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Food Service Industry Updates

Some Things to Think About Before the ‘Wave-Wall’ of Hungry Diners Arrives

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(iStock/tupungato)

For whatever reason, I get served a lot of those clickbait websites about the warning signs of impending weather disasters. So I know the harbingers of an incoming tsunami: ocean receding, animals fleeing, a roaring sound, that kind of stuff. As all of us who enjoy science facts line up for our second COVID-19 vaccines, I wonder, hmm, why is the ocean receding? Why are those critters running to high ground?

What’s that sound?

Oh, I know! It’s people getting ready to go out to eat.

Here are maybe some things to think about, if you have time before the wave-wall of hungry diners arrives:

1. Time to Spruce

An easy one. Company’s comin’. Cleanliness is always job No. 1, but possibly there’s little odd jobs your pandemic skeleton crew skipped while dealing with GrubHub drivers? I’m not saying you’ve let things go, but just the same, perhaps there’s a tiny lull here ideal for replacing bulbs, oiling hinges, making sure the soda fountain translights or framed faux-paintings of Italy aren’t slightly crooked … little stuff.

No further commentary required here. 

By the way: Did one of your ornamental shrubs die this winter? Don’t let it become part of your brand!

2. Time to Train (or, Where Applicable, Retrain)

I know you already hired people back to work — I heard it on the news. 

What I wonder is how you’re training them. Some might be rehires, but even they could stand a refresher. 

Training is tough — it feels like a momentum-killer to the employee who just wants to get in there and learn by doing, and frankly, a lot of you make it boring. But if you’re going to maintain your brand, this is your chance: Training is more than “how-to” and ways to get in trouble, right? This is when you make people understand that their behavior is as important to your business as the products, price, place and promotion.

Maybe don’t shove all the training at your team in one big lump?

By the way: That training video you use kinda feels like something you had to watch in high school health class, doesn’t it? Google companies who specialize in developing interactive online training modules specific to you.

3. Time for Ol’ Favorites

That thing you do, the item people were willing to risk COVID-19 to come inside and order, the breakout star of your cast — what’s the key to its success? Make sure that key hasn’t oxidized. A signature item can become commonplace in the back of the house: made so often, changes so little, seems so rote. Be careful if you sense your best-seller has lost its charm among your staff. That burrito del oro, that plateau de fruits de mer, that porterhouse you position on the menu where the eye naturally rests — it’s what brings old friends back to your booths. Banish disappointment. Be sure you’re ready to present The Classics with the same sense of “eureka” as when they were first introduced.  

By the way: I’ve witnessed restaurant leaders lose faith in or get bored with their marquee items, and turn attention to new/shiny/innovative new products — in the long run, this focus shift fuzzies up their main subject. True, you need fresh ideas to keep the place from feeling as if it’s on autopilot, but never forget the “it” your fans started off lovin’, as a certain slogan rather wishfully puts it.

4. Time for Somethin’ New

OK, I placed a weight on the left side of the metaphorical scales with Bit o’ Advice #3. Let’s counterbalance! 

You’ve been in survival mode, cutting costs as you cope with all the carry-out. And those pushy DoorDash Drivers, oy! Before customers jam your counters, is there anything you can beat the competition to? Any trends to jump on?

If you haven’t already, there’s probably no time for R&D. Look around you. What’s something handy you can improvise into a weapon?

People have been yearning to sit in a restaurant and talk — what about coursing a meal with current products? How about an appetizer special, a new dessert, making it super-easy to start off with a drink — prolonging the lingering?

Conversely, maybe you need to keep things moving, turn those tables, make way for customers crowding your hostess stand. I always thought Olive Garden’s idea of serving half your order on the plate and the other half already packaged to go “for lunch the next day” was brilliant. Here’s your doggie bag, what’s your hurry? 

Just making the point, creativity isn’t limited to new products.

By the way: people claim to be struggling with quarantine weight. What’s something light you can quickly point to?

5. Time to Welcome Fans ’n Regulars

Jog your and your team’s memory of Your Regular Fans: They love you, they’ve been away, they’re back — reflect that love right back at them. What can you do? Complimentary drinks? Bounce-back coupons? It might be hard to identify your old hard-core besties, especially with those new hires, but those who love you will love it if you recognize them somehow (see upcoming point #6). Be extra vigilant. Welcome one, welcome all.

By the way: I’m in no position to give your merchandise away, but I believe you can’t overestimate how much goodwill an off-the-cuff, well-placed comp creates — word of mouth, higher retention rate, a shorter gap between visits. Maybe during training you can help senior team members master The Art of the Freebie That Pays Dividends.

6. Time to Hawk-Watch Social Media

React to mentions. Monitor responses. Push out non-commercial messaging that fits within your brand. Be part of the gang.

As excitement to return to restaurants crescendos, your social media can intensify your customers’ resolve to come spend money. Just don’t limit yourself to the expected promotional-type posts. Experiment with a mix of food and biz mentions versus posts that are about just being an interesting human. People have been communicating a lot through social feeds the last year or so. Join in — less as a corporate entity and more as you.

By the way: I’m going to re-re-emphasize, yes, this is an opportunity to engage your customers but (as every so-called expert tries to remind you, constantly) remember — social media is not just another ad platform. As soon as you act/sound/feel like you’re just here to sell something, people lose interest. 

7. Time to Explore the Unknown

Venture ye now into our post-pandemic epoch — [shrugs] who knows what comes next? 

The Fred Harvey railroad restaurant “girls” who witnessed last century’s pandemic aren’t around to ask advice. Howard Johnson didn’t start his restaurant empire till the mid-20s, five or six years after the 1918 Spanish Flu was a gruesome memory. 

Will it be different now? Will folks arrive to your restaurant stunned by isolation, earbuds in and never speaking except to point and grunt at your menu. 

Maybe your carryout biz will out-biz your in-biz. Maybe. 

All we know is they’re coming.

Best guess is, people will try to get back to the way things were, even if things may have changed in some way the trend-topic content writers aren’t even hip to yet. Be prepared. More changes might be on the way, requiring further rolling with.

Brace yourself. This oughta be fun.

Charlie Hopper, principal/writer of ad agency Young & Laramore, shares views on restaurant marketing at SellingEating.com, as well as in recently published books “Nuggets, Nibbles, Morsels, Crumbs: Selected Restaurant Marketing Columns from Food & Drink International,” and “Selling Eating: Restaurant Marketing Beyond the Word Delicious.”

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