Restaurant Operator's Survival Guide

Review and repeat these time-proven tactics to improve longevity

A storyline just like yours is playing out across the country.

Your business has cheated death, stretching past the five-year mortality marker that claims 70 percent of restaurants, according to the National Restaurant Association.

But no sigh of relief for you—only fear stoked by rising food costs, slimmer margins and government uncertainty surrounding immigrants who are the backbone of the industry. Competition is increasing which means millennials, the largest demographic since baby boomers, will need a compelling reason to revisit your restaurant when new ones seem to be opening all the time.

Is it even possible for today’s restaurants to reach a decade milestone, let alone a quarter-century one? Longtime operators and industry experts nod yes, but unlike in the past, it requires the multifaceted approach outlined here.


1. Up Your Social Game
Social media is a push-pull medium, so collect as much information as you dispense.

Consider Spoons Bar & Grill in Santa Ana, California, which puts its audience to work. In one instance, the restaurant provided 10 percent-off deals to any customer who shared a mobile number. When nights are slow, the restaurant sends alerts on specials. The tactic has turned slow shifts into profitable ones and has incentivized regulars to tap into the social channels, resulting in a 400 percent jump in Instagram followers.

Gina Stefani, scion of Stefani Restaurant Group in Chicago, makes it a priority to personally respond to social media posts about her restaurant, Mad Social. Followers appreciate the effort and feel a personal connection, which she views as the digital equivalent of visiting a customer’s table. “I could pay someone to do it,” says Stefani, “but I want them to know it’s me responding.”

Regular Instagram worthy dishes can generate instant buzz, but if your photos aren’t resonating, change tactics. Enlist staff to be the eyes and ears on the digital landscape. Managers at Houston-based Peli Peli restaurants are responsible for reading online reviews. They look for patterns of complaints, just as they do when surveying diners on the floor, owner Thomas Nguyen says.

2. Party Like It’s 2017
Too many operators fail to consider the importance of a restaurant’s vibe and the social aspects of dining. Use it to attract customers, say Jonathan Segal and Celeste Fierro, the leadership behind New York-based The One Group, a lifestyle hospitality company with a global portfolio of restaurants.

For example, build or refocus your restaurant around the bar where the energy is contagious. Small alterations can also yield major dividends. Swap out the set playlist for a DJ who will read the room and play music appropriate for that night’s customers.

Playing up the vibe translates into higher bar tabs and check averages. Even changing the lighting can make a difference to establish an energetic mood. “You want customers to tell their friends that they had more than great food,” says Segal. “You want them to say they had an amazing experience. Guests will come back to places that they associate with special memories.”

Working the room, however, only works if staff is trained to identify the right approach. A couple on a date should be treated differently than a group of women on a night out.

3. Give Kids Real Service, Not Lip Service
Teens with their friends and kids with parents in tow are your future customers (see story on Gen Z diners, page 41), which means it’s vital to treat children like “princes and princess,” says Andrea Anthony, owner of Lobster Roll Restaurant in Amagansett, New York.

Seriously rebuild the kid’s menus with healthier options that impress parents and little ones, says Anthony. Go with global flavors, such as Japanese crispy chicken instead of chicken tenders or protein charged grains like quinoa as sides instead of mashed potatoes. Set aside marketing dollars for meaningful freebies, not just crayons and coloring placemats.

4. Be a Smart Penny Pincher
Stop resisting digital inventory tools, which can fit all types of operations, including mom and pop restaurants. Depending on the software, food inventory, procurement, menu planning, accounting and other needs are consolidated into one system and linked to suppliers. When inventory levels wane, alerts pop-up with the option for one-click ordering.

Cost savings can be significant. Operators can expect a 52 percent drop in food waste and an 87 percent decrease in purchasing errors, according to BlueCart, a Washington, D.C.,-based inventory software company.

When margins are so thin, even the smallest changes make a difference, says Ken Halberg, owner and managing partner of H2 Hospitality in New York, which include Harding’s. Keeping the circulation of flatware to a minimum can, for instance, pay dividends. When flatware is abundant in the dining room, pieces tend to get lost. But when the amount is reduced and servers are responsible for it, they monitor tables vigilantly and return the flatware to the kitchen at more regular intervals. As a result, fewer pieces are lost, Halberg says. Savings also can be found in cleaning supplies, he says, which should not cost over 1 percent of revenue.

5. Get A Face Lift
Some of the country’s most celebrated and longstanding successful restaurants have remodeled, including the French Laundry in Yountville, California, and the Union Square Cafe in New York City. Operators agree that upping your game while you’re on top is a smart pre-emptive move, but changes don’t need to be multimillion dollar undertakings.

Refinishing floors, repainting walls and refurbishing bathrooms can pay dividends in attitude alone. Renovations can be packaged with menu promotions to alert regulars to revisit and attract new customers to quickly recoup costs.


Before scanning your dining room for updates, think about the current setup.

If you offer views into a disorganized or messy kitchen, block off the area or you’ll turn off customers, says Eric McBride of the McBride Company, a restaurant design firm.

Renovations that invite walk-ins during warmer seasons can work magic, McBride says. Replacing the facade of your restaurant with folding windows that turn the area into a patio will draw customers. Sometimes, it’s just a matter of opening windows or strategically placing televisions to face the street. “Often operators, especially independents, should think less in terms of themes and more in terms of lifestyles,” says McBride. “The key question is, ‘What kind of lifestyle do you want your space to project?’”

6. Make the Space Count
Since you’re paying rent and utilities whether the business is open or closed, it makes sense that more dinner-only restaurants are extending service hours.

Operators should look for ways to use their space every minute of the day, says Josh Wolkon, owner of the Secret Sauce restaurant group in Denver. Consider offering restaurant buyouts and private events when the restaurant is closed, as well as dedicating staff and space for catering

7. Reboot the Basics
Revisiting the basics on a continuous loop is crucial for success, says John T. Bettin, CEO of Tavistock Restaurant Collection. As elementary as it sounds, the importance of “hot food hot, cold food cold, served in a timely manner,” matters as well as the ABCs of service, such as genuine greetings and farewells.

Bettin expects his managers to walk and monitor the floor and interact with guests while supporting their staff. Staff members are trained to know the menu inside and out, so that they can drive up check averages with appropriate recommendations. He lives by the mantra: “hire slowly, fire quickly.” Hire on personality, he says, and you can train the rest.

Peter Gianopulos is an adjunct professor and critic for Chicago Magazine. He has reported on the restaurant industry for more than 15 years. 

Photography by Frank Lawlor