Change with customers to stay successful

When you've been in the restaurant business for more than 40 years like Fred LeFranc, you've basically experienced every type of dining challenge. Running a half dozen restaurant companies, followed by a consultancy during that time, combines for a unique perspective.

Specifically, LeFranc has helped position several bar and grill concepts for success, and has seen the evolution of the neighborhood tavern segment on all fronts, from menus and technology to changes in diner behavior.

Here's LeFranc on how independent bar and grill operators can find success even as their audience evolves.

Q: Tell me about the evolution you've seen in the neighborhood bar and grill space.

A: If you go back to the early days of TGI Fridays, when they were then called fern bars, and then even Chili's and stuff like that, I've seen them evolve and grow ... You've seen a bifurcation of the category, let's call it gastropubs, which was now the elevated version of a grill and bar with better food. It's interesting to see the bigger chains, the Chili's and Fridays, sort of go through this peak and then decline. One of the challenges in all categories of restaurants is if you follow your customer base, as they get older, a phenomenon occurs: So do you.

Q: How do operators stay relevant in this segment?

A: All you've got to do is ask yourself the question, “What is important to this age group and this bracket in this generation, this contemporary time?” And that may change. Now every concept must be tech-enabled. There was no tech in the early days, right? Now every concept must consider food allergies or food preferences or vegan or whatever, all the myriad of things that the new generation of consumers want. So, if you're a brand that was catering to a 30-something boomer and then a Gen Xer and now, let's say, a millennial, you're going to be very, very different.

Q: And there's the social media factor today, right?

A: Because everyone's got a smartphone, you must have these Instagram walls specifically for customers to take pictures. I talked to an interior designer who does restaurants in New York, and she generally works on designs where they bolt the tables down on the floor. They don't allow them to be moved because they will put pin-spot lighting perfectly in the center of that table, so that when you take your Instagram food shot, it looks good.

Q: How have bar and grill menus changed over the years?

A: That whole category has changed. So you've got the ones that grew with the big chains that sort of had to appeal to a broad palate, which is a tendency to make the food bland, versus the ones that became gastropubs and gave themselves permission to have food with flavor: poké, tacos, vegan, different types of menu items that would not be considered bar food back in the day.

Q: Do you think it's easier in some ways for independents in this segment, because they can be nimbler and more easily grow and evolve and change?

A: Prior to COVID, the independents were kicking the chains' butt, by far. When COVID hit, sadly, they were not in the same financial position as the chains, so they really struggled. And while I think inherently they have a competitive advantage because they can be nimble, they can hyper-localize it, things like that, they're coming out of a very tough financial situation. So, I wouldn't say it's easier.

Q: Talk to me about the tech shifts you've seen in the bar and grill space during your time in the restaurant industry.

A: Right before COVID hit, I was doing my due diligence for the acquisition of a grill-and-bar kind of concept. The question you ask is, 'Do you offer third-party delivery?' And the answer was, 'Absolutely not. We don't believe in it. We would never do something like that.' This was three weeks before COVID hit. Two weeks after COVID hit, everyone was offering third­-party delivery to survive. So, the whole industry went through this incredible digitization very rapidly because they had no choice. It was survival. Survive or die. So, the price of entry now for all restaurants is some form of tech enablement, whatever that may be.

Q: How are these operators doing in terms of tech adoption?

A: Probably not enough, because they can't afford it and don't understand it. And that's the challenge. It's very confusing what to do right now as an independent.

Q: What do you think are the key challenges that keep some operators from succeeding?

A: They're experiencing the same challenges everybody else is, which is rising costs and labor, the labor shortage. So that doesn't go away. They have some advantage on the labor side because they can have a true relationship with that employee, much better than just a manager. We talk about it as labor, right? Why don't we talk about people? But a lot of chains don't talk about people. They talk about labor. An independent will talk about Susie and Jack and José and Sammy.

Q: If hospitality is at the core of everything you do, how do you translate that into the off-premises experience?

A: Third-party delivery is risky. I've always encouraged staff to say, 'Treat the drivers with love and care and respect because, in a way, they're your customer too.' Give them a sandwich. Give them something to eat. Just treat them with courtesy. If you look at it like they're schlepping your food, they'll schlep your food. If you realize that they're carrying precious cargo and you treat them accordingly and say, 'You've got our brand in your hands. Thank you. And by the way, are you hungry? Let me give you something to eat here. I'd appreciate if you handle this carefully and deliver it in a professional way.' They're human beings. They will react to it.