How to Take Advantage of the Slow Season

The slow season often gives employees and managers a chance to exhale. In fact, this is the best time to rebuild the marketing strategy, try out new entrées, and clean up the restaurant. Some of the best evolution in business is a product of simply fine-tuning the business, and this is difficult to accomplish during the day-to-day grind of running a business. The slow season almost always provides a unique chance to build the restaurant and try a few new tricks.

 

Revamp Your Marketing

 

The single best thing a restaurant can do during the slow season is to revamp the marketing platform, especially as it relates to online marketing. The biggest reason more independent restaurants don’t actively market the business is that they don’t have time. The second biggest is that they don’t know how. This is the time for managers to hunker down and rededicate themselves to selling the business.

 

There are several opportunities for managers to explore. Among those that can have a lasting impact on the business are:

 

  • Improving social media: Daily texts, Facebook, and Twitter posts can help expand the clientele base and give local customers a reason to walk into the building.
  • Providing online only deals: This can be implemented through the website or on a group discount platform like Groupon.
  • Build a loyalty program: Collecting names and emails from comment cards and building a listserv of customers can create a backbone for continuous marketing throughout the year.
  • Partner with local businesses: Partnerships can include sharing online advertising space that incentivizes the customers of neighboring businesses to give yours a try.

 

In most cases, the best online messages in this business involve creating events, promoting special offers, and building buzz about the business. The slow season can provide a great opportunity to build a laundry list of go-to buzzworthy messages that can be promoted on various platforms throughout the year.

 

Experiment with the Menu

 

The slow season shouldn’t be the time to reinvent the wheel, but trying out new entrees and special menus can provide a clearer sense of what the clientele is looking for and even build a new revenue stream. One of the best examples is the trend toward prix fixe menus over the past few years. These are generally three-course meals at dinner that include smaller portions and lower costs.

 

But the prix fixe menu is just one example. The slow season is a great occasion for challenging employees to compete for menu space and come up with new entrees. Combining this competitive environment with new price points and unusual proteins can add an air of adventure to the building when the energy might otherwise be lagging.

 

Host Events

 

More restaurants than ever are hosting special events that give locals a reason to walk in the front door. There are many possible occasions for hosting event but two stand out a working most frequently: Ladies’ Nights and wine dinners. Both have obvious advantages, including:

 

  • Hooking up customers with deals from local businesses
  • Spreading information about products people like
  • Creating special menus
  • Building buzz about the restaurant

 

The bottom line with special events is that they provide a great opportunity to impress new clientele. They’re not about making money on an individual night. They provide a chance to spread the word by giving people a reason to walk through the front door.

 

Clean the Building

 

Delegating is never more important than during the busy season, and the best tasks often involve cleaning the kitchen and dining room. The standard should be the appearance of the building to someone walking through the front door for the first time. Every employee should be involved, along with some rags, some bleach cleaner, and elbow grease. Providing incentives like pizza or a holiday party is a great way to make the occasion fun and productive, and refinish the front of the house.

 

How to Lose Gracefully

One mistake that too many owners in this and other industries make is alienating disgruntled clientele. The customer service industries rely on exceeding expectations, and this doesn’t always happen. However, too many managers in this business write off the failed attempts at converting customers into loyal guests without trying to win them over. In fact, there are too many managers who get mad at guests instead of trying to convert them back.

Guests typically want to experience great service. And while many times they can be over-the-top in their expectations and demands of employees, the manager who openly objects to guests is asking for trouble. At some point, the pickiest guests can cross a line, and it doesn’t take long in this business to have this experience. However, it’s always more important for managers to win in the long run than it is to be right.

The damage that a single guest can do to a business nowadays is amazing. A single guest with a negative dining experience can:

• Post negative reviews online
• Dine at competitors and talk about your restaurant
• Spread negative rumors
• Write an editorial in a local newspaper
• Tell well-connected friends and family members to avoid your business

I’ve seen each one of these things happen, and they can each create major headaches for restaurant owners.

Keep Your Friends Close and Your Enemies Closer

This is one of the single most important pieces of advice in the restaurant business. Most owners are competitive people who’ve worked hard to reach their position. They typically do not like being made to look foolish. Unfortunately, owners in almost every restaurant are likely to encounter the guest intent on accomplishing just that.

It is important for everyone in a position of authority to recognize the value of losing gracefully. In some cases, this means:

• Comping meals when nothing has gone wrong
• Apologizing for no good reason
• Offering coupons or other incentives to return
• Killing the guest with kindness, even one who has been exceedingly unkind

These things are no fun, and there is no training for this in the restaurant ownership brochure. It takes time, patience, and skill to lose gracefully. It really takes keeping your eyes on the prize, which isn’t won or lost in a table encounter. It’s earned over time on the profit/loss sheet.

Handling Online Reviews

Obviously, the nature of online reviews has changed completely over the last ten years, with entire industries now committed to managing a business’s online reputation. The real skills of responding to online reviews are consistency and gratitude. Unfortunately, this sometimes seems impossible, especially when the temptation to blast an impartial or untrue review is overwhelming.

The way to handle online reviews is to know what to avoid. Never be angry or vengeful, and never single out specific reviewers. Online reviews must be handled very carefully, with the best-case scenario being a diplomatic response and an invitation to return. This is one reason I would almost always advise that managers respond to online reviews individually over the phone or in person, rather than online for all the world to see.

Handling In-store Complaints

As with many aspects of restaurant management, there is no training manual for handling in-store complaints. The best ways for doing so involve empathy and apologies – and lots of both. The tendency for some managers – especially less experienced ones – is to approach the complaint as though it is a debate, especially if the manager knows in advance that the customer is wrong.

One example I’ve seen many times is with guests who fall ill during or shortly after their visit and blame it on food poisoning. The fact is that the symptoms of food poisoning do not manifest themselves for 12-24 hours after ingestion. However, I have seen instances in which the guest is sure that he is right, and that the restaurant is at fault.

In an instance such as this one, when the guest is clearly wrong, the manager must still apologize for the guest’s illness. It is not wrong to point out the fact that the guest could not have food poisoning – that it is essentially impossible. But the manager must have empathy and apologize, while pivoting the dialogue away from the role of the restaurant and toward the guest’s well-being.

The bottom line is that – while the guest isn’t always right – he cannot be made to feel wrong. The only victories at the table happen when the guest is satisfied with his experience. This is what adds up to the big-picture of restaurant management – winning the bottom line.

It is Time to Embrace Vegetarians

The time has come for all restaurants to offer at least one to three vegetarian options on their everyday menu. There are many reasons this is true, but they all relate to changes in the world around us. Simply put, there are trends in our cuisine, and one of them to prefer healthy dining that avoids meat altogether. Vegetarianism has become popular, cheaper, and trendy, and the restaurant that lacks a meatless option is alienating a growing segment of their clientele.

The reasons that every restaurant should adopt a few vegetarian options are clear:

• They are low-cost/wide-margin
• They provide a fun challenge for the kitchen
• They offer a pleasant surprise in many restaurants
• They’re a great way to exceed expectations

The days when it was acceptable for steakhouses and seafood restaurants to ignore the vegetarian – or to ad lib an entrée if necessary – are long gone. This is also true of fast food restaurants, many of which have long since added salads and vegetables. This has been replaced a time in which steakhouses and seafood restaurants that fail to offer a vegetarian option are losing out on clientele because of it.

Attracting Diverse Clientele

The idea in this business is to carve out a niche but to serve everyone. No good restaurant should be saying no to its clientele, just as very few good restaurants lack a specific type of cuisine and business model. But these days, restaurants offering no vegetarian entrees are essentially saying no to guests. In the past, this hasn’t been punitive for restaurants. Many people following strict vegetarian diets have grown accustomed to not finding anything suitable in restaurants, especially those specializing in steak and seafood.

This trend is clearly changing for many reasons:

• Dietary Restrictions: There are more people observing dietary restrictions for religious or nutritional reasons.
• Improved Options: There are more options in the world, which encourages people considering vegetarianism to forge ahead.
• Improved Entrées: There are more great recipes out there, and vegetarians are aware that restaurants avoiding them aren’t really trying.
• More Large Parties: Group outings organized through work, school, or social organizations are becoming more common.

This means that tossing in one or two vegetarian entrées or forcing people to order salad is less acceptable than it was in the past. More vegetarians are accustomed to discovering great meatless options when they go out to eat.

Challenge the Kitchen

There are thousands of great meatless and vegan recipes out there. Coming up with the right one should be left to kitchen employees, who can compete with each other to create the best entrée. The critical choice usually comes down to pasta vs. vegetables, or some combination of thereof.

Great ideas can come from anywhere, which means that it is often a good course of action to let all kitchen employees come up with a new dish to be beta-tested on the staff. Anyone can come up with a mushroom risotto or vegetarian pasta. Employees who want to make a splash can be resourceful and put together a great vegetarian dish that keeps diners away from the side dishes and salads.

Local Produce Vendors

Restaurant operators are increasingly pairing with local vendors who can provide fresh, low-cost alternatives. The benefit to the vendor is increased local exposure, and the benefit to the restaurant is enhanced connectivity with the surrounding community. Local produce vendors feature items that are indigenous to the area, or which the area might be known for.

This can be a great resource for the management team creating new vegetarian dishes. Local tie-ins create great incentives for the vendor to provide fresh ingredients at reasonable prices. They will know that word-of-mouth from managers and employees can go a long way. This is a good way to corner the vegetarian and local markets at the same time.

How to Survive the Restaurant Employee Gap

One of the most fascinating (or troubling) facets of this industry is the current employee gap that exists in most regions of the country. There simply aren’t enough employees to be found, forcing good management teams at restaurants everywhere to scramble to fill out employees schedules. This is the exact opposite of the trend in most industries, in which hiring has been slowed down or frozen and many qualified people are out of work.

This places additional burden on management teams to find talented employees and keep them for the long haul. Operators must increasingly:

• Focus on retention strategies
• Adjust salary scales
• Make hiring a year-round practice
• Build employee loyalty

This is an emphasis that many management teams have been slow to adopt. Failing to adjust the way managers view employees can have dramatic results, especially in markets that are highly competitive. Understanding a few valuable tools for managers in this climate can pay big dividends in the long run.

Focus on Talent

There is no more important variable in the success of a restaurant than the talent of the employees. There are certainly other requirements, like the quality of the food and the cleanliness of the environment. But talented employees carry out this vision over the course of time, building clientele based on consistency and quality of performance.

It takes a talented team of individuals who work together over the course of time to establish a lasting niche in a local market. For these reasons, finding and keeping talent has to be a very high priority for the management team.

Build Loyalty

The combination of talent and loyalty is closely associated with successful restaurants. Managers must find a way to keep talented individuals in the fold. This is the hallmark of consistent performance, which is imperative for keeping guests coming back time and again.

Loyalty can be built in a variety of ways. But the best way is to be sure that employees sense rewards and incentives for staying put. This might occur naturally for servers in an upscale environment. But the natural rewards of the business have to be augmented by managers, in part by:

• Rewarding employees with promotions/raises
• Building a family environment
• Creating a positive organizational culture
• Making sure that the staff comes to work smiling

The employee culture has to be results-oriented and fun. Building clear expectations and a friendly, fun environment are good places to start.

Bring Employees Together

Getting employees to come together regularly helps build a strong organizational culture. There are many ways to achieve this, including:

• Throwing staff parties (e.g. holiday parties)
• Celebrating special occasions
• Providing rewards for holiday success
• Describing the organizational missions and challenges
• Staff meetings

Many employees respond to learning about organizational goals and performance. This is an uncommon tactic that can be effective, especially in smaller, independent environments.

Always be Hiring

This is a vastly underrated strategy for restaurant managers. The tendency is to set up interviews and post advertisements only when the need arises. In fact, this is a facet of the business that managers must work to stay on top of. This includes:

• Cultivating a steady stream of resumes
• Being realistic with job candidates
• Providing professional development opportunities
• Providing evidence of raises/promotions for current employees

An aggressive stance on hiring is often the answer for restaurants who are struggling to keep a staff of talented employees. Keeping the talent pipeline open helps mitigate employee losses and fill the building with talented employees. A year-round hiring stance takes time and effort, but the long-term rewards can provide a huge benefit to a growing business, especially in this labor climate.