Wednesday, April 20, 2011

 

Your product isn't enough (how a new restaurant can survive & succeed)

It's entirely possible, if not likely, that your product will be great but your business will still fail.

This won't come as a surprise to most. The variables involved in helping to make a business work long term are many, including several that are well out of your control.

But what surprises most entrepreneurs and new business owners is the fact that the product you sell isn't enough. How you deliver it, how you service it, and what your customers think of it - rational or irrational - will make or break you.

I thought about this over the weekend, as I took my family for an early Sunday lunch at a relatively new restaurant in town. I've been there three times now, and although the food is excellent, I don't think they're going to make it.

I'm sure the restaurant owners believe they'll succeed based on a great menu and kitchen. And they do make great food. But the rest of the experience leaves much to be desired.

In fact, in the 45 minutes we were there, I saw at least 12-15 people walk in the door and, eventually, walk out. The restaurant was only half full, so that's a lot of revenue walking away.

If I were the restaurant owner or manager, there are several things I'd do to make sure the business survived the difficult early days and succeeded long-term. Ironically, none of these have to do with the product. It's all about service and experience.

Here's what I'd do:

Put as much staff as possible near the front door
When people walk in for the first time, they're unsure what to expect. They're also likely not yet committed. The sooner someone greets them, the more likely they'll stay. If the host or hostess is busy, and there's no one else to greet them, it's easy to leave. Make sure that doesn't happen.

Put a sign out front with specials, today's fresh sheet, maybe even a testimonial or two
New diners might not be sure what they're in for. Those who are just walking by (whether or not they're looking for something to eat) have even less of a reason to come in. I'm not a fan of having someone standing outside the door with a menu (that comes across as desperate), but a well-placed and well-written stand-up sign can reinforce that you know what you're doing, and can provide the food and service experience new diners will want.

Greet each guest quickly, make eye contact, smile & engage
Whether it's the host, hostess, manager or wait staff with a few extra minutes, make sure the new guests feel welcome. Draw them in, give them a menu, explain the specials. This isn't that different than how to work a trade show booth - engage visitors, make eye contact, break their gait and get their attention to take the next step. For a restaurant, this is an important way to confirm the prospect's decision to walk in the door, and get them to a table.

Seat them quickly
If you're busy, that's usually enough validation to new guests to stick around (especially if you greet them quickly and get them on the waiting list). If there are tables available, there's no excuse to make them wait. Greet them quickly, validate their decision to come, and get them to table.

Management should visit every table
Especially in the early days of a new restaurant, managers and owners should be extremely hands on. No managing from the bar with a beer in hand. No power trips. Dig in, help service during the rush, and visit tables asking about the experience. If you don't know first-hand how the restaurant is doing, you have no reason being surprised when first-time diners don't come back.

Collect evaluation forms from every table
I'm surprised how many new restaurants don't ask for feedback. Make it easy to give that feedback, immediately after the service, before they leave. Perhaps go so far as to offer a free dessert or appetizer on their next visit if they complete the evaluation form before they leave.

Rewards staff for completed evaluations as well as service evaluation results
Make it exceedingly clear to your staff (the entire staff, not just the wait staff) that you're taking those early evaluations seriously. That means collecting as many evaluation as possible, writing the form to collect honest feedback, and acting on the feedback quickly. I'd also put something on the evaluation form to get the diner's permission for a manager to follow up with them on anything that didn't meet their complete satisfaction. I'd then require that managers spend a portion of their day (even if it takes doing so before or after regular hours) engaging with previous diners and their feedback cards. I guarantee this will help make the experience better for future diners, and impress those who've been with you before (even if they had a bad experience) to not only come back but also tell their friends about you.

Obsess about your Yelp ratings
Everything above, including the actual service and product (food/drink) at your restaurant will be reflected on Yelp and other user-submitted review sites. A new restaurant owner should be obsessed with this - reading evaluations, engaging reviewers to thank them for their feedback and make an offer to come back, etc.

What else would you add to this list? If you're the owner or manager of a new restaurant, or a restaurant that has been through those difficult early days, what worked for you?

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