There’s no question that the economic turbulence of the past few years has hit the restaurant industry hard, from lost revenue to staff shortages, and it’s a trend that industry experts expect to continue into 2023. Inflation has led to increased food and paper costs that ultimately get passed on to consumers, labor costs are rising, and as guests feel the financial pressure, they are being more selective with where they eat. Increasingly, diners expect a more elevated restaurant experience when they splurge on a night out, from how they are greeted and seated to the interaction with the front-of-house team to the quality of the meal.
But while the recession we may or may not be in presents challenges to restaurant owners, those with a strong strategy will be able to meet diners’ expectations without compromising on quality — resulting in more loyal patrons in the process.
Addressing the question of cost
Everyone is feeling the pinch of rising costs at the grocery store, but restaurant owners have been particularly hit by the rising food costs, which rose over 10% in 2022, including over 17% for poultry and over 11% for fish and seafood. While there will be some expectation of higher prices for diners, there are also options for owners to subtly shift menu items to keep those rising costs in check. A thorough menu audit can help owners identify any high-cost items that could be replaced with menu items that have a lower cost of goods sold. Restaurant owners should never compromise quality or portion size, but rather identify what they do best and align their menus accordingly, taking current costs into account.
One important aspect of menu design is price/value perception; does what I am spending my hard-earned money on equal or exceed my experience? On virtually every menu, there are loss leaders, those items that cost more to produce and are sold for less. During uncertain economic times, it is far more important to bring and retain as many guests as possible than to make the ideal profit margin on every item. Have you ever wondered why most delis are always busy regardless of the experience? Did you ever wonder why delis have huge portion sizes that could feed one and a half to two people? Deli owners know that this approach will bring people back more often. Their guests have a great price/value perception. I recommend every restaurateur think about how this practice can be executed in their restaurants.
Part of streamlining the menu also includes training staff in the particulars of menu selections and in dishes’ best pairings with cost-effective wine and beer options. That personal touch goes a long way in driving a positive guest experience.
Maintaining a strong local connection
As diners are more cautious with spending and more selective with their restaurant outings, those establishments with a strong community presence are going to come out on top.
Restaurants need a strong community presence — both online and in person. The more connected with a restaurant and its owners people feel, the more likely they are to choose that establishment as their special outing that week. Restaurants who do this best are active in local food and dining Facebook groups, posting about their latest events and specials. They might have chefs who develop a bit of local celebrity through their Instagram presence and strong social sharing. They sponsor local baseball and softball teams and school events and provide incentives that focus on the athlete before or after a game. Children often drive their family decisions on where to dine out; supporting them can lead to a measurable return on investment when supporting their passions.
One of the simplest ways a restaurant can show diners it cares is simply by opening a little early and remaining open a little past closing. Allowing guests to enjoy that extra grace period is an easy way to build a positive rapport and inspire guests to return. After all, our goal is to increase hours of operation and not constrict them.
Consider joining a buying group
A restaurant is limited as to how far it can push its pricing without losing guests. In order to maintain the best prices on items from food to paper products to cleaning supplies, buying groups can offer a significant advantage. Buying groups represent thousands of smaller restaurants as one purchasing entity and work with major distributors to offer a lower price point across hundreds of thousands of items. Essentially, buying groups give smaller restaurants the same negotiating power as a larger chain. Ultimately, owners can realize 10% or more of savings on items they purchase every day.
In order to recession-proof their restaurants, owners are called to be a bit more creative in their approach. Not only should you manage rising costs, but also remember that it all comes back to the guest experience; take clear steps to make sure it’s a memorable one.
Mark Moeller is founder and president of The Recipe of Success, a national restaurant consulting firm. For more information, visit recipeofsuccess.com.