Dear Food Fanatics: Empty Dining Rooms, Skeleton Crews

Seasoned restaurant advice you can use from our Food Fanatics expert.

Q. Our restaurant has an additional dining room that sits empty all too often. Any ideas?

A. Monthly cooking demos are a great way to salvage slower nights and spread the word about your restaurant. Set aside 20 minutes to teach participants how to make an appetizer and entree that is easy to duplicate at home. Charge a reasonable set price to cover costs, and make sure to include a drink. Guests get a taste of your restaurant and your dining room, which they’ll be more likely to remember for future private dining events.

Q. It seems we are always doing more with less; we’re running a skeleton crew, and time is always limited. It’s hard to find inspiration under this pressure. Any ideas?

A. It’s easy to check the internet, but who has the bandwidth to filter through endless recipes? Carve out pockets of time to take care of yourself. Clearing your mind through a small walk before or after work can foster big ideas. Look to your staff and guests for inspiration by asking what gets them excited about food. If you live in a close food community, consider hosting fellow chefs on a night you’re closed for a roundtable discussion with food and drinks. 

Q. My employees are always taking smoke breaks. I know smoking is a way for them to deal with the daily stress of our busy restaurant, but how can I control the breaks and still keep the peace?

A. Every restaurant faces this issue, and unfortunately there’s no easy solution. I once tried to ban smoke breaks, but that did not go over well. The best you can do is limit breaks during off-peak times and required work is never neglected. Just make sure your staff never smokes in public view—it’s unprofessional and bad for business.

Q. My staff isn’t pushing our new beverage program. Our craft beers perform well, but the staff still relies on the old standbys. How can I get them pumped to sell?

A. Arming your staff with education is the best way to increase sales. Plan a staff training and tasting session that includes everyone—especially if you’re using mixes, purees and infusions. Have employees team up to work hands-on with new ingredients and techniques. Track team sales, offering incentives like a prize or a special team dinner as a reward.

Q. I want to change up my menu with trendier dishes, but I’m afraid of scaring off regulars who make up a big portion of my current business. What do I do?

A. Unless you’re planning an entire concept overhaul, you don’t need to flip your menu completely in one swoop. Ease dishes into your menu as specials. Figure out which dishes are your top sellers and keep those as standbys or secret menu items. Start with menu variations that can riff off some of your classics, so it’s easy to make a regular feel special if they request it. Eventually, most customers will probably pick up what you’re putting down. It just might take a little time.

Q. Our health department says I can’t cut and wash my produce in the production kitchen sink unless we sanitize the area every time we switch to any other products like proteins. I get why it’s important, but it’s time consuming. What can I do to save time and labor?  

A. Consider installing a system that automates the cleaning process. The cost upfront will save you money in the long run. Depending on your budget, you might also want to consider purchasing pre-washed and pre-cut products that will spare you labor and help keep costs in check.  

GOT A QUESTION FOR THE FOOD FANATIC?

Email us your challenges, comments and suggestions. Paul Sturkey is a Food Fanatic in-training for US Foods. He has a passion for food, wine, travel, and his family.

Food Fanatics undergo rigorous culinary, communications and consulting training to help chefs and other foodservice professionals meet business goals.