Ray Camillo – Founder & CEO, Blue Orbit Restaurant Consulting
The holiday hubbub is settling down as Part-Time workers head back to school and holiday parties are in the rearview. Hopefully, your restaurant has fared well and all of your planning to deliver record-setting performance has paid off. But now what? Quarter 1 is notoriously abysmal and there is often a bit of a hangover as you go from high to low speed. Many restaurants make the mistake of simply tightening up and weathering the slow times, conserving enough energy for the Valentine’s Day surge (this year it’s a weekend so maybe you’ll get two days out of it), but otherwise biding your time until the tulips and daffodils arrive. Accepting slow sales as fate is absurd as it’s valuable time you could use to plan and test. Is your menu streamlined, easy to produce, and on brand? Are you organized enough to plan? Do you know what your competitors are doing and are you doing it better? Are you capturing all the profit you can? Are you proud of your guest experience?
The first thing every restaurant GM and/or owner should do is look back at THIS holiday season and document what went well and what could have been done better. There is no better tool for planning than a record of actual events – whether through numerical data or a documented diary of events. Emotional reporting is also good because it helps you remember the pain of a certain action or inaction. Rest assured, however: come November, that pain will have been forgotten and history enjoys repeating itself. Require each manager or department head to write notes about production timelines, staffing, best practices, lessons learned, and pitfalls to avoid. Do it now before everyone forgets.
Winter is the perfect time to evaluate your menu, which includes your cocktail menu, catering menus, brunch menus, and bar snack menus on top of your regular meal period menus. Your menu determines your labor, your sales, your costs, your equipment, and your relevancy to your market. Too often, restaurant owners allow their menus to grow so large that they are not moving their inventory fast enough to ensure freshness. Family members or customers demand variety but it’s so easy to add items without taking other items off, resulting in one-off ingredients and, subsequently, spoilage (nothing destroys loyalty like bad food). Catering menus have been altered so much over time to suit specific customer needs that they rarely resemble their original construction, which just means they’re not costed and are not intentionally profitable (even if they are accidentally so). Brunch morphs into the same undifferentiated, boring buffets that everyone else offers while no one bothers to take this time to hone cooking skills through new recipes and training. A customer’s preference for your restaurant over someone else’s is not a given. Cherish it and protect it by giving your menu the refresh it deserves. Even if you are not changing your menu, be sure you tighten the screws on the one you have by validating that cooks are cooking items to recipe and that your ingredient specifications have not meandered from your brand. Late winter is the perfect time to re-invest in your end product: the food, drinks, and experience your customers pay you for.
Organization is an initiative all its own. Planning is important but are you organized to plan? Managers in restaurants notoriously change jobs in January and owners and senior managers accept the cost savings by taking their time replacing those managers, putting stress on the remaining managers and ignoring the opportunity to review areas of responsibility and reporting structures. Yes, you should plan for each and every holiday, but if your functional structures are not clear, you’ll just wing it days before the holiday or season, leaving money on the table and leaving your guests saying, “meh”. Holidays should be planned for at least 4-6 months in advance through meetings and plans to execute. Banana Republic plans their summer collection in October (of the previous year). A restaurant should start holding meetings about Thanksgiving and Christmas season in May. If you’re not staffed and your work is not organized, you will lose to a competitor who is. Budgeting is a bigger topic, but I’ll assume you know enough to craft your budgets in October and early November (because all of the hard holiday planning has already been done) and you are now operating with them in place?… You still there?
Take a look at your local competitors and your aspirational models. Somewhere in Toronto or San Francisco or Dallas is a restaurant that inspires you that is similar enough to you that you fancy your restaurant to be like them. Go eat there and see how you’re doing against it. Down the street there is a competitor that annoys you or who you trade customers with. Take a close look at what they’re doing by eating there as a customer. I’m astonished at how many restaurateurs don’t dine regularly at a competitor’s restaurant or who have not left town to get inspiration, yet they still claim to be “better”. I recently assessed a restaurant that claimed to have an amazing burger and that the new restaurant next door was garbage. To my surprise, my client’s restaurant was pre-cooking burgers from frozen patties of inferior quality while the new competitor was serving a custom beef blend, shaped, and grilled to order. Knowing your competitors and your realm of possibilities is crucial for a business as driven by customer loyalty as the restaurant business. Winter is a great time to do some homework. You’ll not only learn about their menu, but you’ll learn how it feels to dine there. Ambience, music levels, cleanliness, food quality, staff training and friendliness – compare everything to what you’re doing and set a course to make sure you’re doing it better.
Like a tune up for your car or a physical examination for your health, you could benefit from an operations assessment from a qualified restaurant consultant. Fresh eyes and experience injected into your restaurant every January or February can keep you fresh and help you achieve longevity beyond what you can do on your own. What you do in Q1 will determine your success for the rest of the year.