Call it what you want—a recession, an “economic correction,” a figment of your imagination—the economy is hurting. And nowhere is that more apparent than in my belly. Just to make ends meet, I’ve had to cut down my daily caloric intake from 7,000 calories to a mere 6,750. This has had a devastating effect on the local restaurant industry: eateries in my neighborhood are closing down at a rate of one roughly every 37 seconds! (No! Not the Dunkin Donuts! Take the Taco Bell instead!)
Okay, so maybe the situation isn’t that bad, but one only needs to walk into a local casual dining establishment to see that people just aren’t eating out as much today. Case in point: in April 2007, when I went to an annual work luncheon for my small team at a local Italian restaurant, every seat in the place was packed by noon; at this year’s meeting, our 10-person team accounted for about half of the crowd at lunchtime.
If you’re a restaurant operator, you may be going out of your mind right now trying to figure out how to prop up your dwindling business. With rising food prices making it more expensive to cook up that plate of fettuccine alfredo, and rising fuel prices making it more expensive for both customers to get to the dining table and for restaurants to get the ingredients to their kitchens, the situation seems pretty dire all around. But fear not, suffering restaurateurs! My 25 years of food-eating experience and I are here to offer you a selection of tasty tactics you can use not only to ride out the restaurant recession but to help you see your best sales in years.
- Cut the fat off the menu. Well, not literally (we Americans love our lard, after all). If your menu is loaded with dishes that force you to keep expensive ingredients in stock while the dishes themselves aren’t that popular, you might want to move them off in favor of lighter, cheaper fare.
- Substitute ingredients… carefully. Is anybody really gonna notice if you replace that fresh-chopped tomato sauce with Prego? With lighter customer volume, now might be a good time to play around with different brands and suppliers. Just don’t make tons of changes at once or you could stand to upset a few of the regulars.
- Toss consumers a bone. Yes, you’re hurting financially, but that’s because we are too. While it might seem counterintuitive, lower menu prices and coupons can help bring in customers who might otherwise stay at home and heat up a can of soup.
- Reward frequent diners. Keep ‘em coming back with deals like “pay 5 times, get the 6th meal on us.” Little rewards like this that make frequent customers feel special can help even the most budget-minded ignore rising food and fuel prices and sit themselves at your table week after week.
- Cut hours, even days. If it’s costing you more in electricity and staff than you bring in to keep that restaurant open until midnight, consider closing at 10pm. Or if Mondays are slow, money-losing days, maybe you should give your eatery the day off.
- Diversify. While cutting back on menu options is one way to cut costs, going the opposite direction might work too. In a dreary, upsetting economic environment like today, some customers may appreciate seeing some new and exciting dishes added to the menu. Or perhaps you could make some small tweaks to existing menu items to give them some extra ‘zaz and boink!
- Leverage the power of the internet. Does your restaurant have a website? If not, you’re losing out on one cheap, easy way for customers to find out more about your restaurant. Even a basic web page with a menu and directions could bring in more patrons, especially if your cuisine is unique and hard to find in your area.
- Get super-creative. Put your imagination to the test and see what you can come up with to help revitalize your restaurant’s image. Invest in your storefront, make Wednesday nights ’80s Karaoke Night, put in new dining furniture—the possibilities are only as endless as your savings account.
- Remember: sex sells. No, I’m not suggesting you install a stripper pole in the middle of your restaurant’s dining room, but you probably could stand to capitalize a little more on your hot college girl wait staff. On a related subject, there aren’t nearly enough Maid cafés in this country.
Hopefully following some of these steps will have your restaurant on the road to booming business again in no time. No need to thank me, restaurant owners… though if you really want to, I certainly won’t turn down a complimentary seven-course feast in my honor.