Consistency is the X-factor that separates a successful restaurant from its counterparts. Elite restaurants aren’t defined by expensive décor, trendy ingredients, celebrity chefs, or even great food. Elite restaurants are defined by the perceptions of their customers. Great food and atmosphere certainly help shape a good brand, but the true performance metric is how accurately a restaurant lives up to the reputation it wants to create for itself. It’s up to you, the restaurateur, to clearly define the experience you want to create, then ensure that this experience rings true through every step of the meal.
To add color to this broad claim, let’s look at two proven brands: Joël Robuchon and McDonald’s. About as opposite as can be, these establishments share one thing in common: consistency. Joël Robuchon, a Michelin-starred legend of Las Vegas, built its reputation by serving the finest food made from the finest ingredients in one of the finest dining rooms with the finest servers. More importantly, however, is that Joël Robuchon’s customers fully support these selling points. Nowhere does this restaurant fall short of the illustrious experience it seeks to create.
McDonald’s has achieved its success in a very different way. Claiming to be ‘in the real estate business rather than the hamburger business,’ McDonald’s has made itself accessible to nearly every person in the country [and many across the world]. The key here is also consistency—that hamburger will taste the same whether you’re at a McDonald’s in California, New York or China. Few people will claim McDonald’s to be anywhere near the best burger they’ve eaten, but they go back because the restaurant stays true to its reputation for convenience and affordability.
Joël Robuchon and McDonald’s are extreme examples, but in each case both the restaurant and its customers agree on the balance of taste, value, atmosphere and service. There is clearly no right or wrong way to balance these attributes, but only successful restaurants will carry this same balance throughout the customer experience.
Take some time to think about every touch point your customer goes through while they are at your restaurant. Make adjustments as needed to ensure that your experience stays consistent throughout the customer journey. Start with the easiest items to change:
Your hostess is often the customer’s first point of contact. Whether speaking with prospective customers in person or over the phone, it is imperative that your hostess reflects your establishment’s ideals. In a high-volume setting, this means getting down to business with quick responses on wait times and a fluid handoff to servers. In a fine dining setting, however, a hostess should make guests feel at home before they even take their seat. If you have multiple hostesses at the front during a low-traffic time, they should speak with prospective customers as a group rather than ‘handing them off’ to one another.
Servers in more casual settings are responsible for serving food as efficiently as possible. As the price point rises, the need to develop rapport and create relationships grows proportionately. As an owner or manager you must make sure that these patterns ring true. Body language says it all—customers see right through fake smiles and notice if they’re not being tended to. Monitor your floor to keep customer service consistent with your brand.
If your restaurant prides itself in serving quality food, your bread [or its equivalent] should be on the same level, if not better. Just as the hostess is the customer’s first service contact, the bread is their first impression of your food and will set the tone for the rest of the meal. Skimping out on the bread will lead customers to question where else you’re cutting costs.
Different price points naturally attract different audiences, but successful restaurants will keep their menu mix within the same general price range. Pricing items too far apart will alienate your customers, making them think that the more expensive items are grossly overpriced while the cheaper items must lack quality.
The easiest way to know if you need to make changes: gathering feedback. Monitor online reviews, invite writers to visit periodically, and, of course, talk to your customers directly. You want their words to mirror the restaurant’s brand as you see it. The key is consistency, and making many small changes over time will refine your restaurant to reach its desired image.
Restaurants and food writers go together like peanut butter and jelly, or in the gourmet sense, foie gras terrine and fig jam. The exchange is simple: food writers visit a restaurant and write about the experience for their audience to read, and ultimately make the journey themselves.
But as media has [rapidly] evolved through the digital age, so has the exchange. Beyond the now-traditional bloggers, a new group has entered the arena—influencers. And they have high demands.
Influencers, theoretically, are members of the media that have such a large presence that they can command payment for ‘sponsored content’ in the same way TV charges for commercials and print/web charges for ads.
Influencers are almost entirely online with a heavy focus on social media channels. It started with celebrities—a shoe company could pay an NBA player $25,000 just to tweet about their product. But the trend has now spread to internet celebrities: Youtubers, Instagrammers, Twitter[ers?], and others who reach tens of thousands to millions of people with every post. They reach a huge crowd, more than many food writers; for influencers, however, a free meal typically isn’t enough.
Is it worth it to pay someone to post about you? Consider a few factors in evaluating ROI…
How can influencers benefit you?
Let’s use the example of a Youtuber with a cooking channel that has 1 million+ subscribers. Imagine if that Youtuber cooked a dish inspired by a special at your restaurant, or uses an ingredient that you sell? That’s some serious publicity. Not to mention that influencers rank much higher on the trust scale with their audience, so even sponsored posts [labeled as such per FTC guidelines, using signals such as #ad and specific lines at the beginning and end of videos] will get great response.
In short, will this influencer bring in enough customers to offset their cost? The better their reach, the higher their price tag. There’s no concrete formula to calculate conversion, but do know that influencer conversion tends to be higher than traditional paid marketing.
Are you already paying for marketing?
Paying an influencer for an Instagram post isn’t too different from paying a magazine for a print ad. If you’ve already invested in paid marketing, then allocating part of your budget toward influencers is a good way to diversify your outreach. You just have to make sure the influencer is a good fit [see ‘finding a good fit’].
If you rely on earned media, i.e. unpaid publicity such as articles and ‘organic’ posts, then paying for an influencer can be a big leap for your first investment in the paid world. Cheaper marketing channels exist, such as promoting your own social media posts, participating in community food events, or even a good ol’ fashioned print ad.
Finding a good fit
Finding an influencer is easy: take a quick scan through social media to see who has tons of followers. Influencer marketplaces exist as well, where you can enter in your type of business and a list of potential influencer ‘partners’ pops up.
The key is to look past the glamour of follower figures and think about the investment on a more personal level:
• Does the influencer reach your core demographic?
• Does the influencer have a strong presence in your geographic area?
• Does the influencer’s content align with your brand? An intimate Italian restaurant may not want an influencer with a reputation for being wild and crazy.
• Does the influencer have engagement? This is a big one. Followers mean nothing unless they actually pay attention to the posts. Likes, comments and shares should have consistently high numbers.
• Is the influencer a sell-out? There’s a fine line between making money and selling your soul. Influencers shouldn’t have more than 10% of their content labeled as sponsored
Meet the influencer beforehand
This is non-negotiable. The absolute most important asset that an influencer can offer is a genuine passion for your brand. Sure, you’re paying them, but if the influencer sees your brand as a deposit in his bank account rather than for the value it creates for your customers, this will be reflected in his content. Have him come in for a meal, no strings attached, to get a feel beforehand. Make the decision to invest from there. If he refuses to get acquainted, he isn’t worth your time.
The idea of influencers is turning the journalism world on its head, but it’s best to use this trend to your advantage instead of fighting it. Just be sure to tread carefully.
Benjamin Brown is a seasoned restaurant writer and hospitality consultant, serving up SoCal's hottest food news and reviews.