In a down economy, discretionary restaurant meals are one of the first things to get cut by conservative consumers. Food industry consulting and research firm Technomic sees five trends looming large in 2009, as restaurants try to coax customers to come out and spend:
1. Experimentation and innovation—with new menu items, delivery services and price/bundling schemes.
2. Continuation of ethnic flavors, with a highlight of regional cuisines such as regional Italian and Jalisco-style Mexican fare.
3. “Local” food sourcing and a menu emphasis on the foods of the region.
4. Goldilocks serving sizes: big, little and just right. More small-plate, prix-fixe and bar menus, in addition to more family-style entrées that can feed two or more.
5. Up-scaled and expanded kids’ menus, beyond standard kids’ menu items to items that reflect the restaurant, for instance, a crab cake at a seafood restaurant—along with more specialty beverages and smoothies. (Editor’s Note: Makes good sense to help develop the foodies of tomorrow.)
Hmmm…interesting, but we’re not certain that a kid’s crab cake or delivery service is the hot button when money is one’s chief concern. “Price/bundling schemes,” whatever they are, sound promising. What would make us spend money at restaurants when we think we should exercise restraint are financial incentives. Our suggestions include:
1. The “new menu items” should include more affordable dishes across categories (appetizers, entrees, desserts). There should be some comparatively inexpensive choices in each group. If your goal is to fill seats, this can be done—at least on certain nights of the week.
2. Offer more affordable wines, meaning, more reasonable markups. We’d show up to eat more often and buy wine if we could pay $20 for a $10 retail bottle instead of $35. Paying $12 or $15 for one glass of average wine is like pouring money down the drain.
3. Allow a BYO for a corkage fee on slow nights.
We understand that much of a restaurant’s profit has come from those $12 wines-by-the-glass and the bottle markups; but when people can buy the entire bottle for $12, they’re staying home and grilling or ordering a designer pizza in these penny-pinching times. We’d like to suggest that restaurants find other ways to improve their margins, including:
1. Charging for the bread basket. How many people really want that bread, and how much of it gets wasted (or how many of us fill up on it before the food arrives)? No one needs those carbs (or the fat from the butter). Few of us serve a bread basket at home; at the restaurant, it’s a bad-food temptation we don’t need put in front of us. Charging for it is a way for restaurants to save (and earn) money.
2. Serve smaller portions of dessert. Most of those who want a little something sweet at the end of the meal could do with half the calories, carbs and fat of what we’re typically served—that’s why “sharing a dessert” is a standard calorie-cutting recommendation. In addition to earning higher margins from smaller portions, there’s probably a market for a selection of mini-desserts sold to people who would normally decline dessert (similar to selling an “appetizer portion” of a main course).
It’s food for thought!