Thousands of restaurants around the country have been forced to learn on-the-fly how to endure through lean economic times. Different operators handle this task in different ways, based on business philosophy and financial situation. However, a few essential rules stand out when it comes to guiding the business through choppy seas. As much as anything in business, knowing what to do when times get tough involves knowing what not to do:
ē Avoid knee-jerk reactions.
ē Donít overhaul the business.
ē Donít look like times are tough.
ē Keep your eye on the big picture.
Sound easier said than done? Sure it is. But so is everything about the restaurant business. A few basic rules during the lean months makes is easier to come out of them like they never existed.
Demonstrate value, not discounts
The easiest way to convince your guests theyíre getting a great deal by visiting your restaurant is not by issuing coupons. Itís through demonstrating value. Thatís because the restaurant business is about the long haul, and discounts are about a solitary visit. Sure, they attract first-time clientele. But they also attract guests who wait until they receive the next discount.
Demonstrating value persists whether the customer is holding a coupon or not. Value is most often demonstrated through competitively low prices combined with excellent food and service, and these variables have to be maximized when times are tough. Slow times are when the front-of-the-house can most easily be revamped, the dining room can be most thoroughly cleaned, and the service staff can be most adequately coached up. Slow times are also for refining recipes, trying new fresh ingredients, and advertising low-cost specials. Combining these with price breaks, reduced cost menus or (gulp!) appetizer/dessert giveaways demonstrates value that will endure in the minds of clientle.
Itís easy to forget that food and beverage vendors feel tough economic times too. Instead of cutting corners, itís worthwhile to stay on the phones, monitor commodity pricing, and avoid being married to individual vendors.
Itís also worth it to find ways to do it yourself whenever possible. Itís amazing how many restaurants never pare down item purchases during slow times. This includes:
ē Making bacon bits instead of buying them.
ē Making desserts and salad dressings instead of buying them whole.
ē Making beef and chicken stocks overnight instead of buying powders or mixes.
ē Sticking with seasonal fruits and vegetables.
ē Avoiding out-of-season seafood.
Slow business leads to extra time that should be used wisely. Instead of cutting corners, get creative and choose to do it yourself.
Donít Let Employees Go
Itís essential for operators to stay the course with respect to personnel. Letting employees go when times get difficult sends the wrong message to the rest of the staff. In many cases, it leaves the rest of your staff walking on eggshells, wondering whoíll be next.
Instead, cut back hours here and there and learn to live with a higher labor cost. This is when spending money to make money can get difficult. But the advantage of having an experienced staff who buys into to your mission and goals is worth a few extra bucks when itís slow. It also contributes to happier employees, and tells guests that you run a thriving business, even when itís a little less than thriving.
Donít Let it Show
When the tough times run long, itís easy to cut corners on front-of-the-house maintenance and cleaning. But shabby restaurants send the completely wrong message to your clientele, who will notice it subconsciously if they donít mention it first-hand. Worn out booth seats, faulty toilets, and cracking tile contributes to low staff morale and undermines the experience youíre trying to create.
Itís important to remember the big picture, and the notion of do-it-yourself independence. This, again, can be easier said than done. But isnít that the way of the world in the restaurant industry?
Marketing, Marketing, Marketing
As hard as it can be to get outside your four walls when itís busy, now is the time to get the message out about the value youíre working to demonstrate. Try something youíve never tried before, such as.
ē Special events: A well-planned charitable event or Ladies Night can galvanize your business.
ē Special menus: Wine dinners and prix fixe menus convey new experiences and excitement to guests. When coupled with lower prices, theyíre a great way to demonstrate value.
ē Social marketing: Social marketing is not the end-all answer for lifeís marketing answers. But itís a great tool to augment traditional strategies, and itís free. It often answers the question: How do my potential guests find me?
ē Kick-ass lunches: At the mid-range and upscale level, a great lunch is more about putting people in the seats and less about margin. Have great prices and quality food, and watch your new lunch guests become hooked.
Success in this business is almost always about turning a restaurant around. Many of the best ideas in this industry sprung from necessity. Staying the course and being creative Ė while not always possible Ė are the best ways to keep a business on the right track.