inspire them to spend more for their tickets through such techniques as keeping tables and serviceware clean, server sales contests, and reinforcing the importance of order accuracy and service pacing.
A look at three casual- and family-dining chains:
• Applebee’s. Susan Belluscio, manager of training for 103-unit franchisee AmRest’s Atlanta-based Applebee’s division, said her company’s Suggest More & Score program trains servers to upsell and tracks results.
“We hope it changes [the guest’s] experience so that they come back in and that their meal was enhanced by the suggestions our server made,” she said.
The 2-year-old campaign has resulted in an increase in per person averages at all company restaurants.
• Cracker Barrel. The 601-unit Cracker Barrel Old Country Store family-restaurant chain in Lebanon, Tenn., offers career path enhancement initiatives through the chain’s Personal Achievement Responsibility, or PAR, program for wait staffers who are willing to polish their tableside presentation to create a stronger bond with guests.
Jeanne Ludington, corporate communications manager at Cracker Barrel, said making “a personal connection with each guest” is a cornerstone of the voluntary PAR program.
That initiative uses e-learning, on-the-job training and performance evaluations by managers, and offers employees who progress through it leadership status, special recognitions and eligibility for rewards.
• Chili’s. By placing touch-screen terminals at each table, 123-unit Chili’s Grill & Bar franchisee ERJ Dining LLC of Louisville, Ky., puts some of the onus for order accuracy on customers, which many apparently appreciate.
The technology has pushed up guest satisfaction scores, as some patrons view it as entertainment, according to ERJ’s Scott Bedows.
“We’ve definitely seen an improved average check [from add-on dessert sales], quicker table turns and higher tips for servers,” he said.
On the menu: Fine tune your food
By Bret Thorn
When it comes to improving business in a restaurant, perhaps no single tool is more powerful than the menu.
Price adjustments can attract the budget conscious or bolster margins, the addition of healthful or vegetarian items can squelch veto votes, and simple tweaks in phrasing or positioning can transform a nonperformer into a crowd pleaser.
Here are some tips and examples of how to get the most out of your menu:
Highlight preparation methods
Nancy Kruse, restaurant consultant and president of the Kruse Company in Atlanta, said phrasing on a menu that highlights the extra steps that restaurants already take when preparing their food can help to add to their appeal.
For example, CKE, parent to company to Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s, boosted same-store sales in the first quarter of this year with hand-breaded chicken tenders and a chicken sandwich made with hand-breaded fillets.
Kruse also said that as a growing number of consumers show concern about where their food comes from and hold an interest in local, seasonal ingredients, restaurants can take relatively easy steps to address that consumer need.
Family-dining chain Shari’s Restaurants did this in 2010 by offering several dishes with fresh, seasonal blackberries, resulting in a substantial increase in sales.
Think about pricing
For a successful menu, it is key to give customers a sense of value.
Randy Murphy, chief executive of the 13-unit Mama Fu’s Asian House, said he managed to raise per-person check averages in the past year and a half with the introduction of $1.69 add-ons — roughly half-sized versions of appetizers such as edamame, soup, salad or spring rolls — that could be ordered with entrées. He also added a smaller-portion, lower-price lunch option that brought the least-expensive entrées to around $5.50. Customers responded by ordering more drinks and sides, he said.
In the kitchen: Show off your chef
By Lisa Jennings
There was a time when the restaurant kitchen was a mysterious, unseen place where any wizardry that occurred was cloaked safely behind the figurative velvet curtain.
These days, however, chefs and operators across all segments are pulling back that curtain to offer guests a view into their kitchens in ways that have become a fundamental part of the dining experience.
A few new concepts experimenting with the open kitchen format are:
• Tender Greens, Los Angeles. At any of the fast-casual chain’s locations, guests walk the service line to select their meal, forgoing a waiter and speaking directly with the person preparing their meal.
“It’s part of the show that a lot of people don’t get to see, except on TV,” Matt Lyman, founder of Tender Greens, said.
• Searsucker and Burlap, San Diego. Brian Malarkey and James Brennan of Enlightened Hospitality Group  opened these concepts that both feature open kitchens. At Searsucker, guest can sit a bar and have a drink while they watch their food being prepared, and at Burlap customers can view the kitchen through a glass wall.
The open kitchen format fit with the two partners’ concept of “social dining,” which allows customers to interact with staff ad feel more part of the venue’s energy, Brennan said.
• The Catbird Seat, Nashville. Fine-dining chefs Erik Anderson and Josh Habiger in October are scheduled to open this 30-seat restaurant with almost all seating situated around a U-shaped bar encompassing the kitchen, where they will prepare $130 seven-course fixed-price dinners.
While open kitchens are becoming the norm and offer a unique experience for dinners and staff, operators say it is crucial to think about cleanliness and food-safety, and to train staff properly.
“We have to drill it into their heads from the beginning,” Lyman said. “They have to think about things like picking up a dirty rag or scratching their ear or touching their hat. People can be hypercritical.”
At the drive-thru: Rev up sales
The drive-thru, a decades-old hallmark of many of the most prominent restaurant chains, is getting renewed attention these days as operators realize that small tweaks can translate into big improvements in sales and efficiency.
Whether a drive-thru is part of a new prototype or an established pillar of the business, there are always ways to improve, said founder of Sullivision.com  and Nation’s Restaurant News columnist Jim Sullivan. Here are several of his tips for revving up sales at the drive-thru window:
A need for speed: Make sure all processes are devised for accuracy and speed, with no wasted effort by employees. For example, have a system in place to keep straws and napkins close at hand.
Training: Make sure staff members are menu experts so no time is wasted during order taking by unnecessary questions or confusion.
Data tracking and measurement: Track and measure data on accuracy and drive-thru speed. Make sure the staff knows their targets and what they need to improve upon.
Technology: Digital displays, cashless payment and noise-reducing sound systems have been shown to ease customer anxiety and dramatically reduce transaction times.
Customer perspective: Consider what the driver sees and improve any poor areas. Keep signage clear, the building well-maintained and the window exchange area clean.
In the dining room: Make guests feel at home
By Steve Coomes
More creature comforts are showing up in every segment of the industry, and restaurants across all segments are doing whatever they can to make customers more comfortable.
“What’s interesting is if you read restaurant reviews from 20 years ago, it was all about food and service,” Stephani Robson, senior lecturer, restaurant designs, at the Cornell School of Hotel Administration, said. “But if you read them now, there’s so much more written about ambience and environment.”
Here are examples of what restaurants are doing to help customers feel more at home.
• McDonald’s added flat-screen TVs and free WI-FI
• Austin, Texas-based Schlotzsky’s Deli upgraded its furniture, lightened its color scheme and did away with its loudspeaker.
• Fine-dining restaurant Le Bernadin in New York City increased its number of booths and positioned more tables against the wall as opposed to the center of the room.
• Columbus, Ohio-based Bob Evans is spending nearly $10 million on a Farm-Fresh Refresh initiative at 44 restaurants in Detroit and Toledo, Ohio. Updated entryways feature murals depicting the company’s heritage, while dining rooms are getting contemporary furnishings and light fixtures, as well as brighter fabrics and carpets. Renovated units also have a Taste of the Farm Bakery retail section at which guests can buy baked goods, meals to go and gift cards.
Upgrading and refining restaurants is a good way to accommodate customers and refresh a brand’s image.
“It’s a chance for operators to reinvent themselves somewhat and to make their restaurants more efficient in some cases,” Brian Sill, president of Deterministics, a Kirkland, Wash.-based consultancy, said. “We’re seeing this happen all over the place right now, these aesthetic refreshers. They’re simple things owners can do internally.”
Out the door: Leave a lasting impression
By Alan Snel
Following a dinner of Eggplant Parmesan or Mom’s Lasagna at Maggiano’s Little Italy, a customer receives more than just a smile and a thank you on his or her way out — the customer gets a second round of the dish to take home, compliments of the chef.
The promotional deal, which launched as a limited-time offer in August 2009, but was permanently added to the menu due to its popularity, is just one of many examples where operators are making it a point to leave a positive impression on guests.
The goodbye is as crucial as the hello. Jason Chavez, the owner of a Beef ‘O’ Brady’s in Lake Jackson, Texas stresses this sentiment to his staff.
“Paying attention to customers when they leave is just as important as the greeting; you want them to come back,” Chavez said.
To ensure customers leave happy, the Tampa, Fla.-based chain offers customer-loyalty card, which allows Beef ‘O’ Brady’s guests to build points toward receiving discounts or free food. They also sell a 32-ounce tumbler for $3 as customers leave, which can be brought back for 99-cent refills.
Stay connected. Juice It Up, a 90-unit smoothie chain based in Irvine, Calif. offers customers coupons, ad materials and discounts as the leave.
“It’s about staying connected,” Carol Skinner, senior director of marketing and business development at Juice It Up, said. “We listen to them and respond to them. It’s about having two-way conversations.”
Say thank you. Los Angeles-based California Pizza Kitchen has found success with its annual Thank You Card Program held each spring. The card makes it possible for guests to win prizes of up to $100,000, but chances to win are available only when they return. CPK officials projected that the 2011 promotion, which ended June 5, would lift same-store sales about 3 percent, based on past years.