Big food companies across the country have been hit hard by what can only be described as a serious loss of trust by their consumer base. Coca Cola, Kraft, Nestle and Mondelez [parent company of Nabisco] are just a few food giants that have seen their CEOs resign. Granted, these companies are alive and well and likely to perform just fine moving forward, but their age-old model of mass-scale, low-cost production is not resonating like it did decades ago, back in the day when all you needed at a baseball stadium were hot dogs and nachos.
So what does this mean for restaurants? Big things, all revolving around modernization. All consumer trends right now point to the little guy, the mom-and-pop-ish, locally sourced, small-scale production center where business is made up of guests who know and trust the product. To many, ‘big food’ is synonymous with chemicals, additives, fillers and other elements that consumers are sick of putting into their bodies. A growing clientele is ready and willing to pay a premium for ingredients they trust. This means going to restaurants that embody these same qualities.
Each of these big food companies has extended great effort in building their product portfolios to include more ‘trusted’ brands. Kellogg, for example, recently purchased RX Bar, the ‘No BS’ protein bar maker, for a whopping $600 million. Why? In all likelihood, to help modernize the Kellogg brand with a product that has clearly resonated with a newer-age clientele. For restaurants, this means you may want to take a look at your menu mix and assess whether your approach truly appeals to your guests today.
Does this mean that as a restaurant you should drop everything, revamp your menu and change out your suppliers all at once? Of course not. Coca Cola will never relinquish its soda business because that’s the core of the brand—they’ve simply built onto that brand by acquiring names such as Odwalla and Zico. As a restaurant owner, this means taking a step back, assessing what’s truly at the core of your business, and finding simple ways to modernize so that you can retain your identity while coming across as new and revamped.
This may not always be a food-related change. I recently visited what many would call a local dive in Santa Monica. The place was sitting on prime real estate, just steps from the ocean, and served a modest-yet-comprehensive menu of quality food at low prices. A true gem amidst its over-hyped and over-modernized neighbors, but the atmosphere here was akin to a run-down Irish pub. What an outdoor patio and natural light would do to this place! Yes, this would entail a significant remodel, but at the end of the tunnel would emerge a new, improved version of this restaurant that nobody would consider a dive. A transformation like this leads to higher demand, and a resulting lift in the bottom line.
This restaurant is the exact kind of seasoned mom-and-pop establishment that stands to benefit the most from an internal assessment and immediate action steps to bridge the gap between product offering and consumer needs. Moving the focus back to the menu, if you see that an item, or even an entire category, isn’t selling like it used to, then it’s time to revise the ingredient mix or even just your guests’ overall perception.
If you hand-grind your burger meat and roll the patties daily, then promote the heck out of that process by detailing it on your menu and table collateral. If you source locally, make sure your guests know. If you notice that more and more guests are subbing out American cheese for gouda, then you’ve found a good replacement or upsell opportunity. The list goes on.
If big food companies relied on classic soda flavors, ready-made mac ‘n’ cheese and processed snacks now like they did ages ago, they’d be going the way Sears and K-Mart have gone by not innovating with the rise of online retail. To put it bluntly, it’s just a matter of getting with the times, but thankfully it can be done quite handily. It’s all a matter of observation and small steps to follow what your guests are looking for.
Next time you’re at the grocery store, browse through some of the healthier brands you’ve become familiar with and look to see if you can find a name like Mondelez or Kellogg nestled on the package. Another example of small steps and necessary modernization.
The art of plating has gone hand-in-hand with the craft of cooking for ages, but presentation is more important as ever in the restaurant world. The reason why can be summed up with a simple, yet alluring phrase: free marketing.
As rude as it may be at times, guests that obsessively photograph their food at the table are essentially handing you cash every time they snap and share a picture. Social media marketing can cost you big time; CPM [cost per mil, or cost per thousand impressions] may only be a few dollars, but think about how often guests can share photos of your food, to all of their friends and followers. If you want to reach the same number of people, those dollars add up fast.
With this in mind, some restaurants may want to encourage people to post their food photos on social media. There’s a few fun ways to do this…
Make your food beautiful
Seems like a no-brainer, but food that’s pleasing to the eye will not only be viewed as more delicious, but will inspire guests to take out those smartphones. No ingredient changes needed; all that may need to be done is some simple rearrangements on the plate. Follow some simple steps to do this:
Add color, depth and height
Just like any piece of artwork, food is enhanced with color. Radishes, carrots and herbs are easy ways to add vivid color to many savory dishes. A contrasting sauce, dabs of oil across the plate or a smear of spread are more common practices that chefs employ.
Depth and height are catalysts for social media-worthy food. Fries stacked log cabin-style, rack of lamb with crisscrossed bones and sandwiches with one half peeking over the other are all methods to add something special to traditionally two-dimensional items.
Use interesting plates and glassware
If you’re in the market for these materials, you may consider spicing things up beyond the basic circular plate and tumbler glass. Serving items that allow photos to capture more food and less ceramic are always preferable. Asymmetrical bowls, for example, can help capture photos of soup and salad. Specialty cocktails in specialty glasses command a premium presence.
Keep aspect ratios in mind
For the non-photographer, aspect ratio is the photo’s width-to-height ratio. Instagram, for example, works using square photos, or a 1:1 aspect ratio. This means that ‘rectangular’ items, such as three sliders and a basket of fries presented in one long row, are difficult to fit within the frame. A chef may want to consider presenting the sliders in a triangular pattern with the fries in the center or on one side.
Beer flights are another example. Bars will often serve beers in one long row, whereas shifting to a more square display cold capture more of the product in a shot.
Own a hashtag
Perhaps most important in your efforts to create a social media buzz is being able to monitor the results. How else are you going to know if the time and energy you’re dedicating is paying off? Come up with a hashtag and promote it around your restaurant—entryway, menus, table tents, receipts and other touch points are all prime real estate. Keep the following in mind when creating a hashtag.
By encouraging guests to use your hashtag when posting, they’re self-sorting their posts directly into a virtual folder that you can open up and monitor whenever you want. This approach to marketing is free and convenient…not a common find.
Then there’s the idea of creating social media contests to promote this marketing effort even further. That, however, is a conversation for another time.
Not every menu item is going to be a best-seller. It’s reasonable to expect your signatures to outpace your lesser-known dishes, and for newer items to take a while to catch on. But the dynamic between haute plates and their not-so-popular counterparts goes much deeper. Some restaurants add items to their menu without expecting a sales lift at all, using them as a marketing ploy instead. Nefarious? No, there’s nothing wrong with putting an item on the menu that you can prepare but don’t expect to sell all that often. Strategic, on the other hand? Yes, absolutely.
So what’s the point of adding an item to your menu that you don’t expect to catch on? Check out several applications for this approach.
Your menu says a lot about your restaurant. In the same way that chic, modern décor defines a hip, urban feel, so too does an exotic ingredient list and fusion of worldly flavors. On the surface, these trends reflect the masses’ yearning to try new and different creations, and thus the establishments that serve salt-crusted bone marrow and grilled octopus will bring new faces through their doors.
In reality, however, many restaurant owners attest that while these intriguing items create the initial draw, most customers will revert to more traditional items when actually placing their order. So bone marrow may be a great crowd-pleaser on paper, but servers will mostly relay requests for burgers and mac ‘n’ cheese. Sure, they may be short rib burgers with a kimchi and fried jalapeno, and truffle mac ‘n’ cheese, but the items with more familiar bases will often prevail in the end.
So why add an item like bone marrow in the first place? Because if you limit your menu to the basic items, however exotic their additives may be, guests will limit their perception of your menu to be much less adventurous. In the same way that a Ferrari owner may not often take the car up to 220 mph, just knowing that the car can go that fast creates the appeal that justifies the price. Bone marrow essentially becomes an accessory, a kind of menu eye candy that lifts up everything around it, elevating the brand to demonstrate exotic appeal.
Should everyone add something like bone marrow to their menu? Definitely not—if you own a casual restaurant that thrives on good food at low prices, exotic menu additions can lead people to assume that you’re more expensive, driving down volume. On the other hand, if you’re trying to become more ‘hip and trendy,’ then maybe a novel touch to your menu can help. Just be sure that any additions align with your restaurant’s central theme, fits into your margins and that you account for sourcing, storage and staff training.
A much more typical case of menu additions comes in pricing. Adding an item that is well below, or above the average menu price [or both] is known as anchoring, and can have a positive effect when it comes to the psychology behind your customers’ ordering process.
When a customer sees entrees for $18, $17, $18, $19, $16, $29 and $17, the $29 item clearly stands out and poses little chance of being ordered. This can be a steak option amidst a lineup of burgers and sandwiches, but in any case makes every other item seem that much cheaper by comparison.
On the other hand, when the entrée list reads $38, $46, $29, $41, $42 and $39, all of a sudden that $29 item seems like a bargain. In this case, most guests may not get the $29 chicken, but because there’s a sub-$30 item on the menu, it makes the restaurant as a whole appear to be in closer reach of a more price-conscious consumer.
Both methods used simultaneously can work, just be sure not to go too extreme in either direction. An item priced too low can lower your restaurant’s brand perception [“If they make a sandwich for $8, then their $38 steak can’t be that good.”]. An item priced too high will just be taken out of the consideration set entirely [“A $95 porterhouse for two…well that just sounds silly.].
Make these additions one small step at a time and test frequently to see if they’re making an impact on your volume or sales. It’s always easier to scale back on a small change than a huge rollout.
Benjamin Brown is a seasoned restaurant writer and hospitality consultant, serving up SoCal's hottest food news and reviews.