RESTAURANT SURVIVAL GUIDE FOR OPERATORS

A storyline just like yours is playing out across the country. Your business has cheated death. It has stretched past the five-year mortality marker that, according to the National Restaurant Association claims 70 percent of restaurants

But there is no sigh of relief from you—only fear stoked by rising restaurant food costs, slim 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 in this restaurant survival guide for operators. 

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Improve Your Social Media Presence

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 social media 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 social media, resulting in a 400 percent jump in Instagram followers and an improved social media presence. 

Gina Stefani, scion of Stefani Restaurant Group in Chicago, makes it a priority to personally respond to posts about her restaurant, Mad Social, to boost their social media presence. Followers appreciate the effort and feel a personal connection, which she views as the social media 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 social media tactics. Enlist staff to be the eyes and ears on your social media presence. Managers at Houston-based Peli Peli restaurants are responsible for reading online reviews. They look for patterns of complaints on social media, just as they do when surveying diners on the floor, owner Thomas Nguyen says. 

Create a Positive Atmosphere

Too many operators fail to consider the importance of a positive atmosphere 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 atmosphere 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 positive atmosphere 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. 

See Your Future. Update Your Kids Menu

Teens with their friends and kids with parents in tow are your future customers, which means it’s vital to treat children like “princes and princesses,” says Andrea Anthony, owner of Lobster Roll Restaurant in Amagansett, New York

Seriously update your kids menu with healthier options that impress parents, little ones and your future customers,” 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 better kids menu items and meaningful freebies, not just crayons and coloring placemats.”

Be Smart about Cost Savings

Stop resisting digital inventory management tools, which can fit all types of operations, including mom and pop restaurants and help with cost savings. 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

With slim margins, 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 in cost savings. 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. Cost savings also can be found in cleaning supplies, he says, which should not cost over 1 percent of revenue. 

Get A New Look

Some of the country’s most celebrated and longstanding successful restaurants have remodeled for a new look, 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 preemptive strike, 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 see your new look and attract new customers to help quickly recoup costs.

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Before scanning your dining room for a potential new look, 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, a successful new look is 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?’”

Extend Open Hours

Since you’re paying rent and utilities whether the business is open or closed, it makes sense that more dinner-only restaurants should extend open hours.

Operators should look for ways to keep the door open every minute of the day, says Josh Wolkon, owner of the Secret Sauce restaurant group in Denver. Consider offering restaurant buyouts and private events to extend open hours, as well as dedicating staff and space for catering

Get Back to Basics

Getting back to 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 do the basics, walk and monitor the floor and interact with guests while supporting their staff. Staff members are trained to know the menu basics 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