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FSR Magazine: 5 Restaurant Strategies to Get Through the Pandemic

Posted: July 21, 2020

CHELSEA VAN HOOVEN | July 2020

Every restaurant today is looking for creative ways to stay above water and survive the pandemic. With rents still due at the end of the month, it can seem daunting to find ways to make the business work. In order to boost profits, here are a few pieces of advice we have heard from speaking with restaurant owners, to help food service businesses get through these tough times.

Optimize the menu

With very limited dine-in business, restaurants must look for new ways to grow revenues. One way to do so is to optimize menus to better fit with customer needs today. Three menu transformation strategies stand out for the success that it can bring to a restaurant during COVID. First, create high margin items that can easily be bundled together to drive up overall guest checks. Family-style meals, for example, are great for customers who are busy handling childcare while working a fulltime job remotely and allow restaurants to include complementary items to a signature dish. Drinks, desserts and appetizers also tend to have better margins as they have a higher perceived value to the customer.

Free tech tools such as Agnoris can help restaurants identify which changes to the menu drive the biggest impact on delivery volumes and profits. Second, focus on convenience in takeout offerings. This means coming up with dishes that can be assembled easily and be switched around depending on availability and price of ingredients. Items should also be packaged to travel up to 30 minutes in a third-party delivery or for a customer to pick up themselves. Third, despite the previous points about menu innovation, don’t forget to double down on customer favorites and signature dishes that brought business in the first place. Stay in tune with what customers want but don’t be afraid to innovate on the way those products are delivered and presented.

Embrace new technology

With a variety of free tech tools available today, low-cost, high impact bets can improve operations and pay dividends in the long term. One way tech tools can immediately make an impact is by surfacing useful insights from the past. By analyzing historical customer order and food cost data, for example, restaurateurs and chefs can match up what has been selling well with dishes that are also most profitable. In addition, tech tools that are designed to facilitate contactless operations, team communication and streamlining back of house ordering will also be very relevant to look into during these trying times. While it is difficult these days to remain calm, it is prudent that restaurant leaders make data-driven decisions rather than going by feel to best ensure the viability of the business going forward. Ultimately, technology can help improve operations, save time and remove errors to help a restaurant’s bottom line and manage their business more effectively.

Focus on social media branding

Given the time people spend online today, social media is one of the most effective channels for restaurants to reach their customers and bring in new business. As an added bonus, social media presence is free and all it takes is consistent authentic and relevant content to customers to build and connect to a community. It is recommended to schedule 1 post per day, since customers correlate recency of posts to whether the restaurant is operating or not. Social media tools such as Buffer, Later or Hootsuite help analyze high performing hashtags and allow users to schedule content ahead of time. Potentially partner with local content influencers to help promote the business to their following. Professionally photographed food pictures, pictures of safety precautions taken in the restaurant to make customers feel safe and comfortable, and posts that communicate new items for takeout and delivery are three ideas to jumpstart an advanced social media strategy.

Elevate Takeout Experiences

Elevate takeout to match the ambiance of dining in. Fine dining restaurants have attempted to translate the experience of dining at their restaurant into their takeout offerings. If appropriate with the clientele and brand of the restaurant, it is worth investing in some bells and whistles to take the customer experience to the next level. Some chefs have created pre-cooked components of a meal with a recipe attached so customers can reheat the dish and enjoy at the appropriate temperature and texture. Chef Grant Achatz at Chicago’s Alinea offers detailed instructions to reconstruct and plate their beef wellington dish with mashed potatoes and gravy. Philadelphia restaurant Apricot Stone offers to FaceTime guests to walk them through the menu. This level of elevation extends into the digital experience of ordering online to make sure guests feel taken care of even when they’re not dining in. Other possibilities include high- margin wine pairings, personal notes, and curated Spotify playlists.  Find the level of sophistication and personality that fits with the brand and match takeout to the dine-in experience that customers expect.

Optimize inventory

The cost of food can be the most expensive variable cost on any restaurant’s balance sheet. As such, it is important to reduce food cost whenever possible—whether that is through bulk order discounts from suppliers or concentrating on less expensive items. Some restaurants are focusing on ingredients that have overlapping uses in multiple dishes so they can order bigger quantities, less often and still take advantage of discounts. Back of house tech tools can help analyze what is a healthy cost of goods sold number, and how it compares to the industry average.

The takeaway is simple: it is simply not enough to use the same menu, tactics or ingredients that worked for dine-in and expect it to perform as well in a takeout and delivery-centric world. By focusing on these 5 strategies, restaurants can be more well-prepared to get through the crisis and even flourish once the pandemic is over.