September 2014 Newsletter

Sep 30, 2014


The news that July restaurant sales declined and operators are feeling less-than-optimistic about the future is giving everyone a bit of pause about the “recovery.” Rising food prices and concern about new minimum wage requirements are also giving the restaurant industry a case of the jitters. Expect more coverage on these key issues in the months to come.
The bottom line? Now is the time to double down and strengthen your business. As our associate Clyde Gilfillan argues in his excellent article on strategic planning, getting the entire organization moving in the same direction is more important than ever.

Operators also need to focus on the core basics of food, service and customer engagement, using whatever tactics it takes to get patrons in the door and to build guest loyalty once they’re there. One way you can do this is by avoiding these 12 common customer turnoffs.

Let us know if Synergy Restaurant Consultants can help you in any way.

To your success, Dean Small and Danny Bendas

Time: The CEO’s Best Friend

By J. Clyde Gilfillan, Synergy Restaurant Consultants

Time—hard to hold, hard to manage, relentless, ever pressing forward, and the one item that we can never replace. To the CEO, time is not just a valuable commodity; it’s an essential element to that ever-elusive goal of “success.” Time seems to be the most attractive, most exotic leadership skill to manage, yet we often don’t treat it as such.

We have time management books, monthly/weekly/daily planners, project management software. Speakers, authors, experts, whole companies devoted to this single aspect of leadership resourcefulness, all out to teach us how to keep time from essentially slipping away. Why? What’s happening to us? What’s preventing us from “staying focused”? The basic reason lies in the lack of strategic planning skills at all levels of management—at least, effective and efficient strategic and tactical planning.

Oftentimes, middle and/or lower-level managers are given priorities and asked to get results now. They are not given measurable/actionable/specific goals or objectives with both well-thought-out and agreed-upon strategies and, perhaps most importantly, tactics. Whatever is most important now is what is most important now it seems. The issue is that priorities shift and focus changes. Unfortunately, it is at this level of management that action, results, and accountability are at a premium. In other words, this is where the stuff gets done.

So how do we manage time? How do we stay focused and put “first things first” with our team? How do we get the job done throughout the organization? The answer lies in effective planning and the working of that plan: understanding the planning process, setting of common S.M.A.R.T. objectives, successful communication of the plan throughout the organization and/or department, and reaping the rewards of mentoring/coaching the progression.
The foundations of world-class planning are laid in:


• Vision – The optimal result to be achieved over time; it provides the guidance and inspiration to focus on reaching the end goal; the proverbial “North Star” for everyone to understand their work and its contribution to the end game. Vision must be first and foremost, well-thought-out and clearly communicated.

S.M.A.R.T. Objectives – Objectives are narrow, precise, concrete, and measurable. Goals are different; they are broader, more general, abstract. Leaders work with objectives while keeping end goals in mind. If the techniques of S.M.A.R.T objectives are used (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-based), they work very effectively. Why make people guess? Be very clear.

Distinct Pathways – Leadership must provide the pathways to seeing the vision and its resulting rewards while shaping the course used to achieve the objectives. Pathways can include tools and techniques such as Gantt project management and time management planners as well as coaching the progress. Pathways direct where the objective lies.

Asking and answering the important questions relating to these strategic foundations is highly important to anchoring the process. The corresponding questions that must be asked and answered to effect the process and put the plan into perspective:

Vision – WHY are we doing this? You must answer this question first. Without a satisfactory and agreed-upon answer, then the plan and process is moot.

Goals/Objectives – WHAT are we trying to achieve? Defined again by the dichotomy between goals and objectives, the end game must be in view and attainable. Be general with goals, but very specific with objectives.

Pathways – WHERE are we going? Illumination of the course, the passageway to the objectives, is a vital step in getting everyone moving in the same direction.


Activities and Tasks: The steps necessary to move the strategy forward, often mistakenly referred to as “To-Do’s.” Outlining the tasks and activities to be taken before movement is the main ingredient in the tactical recipe. Devised in order of importance and implemented in order of dependence, tasks guide us in the minutia of the overall plan.

Resources: Personnel needed, tools provided, education necessary. Gather the resources, lay out the needs, and indicate the requirements of the tasks ahead in order to match resources to the skill sets essential to meeting targeted objectives.

Logistics: This is where we delineate the deadlines and time schedules devoted to the objectives. With the tasks defined and the resources outlined, adherence to agreed-upon time mandates becomes the linchpin in our planning process. This is the final key to achieving results and keeping time on your side instead of discouragingly watching it continue on its inexorable march.

Coming full circle, world-class results are directly tied to a CEO’s ability to relate time, process, and achievement of objectives to the vision of the organization, the department, or the field unit. Using effective planning will move the needle of your organization. It takes time, patience, and coaching/mentoring, but the alternative is time wasted. Moreover, time is the one commodity we cannot replace. Planning the work and working the plan – that is a CEO’s best friend.


Avoid These Guest Turnoffs

By Joan Lang

It’s official: Americans are in the midst of a full-blown food fetish. This is great news for restaurants, but it’s also true that with increasing sophistication comes an increasingly demanding diner.

If it seems like more people are complaining nowadays, they probably are. In the past, bad restaurant news came in two forms: bad print reviews, and bad word-of-mouth. The hand-in-hand rise of foodie culture and the online community have changed everything. Today’s diners—whether they are bloggers, professional food writers, or just people who like to go out to eat—have many different forums for expressing their likes and dislikes, and that represents both an opportunity and a challenge.

We’ve covered Yelp and other citizen review sites in this newsletter in the past, but no matter what you think of this growing trend to consumer empowerment, you should be reading your reviews to find out what your guests legitimately don’t like about your restaurants.

There are also some common points of dissatisfaction that are emerging about the restaurant universe in general—just take a look at this recent no-holds-barred rant from Eater San Francisco, where the reader comments are as enlightening as the writers’ list of grievances about what they think restaurants are doing wrong.

We’ve compiled a cheat sheet of some of the complaints that keep rising to the surface, from sources of all kinds. Pay attention, since many of these issues also address problems that can affect sales.

1. Obvious upselling and overselling. Guests know when they are being played for bigger checks. There are ways to build sales without putting pressure on customers or making them feel like they’re cheapskates if they say no

2. Bad service. This is a big one, time and time again, from seemingly little things like not facing a beer bottle label to the guest to major snafus such as mixing up an order. This article on “35 Things Restaurant Servers Do Wrong” should be required reading for anyone who is responsible for server training

3. On a related note, servers who don’t know the menu. Front-of-the-house staff should be familiar with every item that’s on the menu, including specials, so they can answer guests’ questions and steer them to the best possible experience. Savvy restaurateurs with ambitious beverage selections even put their servers through bartender training so they can assist guests with their wine, beer and cocktail choices

4. Taking guest favorites off the menu without thinking it through very, very carefully—and maybe making other arrangements, like offering a discontinued item as a special or letting regulars know they can still order it off-menu. After all, according to National Restaurant Association research, “favorite menu items” are a prime reason many people go out to eat at a particular restaurant

5. Using industry lingo. Discussing the “wine program” with anyone but a colleague or telling a guest that you can’t sit two people at a “four top” or that the pasta has been “86’d” is just bad manners

6. Wobbly tables and uncomfortable chairs. Enough said

7. Not making your current menu available online. Looking at the menu is one important way potential guests make their dining-out decisions. If at all possible, put the menu on your website and make sure it’s current, to avoid disappointment. If your menu changes so often that it doesn’t make sense to put it on your website, it can at least be on Facebook. And always include prices

8. Bad disability etiquette. In many locations, accessibility is the law, but there’s more to making all guests feel welcome than properly spaced tables. Accommodations like Braille menus, printed rather than verbal specials sheets, and server training also make good business sense

9. Not being prepared for a service you offer. It’s great to offer delivery, online ordering and other guest conveniences, but your infrastructure needs to be able to handle them. That means technology, staffing, staff training, operational adjustments and much, much more

10. Refusing to consider special requests. Within reason, service and kitchen staff should be willing to accommodate not only vegans, vegetarians, and customers with gluten and other food allergies, but also requests to leave out the green pepper. Yes, customers may have become hyperfussy, but we should never lose sight of the fact that these are our guests

11. Noise. There’s a difference between a lively atmosphere and a restaurant where guests can’t hear each other—and there’s a sentiment that unwanted noise is getting worse. With more casual concepts come harder surfaces—wood floors instead of carpet, bare tabletops instead of cloths—plus music, bar noise and other distractions. Use soundproofing, design and other techniques to avoid or fix the problem

12. Lack of cleanliness. Whether it’s the silverware, the tables or the bathroom, guests notice when things aren’t clean. Things may start out spic-and-span, but during the course of a busy shift the situation can degrade quickly. Make sure your dishwashing capabilities are up to snuff—including keeping your dishwasher happy —and your front-of-house staff has enough hands to bus and reset tables correctly. As for the bathrooms, they should be inspected regularly and attended to promptly. And while you’re at it, check the floors in all public areas for spills, dropped paper and linens, and other detritus

If you need help addressing any of the problems introduced in this article, contact Synergy Restaurant Consultants.

Protein Power

Whether your guests are following the Paleo diet or just minding their nutritional P’s and Q’s, protein has become a real selling point on menus. According to data from NPD, “high-protein” is now equated with healthy. This stands to reason after decades of carb-phobia, first at the hands of Dr. Atkins, and most recently because of the gluten-free trend. The science of sports nutrition may also lie behind the demand for protein. Then, too, there’s the increasing availability of heirloom and ethically raised meats to consider.

Arby’s new Meat Mountain sandwich says it all. First conceived as a promotional stunt to herald the erstwhile roast beef chain’s new “We Have the Meats” positioning, the eight-meat (and two-cheese) fantasy sandwich got so many customer requests that the item will be actually served.

According to Packaged Facts, 62% of consumers are looking to eat more protein, a trend that promises opportunity for manufacturers and foodservice operators alike—the so-called protein craze has even hit supermarket bagged salads. And fortunately for vegetarians, the word is out that there are plenty of non-meat sources of protein, including not only eggs and cheese but also hearty and nutritious grains, seeds, nuts, beans and legumes.

Not surprisingly, high-protein foods are showing up on more restaurant menus, despite the high food costs associated with most meats, and people seem willing to pay for them. Fatburger has introduced its Double Down “protein-style” bunless burger. Taco Bell is overhauling its Cantina platform with bowls and burritos that tout 20 grams of protein in a 500-calorie-and-under package.

Roaring Bowl, in Seattle, brings the traditional protein-laden Japanese specialty shabu-shabu into the 21st century. Hitting all the contemporary high notes, Roaring Bowl offers an interactive dining experience (check) that allows guests to customize their meals (check) with a DIY menu (check) of bowls, plates and salad (check) that can be topped with such high-quality, eco-conscious ingredients (check) as Kurobuta pork belly and Painted Hills beef, plus lots and lots of fresh vegetables (ditto). Craft beers, soju and sake (check) round out the bill of sale.

Meanwhile, next-wave steakhouses like Union Common, in Nashville, are pushing the bounds of meat-centric menus with a selection that includes a variety of different signature steaks—Duck Fat Roasted Filet with black garlic butter; steak frites; an aged ribeye with citrus gremolata—as well as a full raw bar and chilled seafood. The list of appetizers is unusually complete, offering such small plates as Roasted Bone Marrow, Lobster Nuggets and several different cheeses. The pricing structure supports the notion that while food costs on aged beef and other premium meats may be well above the 30-35% target range, profit margins on a $17 appetizer or $65 steak are apt to be very good indeed.

Another theme is the roast house, specializing in the kind of “large format” roasted and rotisseried meats whose popularity may have started as a backlash to the small plates trend. In Chicago, there’s Tony Mantuano’s new River Roast, with a live-fire menu featuring roast beef (priced per 8-oz. serving), wood-smoked whole chicken, and a $42 whole fish of the day—all carved at tableside and meant for sharing. “Table Snacks,” oysters, charcuterie, and lots and lots of side dishes (including Yorkshire pudding) round out the family-style meatfest feeling.

And then there’s the new crop of restaurants whose very names hold promise of meaty pleasures. Beast & Ale, for instance, in Philadelphia, is the Feliz Mexican restaurant group’s foray into the gastropub market. The self-styled “updated greasy spoon” menu is inspired by Philadelphia’s old-school beef and ale tradition, including the namesake double-patty Beast Burger as well as Steak “Poupard” (the flatiron cut, served with caramelized onion and potato hash and a fried egg), Buttermilk Fried Chicken, and even a Fried Bologna Sandwich. Décor is by the way of both natural and gold-emblazoned taxidermy, to further drive home the beast metaphor.

Could a more gender-neutral revival of the Beefsteak Club be far behind?

Tip of the Month

For more information about what annoys restaurant guests, drill down into the “gripe-o-meter” from Consumer Reports.