How to Breathe Fresh Life Into a Stale Restaurant Brand

27 Oct

Restaurant brands need to be refreshed every few years or they start to grow mold like expired bread.

So, how about your brand?  Is it as fresh as your bread?  As relevant as the latest technologies your core audiences are using? Today’s tech-savvy consumers expect their smartphone provider to come up with a new technology every twelve months.  Restaurant industry executives who don’t think the same expectation for speeding up innovation doesn’t apply to their businesses are wrong. Both the tech and restaurant industries share the same consumer, so it’s time the restaurant industry started getting used to the idea of continuous innovation.

Here are a few general tips relevant to any company considering a rebrand—but like a custom set of replacement dentures, it really should be custom-fit to work best.



It doesn’t matter how big or small your company is, it is scary to do a brand reboot if you are doing it right.  If you’ve been there since the early days—or have a lot of your own money on the line—you must be pushed beyond your comfort zone.  Change willingly.  If you wait until a brand rejuvenation project is obviously needed, it’s too late. Ask yourself: When is the last time my business did a brand review? Remodel?



When you analyze it, you’ll see that nearly every successful restaurant brand turnaround started in the heart of the house: in the kitchen, with the menu.  Ill-conceived restaurant re-branding strategies start from the outside and work their way in; meaning they announce changes with expensive advertising campaigns, start with new signage and exterior remodels, and then they work their way in with interior remodels and after-the-fact staff training.  Win the hearts and minds of the internal customer (the crew/associates) and come up with killer new signature items your associates believe in and rave about.



  • Sight: Does it look fresh? I mean in terms of actual fresh product but also in terms of other visuals like the paint, fixtures, finishes, fabrics, surfaces, uniforms, fonts, fashions, and overall vibe)?  Go in through the front door instead of the back door; experience the brand as a new customer would and assess the gaps between what’s there and what should or could be there.  Sometimes just a fresh coat of paint can do wonders for perceptions of associates and guests.
  • Smell: Put on a blindfold and have someone walk you around zone by zone of your restaurant.  What do you smell?  Think about it as you go through every zone and ask yourself – should there be a smell, and if so, what should it be and what is it now?  Hint: It should not be the same smell in every zone and at every sequence of the dining experience.  The sense of smell is the most memorable of all of the senses.
  • Sound:  Now go through each zone guided only by your sense of sound.  What should a guest hear (and not hear) in the dining room?  In the restroom?  At that booth near the kitchen?  There are entire companies specialized purely in acoustical design because it’s that important.  Some chefs even consider the sense of sound in the creation of new dishes, meaning, not just how the dish looks and tastes but how does it sound as it is being eaten?
  • Touch:  Do your doorknobs help tell your brand story?  I know this may seem a little far-fetched for some, but even way back in the 1970’s—before ‘brand story’ was even a thing—my dad thought this through in designing his rustic seafood restaurant.  He wrapped the door handles in worn rope and used authentic and antique nautical equipment to help guests feel transported even before they stepped foot in the restaurant.  Such queues add up to create an experience and set the stage for your brand to shine.
  • Taste:  Naturally it’s expected that the food and beverage offerings should taste amazing—and most restaurant executives will claim theirs does.  And I will assume you’re already doing guest satisfaction surveys.  But what about your associates?  Would they recommend their employer as a place to eat?  It’s so important to get this right.  (See Associate Engagement.)
  • Sixth Sense:  Great restaurants have some extra quality to them that you can’t quite point to.  All of the fundamentals are there – and those are great – but there’s something extra that feels a little magical. If you ask me, great restaurants have a soul.  It’s something that can’t be engineered, but the environment for it to exist can be designed.  And you can aspire for this quality.  Be original and build in the magical for your concept.



Before you spend the first dollar planning or implementing, make sure you’ve spent at least a nickel researching and analyzing.  Sure, you need to know your internal trends like you know the back of your hand.  But you also are going to need to own up to the fact that there is more happening in the world than you alone can master.  Make new friends and travel with them.  Bring in an outside perspective.  To start, see these restaurant trends.  You should definitely benchmark and look at what others are doing, but if you mimic another brand yours can only ever be a counterfeit.



Not even Coca Cola with a seemingly limitless budget can afford to do everything it wants to do at the same time.  When you do a full top-to-bottom brand review and look to budget out for a reboot, you will inevitably exceed the parameters of what it makes sense to do simultaneously.  This is a natural part of the process so don’t feel discouraged.  Embrace limitations as a source of inspiration to be more creative. Start with the basics.  For instance, how current are your brand standards documents?  You know, things like a professionally crafted positioning strategy, brand personality statement, set of measurable brand promises, and a compelling brand story.  Plan and articulate first.



Often times, car companies will put a new skin on a proven and renowned chassis.  Maybe your underlying framework and chassis is solid and it’s only your headlights and bodywork that’s out of touch.  Car companies can’t keep getting top dollar and industry accolades if they put the exact same model car out every single year.  Are you retooling your menu and marketing every 6 – 12 months?  Sure, it costs you too if you have to re-evaluate your menu a couple times per year and repackage, but wouldn’t you agree those boring car companies have it so much worse?



It fascinates me how many companies say in the same sentence, “We’re looking for innovative ideas,” but also “we need some case studies to get the support of the board.”  If it’s truly innovative, you won’t find a case study for it because it hasn’t been done before.  And if you can find a case study for it, it’s not a novel idea and can only at-best be a commandeering of someone else’s innovation.  A good rule of thumb here is to ask, “Will what we’re doing be considered so unique, exciting and ground-breaking that journalists from around the country (or world) will write about it?”



In some cases it’s better to just get a fresh start than to keep trying to repair a brand that’s built on a compromised foundation.  Don’t be afraid to change your name or start a new company/brand.  Sometimes you’re better off cleaning the slate and doing something fresh that was unrestrained by the previous brand parameters.

I’m not asking you to depart from your current ‘brand’ with reckless disregard; nor am I pushing you to hire a consultant or to not trust your gut. I want you to find the courage and inspiration to do something so special and unique that you attract not just guests but associates, investors, and journalists.  If you feel a little lost or overwhelmed, it’s okay.  It should feel that way if you’re doing it right.  Go it alone or hire experienced help.  Companies like mine do this for a living, but you don’t have to hire help.  What you have to do above all else is aspire to do something meaningful and be willing to put it all on the line to bring it into the world.

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5 ways to take the temperature of your restaurant

04 Oct

Get a fuller picture of business performance with these strategies

Measuring performance is critical for your restaurant. A coach measures a team’s efficiency with wins, losses and public perception, and restaurant managers should think the same way.

Many restaurant failures could be saved by implementing some basic but necessary forms of measurement. Successful restaurants that maximize their profit have one standout approach: They use multiple levels of measurement for real-time feedback on the health of their business.

Use these five best practices to help you identify your restaurant’s needs, create a more accountable culture and generate sustainable cash flow.

1. Dine at your restaurant. You would think this is obvious, but it’s very uncommon. Every time you dine at your restaurant, you gain a new perspective. Each seat views the business from a unique angle. You may have a wobbly table or notice a light that is out. You can also evaluate the service as a guest. You will quickly see strengths and deficiencies of the service staff. What is their sense of urgency? How strong is their menu knowledge? Is the host attentive and enthusiastic? Are pre-busses and refills consistent with training standards? Once you have identified weaknesses, you can plan to bridge the gap.

As for the food, I have dined in my restaurants hundreds of times and have had very few perfect experiences. If you feel there are no growth opportunities with food, you are not looking hard enough. Eating as a guest gives you incredible coaching opportunities for recipe adherence, food production and technique, and helps find training and developmental holes you can work with.

2. Use secret shoppers. Secret shoppers are an important measurement for the sustainability of a restaurant, providing a quantitative valuation of your team’s performance. These professionals analyze everything from the façade, to the bathrooms, to theft behind the bar and the server upselling dessert. Your staff will always act differently when you are not around, so these companies are your eyes and ears. All of the successful companies I have worked with have utilized secret shoppers. Creating excitement around these results with your team is important. I have rewarded teams when I get great results, and I have disciplined weak service. When you follow through with the results, this tool can enhance the service culture.

3. Work with financial software. This is an inexpensive and essential tool for measuring your company’s financials. Software programs can allow you to identify COGs, labor management, same-store sales, comps and many other measurements in real time. You can use this software for inventory control, prep and ordering pars, which help you decrease waste.

Although a monthly P&L is an important measurement, it analyzes the past. P&Ls should be a report card, but you shouldn’t measure business health with just a P&L. Use the software to understand your business in real time so you and your team can make operational changes on the fly. Create an educated culture around these tools with your team, focused on sales but able to analyze inefficiencies. In my company, all managers are trained on software so they can understand the “why” behind the numbers and make operational decisions based on analytics. I don’t manage to the bottom line; I lead through information. This has added to millions to my company’s profit.

4. Pay attention to reviews. Online reviews have an incredible influence on public perception. When dealing with reviews, you first need to communicate directly with the guest who has reviewed your business. Quick public responses to reviews stop a guest from ranting about your business and show them you value their input. It’s also essential to thank those who leave positive reviews, providing positive reinforcement and making them more likely to dine with you again. Secondly, take the feedback to your team. If you dismiss reviews, so will your team.

5. Talk to your guests and employees. These are incredible barometers of your business. Guests will tell you if they like the food directly and indirectly. If a guest says everything was good, ask them what you can do to make it great, and they will tell you. Just because they aren’t complaining doesn’t mean they don’t have issues. Watch their interactions to see if they are enjoying themselves. Nonverbal interaction offers much information.

Servers and bartenders are filled with information on what people say about their experience. They know which items consistently get returned. Ask them how to make the training program more effective. Find out how morale is and how you can impact it. Give them a voice. Empower them as partners and they will act accordingly.

Justin Cohen is partner and VP of operations for Riot Hospitality, a $50 million, multi-concept hospitality company. Cohen has worked in every single vertical within the restaurant business.

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The Art of hospitality

19 Sep

Hospitality doesn’t just make guests feel good – it’s good for business

I’m not one to spend money on filling my closet with rows of flashy sneakers, or lining up at dawn to get the latest tech gadget. But I do happily spend my hard-earned cash hunting down great dining and drinking experiences.

Over the years, my litmus test for which restaurants and bars I return to has become quite simple: How does the place make me feel? Call it comfort, call it vibe, call it being taken care of, or call it escapism, but more than any other element, a palpable sense of hospitality is what truly captures a guest’s heart.

Genuine hospitality is what separates a great experience from a forgettable one. It’s what fills the bar stools with devout regulars. Yes, it can be an ephemeral factor that’s hard to put into words, but when you feel it, you know it. Developing hospitality that emanates from your staff, and encouraging them to unfurl it night after night, is the key to creating repeat business, and is imperative for the bottom line.

“Hospitality is the most important aspect of what we do,” said Sophie Oppelt, sommelier at Summit at the Broadmoor in Colorado Springs, Colo. “At the end of the day, you can have a killer beverage program and incredible food, but it all comes down to how your product gets to the table and the human interactions that go with it. These can have an impact that are more memorable than the bottle of wine, or even the entire meal.”

Having empathy for your guests and recognizing that each one is looking for something different, allows you to engage them with an open mind, to adapt your approach to what you’re hearing, and then to create custom experiences they’ll remember.

One principle to focus on with your staff is the difference between service and hospitality. These are two different skill sets, said Matthew George, lead sommelier at Rivea in Las Vegas, one of Alain Ducasse’s properties.

“Learning the steps of detailed service is one thing, but you have to choose to be hospitable,” George said. “All the finer points of service can be taught. But the staff has to openly, and happily, embrace a sense of hospitality that affects their conduct every day. It’s about being one step ahead of the guest, knowing what should come next in their experience before they do. Beating their anticipation and needs makes for a secure, welcome feeling. And for repeat guests, you can enhance their experience with a new wine or dish, but ultimately they should leave with a feeling as welcoming as on their first visit.”

Even how your staff refers to guests is important.

“First off, you must refer to them as ‘guests’ and not ‘customers,’” said Jeff Taylor, beverage director for North End Grill in New York City, part of Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group. “We try to take a lot of the transactional nature of a restaurant out of the equation and make it feel like we’re inviting our friends over to our apartment for dinner. Every guest must be handled differently. Does this guest require a lot of attention? Is this guest hands-off? Is this guest having a bad day? Is this guest celebrating something and, if so, how do we acknowledge it? Do we know what the guest’s preferences are ahead of time, like what kind of water they prefer? How do they like their Martini made? The list is endless, but it’s a list that is specific to that particular guest.”

Hiring employees that have an innate sense of hospitality is a must.

“Some people will be more naturally inclined to hospitality than others,” said Jason Percival, beverage director at Post 390 in Boston. “You can tell your staff to smile more, to refine their tableside manner, or to use certain verbiage, but if it’s not genuine, it’s apparent. If someone by nature genuinely wants to take care of people, it’s very easy.”

Although it can be challenging to identify in an interview, look for positive characteristics in prospective employees like sustained eye contact, clear articulation of thought, ease and confidence in body language, and a sense of humility. These qualities can pay off in spades when your employees get to know your guests and spend extensive time with them.

When things go wrong and a guest’s experience is blown off track, a skilled practitioner of hospitality must swoop in. It’s much more effective to deal with a guest in real time than to find that they’ve already left and begun complaining on social media.

“With each moment that passes after the guest leaves and they feel like they weren’t heard, they have the potential to become more upset,” Taylor said. “I always tell my staff, ‘If you see or hear something, say something!’ In layman’s terms, I like to call it ‘No Guest Left Behind.’ Get in there as quick as possible, listen to their complaints, acknowledge their feelings and act accordingly to remedy the situation.

David Flaherty

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Some interesting numbers

27 Jul


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Marketing to the millennial restaurant customer

27 Jun


Sponsored by Epsilon.

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11 ways to survive the slow season

23 Jun

Operators in seasonal locations share how they keep sales steady during downtimes

Liz Barrett | Jun 23, 2017

Some operators cut hours, take their own vacation or eventually shut down for good. Others figure out how to strap in, plan ahead and thrive in the downtime. Here are 11 ways you can do the same.

1. Start planning early

It may seem premature to start thinking about Christmas during the summer, but when you’re located in a seasonal area like the historic West End Historic District of Dallas, it’s never too early to start planning ahead for the slow times, according to Jay Kahn, owner of RJ Mexican Cuisine.

“By July, we’re already focusing on December,” Kahn said. “December in the downtown market is really tough. If we don’t have Christmas season reservations lined up, we’ll be slow.”

2. Involve your vendors

The vendors you’ve been working with for years want to help you succeed through a slump. Kahn said most vendors are open to assisting with special promotions that help you, while also promoting their brand.

“You don’t have to have that money come from your own pocket because there are so many vendors that want to get their brand name out there,” Kahn said.

3. Meet your neighbors

Call and visit local businesses, shake hands and give out samples. Not only is this a great way to drum up catering business and large party reservations, but RJ Mexican Cuisine has also formed a mutually beneficial arrangement with a local hotel concierge that awards the hotel a gift certificate after a certain number of referral cards for free appetizers or desserts are brought in by hotel guests.

“We have a guy who cold calls local businesses, takes samples to them and books their catering,” Kahn said.

4. Run contests

In addition to running contests on Facebook for guests to win $50 for checking in at the restaurant, Kahn said he’s also been running various employee contests for the past 14 years.

“The employee contests are usually a month long and can range from selling the most tequila to a prize for the most perfect checks that month,” he said. “A perfect check is when the server is able to sell an appetizer, entrée with add-ons, and dessert or after-dinner drinks.”

Server prizes include cash, movie tickets and gift cards.

5. Enlist outside help

From June through mid-August, Athens, Ga., loses around 30,000 of its residents when students from the University of Georgia head home for the summer. Rob Longstreet, owner of Craft Public House in Athens, said he decided to hire a public relations specialist last April to help with the slow times.

“We wanted to attract locals, especially non-college students, particularly those who have not been here before,” Longstreet said. “Our publicist has come up with special events we haven’t tried before such as a cocktail tasting, pop-up kitchen at the local farmers market, an art event with a local artist, and beer and wine dinners. We’ve also recently launched weekly promotions to target more people.”

6. Test new specials

When trying to attract new, local customers, sometimes a new special is all it takes.

“Our Wine Tuesday has been fairly popular,” Longstreet said. “With this promotion, we offer half off select bottles of wine with the purchase of an entree or two small plates. We didn’t want to exclude the beer enthusiasts, so we also created a Pint Night on Thursdays, when local drafts are $4 a pint after 4 p.m., which has definitely boosted our Thursday sales.”

Kahn suggested taking a cue from restaurant chains if you’re located in a place with budget-minded guests.

“The dinner for two specials, where you buy one and get one free, always work great to bring people in,” he said.

7. Have a party

It doesn’t have to be a holiday to have a party. Why not invite a local artist, author or business person to show their new art, sign books or discuss new changes in the community? Locals love attending events during the week, especially if you pair them with food and drink specials.

Longstreet had one of his busiest Tuesdays when Craft Public House hosted a well-known artist.

“His participation brought in a lot of new customers,” he said. “We purposely hosted the event on a Tuesday during happy hour to encourage attendees to stay for the restaurant’s recurring Wine Tuesday promotion.”

8. Hold a pop-up event

Pop-up events have become a popular way to meet new customers outside of your own restaurant. If there’s a farmers market or even a noncompeting business nearby, consider hosting a pop-up. Craft Public House participated in a Saturday pop-up kitchen at the nearby Athens Farmers Market, Longstreet said. The restaurant handed out menus and business cards, promoted special events, and served three different menu items to satisfy different tastes and diets.

9. Spread the word

Take advantage of the fact that many of your competitors may be taking a break during the slow months. This is the best time for you to promote what you have going on through social media, email and to the local press.

Craft Public House publicizes promotions through Instagram and Facebook, encouraging the businesses it collaborates with to do the same, Longstreet said. A few weeks before the promotion or event, press releases and professional photos are also sent to local newspapers.

At RJ Mexican Cuisine, table tents, posters and e-mail blasts help to spread the word about upcoming events and promotions.

10. Follow up with previous guests

Remember all of those guests who booked birthdays, holiday parties and business lunches with you? Follow up and offer them a repeat booking discount. Let them know that you want your restaurant to be the go-to place for all of their parties.

“We currently have our hostess going through all of our previous reservations and thanking them for coming in,” Kahn said.

Still working on building an email list? Kahn suggested taking down an email address every time you take a reservation.

“We let our guests know that an email helps to confirm the reservation,” he said. “Once we have the email, we don’t email more than once every three weeks.”

11. Trim operating costs

In addition to ramping up promotions and wooing new customers, Kahn also suggested taking a look at your everyday operating costs, like gas, water and even utilizing timers for outside lights and adjusting them for daylight savings time.

“During the slow times, you won’t necessarily need a full back-of-house crew or a cook line full of product,” he said. “Bring people in when you need them, during the rush, and stagger their times accordingly during the rest of the time.”

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Restaurant sales fall in May as labor pressure builds

12 Jun

Restaurant chains: Same-store sales fell 1.1 percent, a decline of 0.1 percentage points from April, and the industry has not reported a month of positive sales since February 2016.

These results come from data by TDn2K through The Restaurant Industry Snapshot, based on weekly sales from over 27,000 restaurant units and more than 155 brands representing $67 billion dollars in annual revenue.

Same-store traffic declined 3 percent in May, a 0.2-percentage-point improvement from April. Although results were similar to the prior month, the growth in average check was lower compared with recent months, causing the drop in sales growth versus March and April.








“The industry is clearly still struggling, but there is some optimism based on the latest results,” said Victor Fernandez, executive director of insights and knowledge at TDn2K. “Both sales and traffic growth quarter-to-date at the end of May show improvements over the first quarter, and the second quarter is currently on track to post the best results we’ve seen for the industry since the third quarter of 2016.”

Last year, restaurant sales were relatively weak, so easier comparisons should help results.

“However, at this point, we believe the most likely scenario for the current quarter will be an improvement over recent quarters, while still suffering negative sales given the current consumer spending trends,” Fernandez said.

Consumer spending at restaurants stagnant  

“With little happening in Washington to alter the landscape for growth, it appears as if the economy will again expand this year at the same pace it has averaged for the past seven years, which is 2.2 percent,” said Joel Naroff, president of Naroff Economic Advisors and TDn2K’s economist.

That is enough to continue driving down unemployment rates and putting greater pressure on companies trying to expand and hire new workers. Wage gains are still accelerating slowly, though, limiting household spending power.

Recently, there has been an uptick in retail spending on most goods and services. That stands in stark contrast to the continued decline in restaurant sales growth.

Consumers appear to be maintaining their spending at restaurants but increasing it for other goods and services. This change in consumer spending patterns was identified about a year ago, and it’s unclear how much longer it will continue.

Opportunities for growth

While overall sales continue to challenge most of the industry, there are pockets of opportunity. Dine-in sales have been negative year to date, but to-go orders are up 2.9 percent. Sales have also risen for catering, delivery and drive-thru orders.

From a daypart perspective, breakfast and mid-afternoon sales offer continued opportunities for growth, while lunch and especially dinner sales continue to stumble.

Segment success and high and low ends

May sales were weak across all segments. Only the fine-dining segment was able to achieve very small same-store sales growth during the month. The second best-performing segment in May was quick service. That soft performance notwithstanding, the best-performing segments continue to be those with the lowest and highest average guest checks.

“Dining experience on one end and value and convenience on the other seem to continue to be key components of restaurant sales performance based on current consumer spending trends,” Fernandez said.

The weakest-performing segment in May was casual dining. This was a bit unexpected since the segment showed improved performance during the first four months of 2017, after lagging the industry for several years. Casual dining has added a modest number of new units, but same-store sales declines have contributed to its overall loss in market share.

Despite weak sales results year to date, fast casual continues to win the market-share battle. The segment gained the most share in the first quarter of 2017, compared with the previous year. Aggressive expansion has driven total sales growth, but increased competition and market build-out have undoubtedly impacted same-store sales. The only other segment that gained market share year over year was quick service.

Retention and staffing still plague restaurants

In addition to what restaurants face in terms of falling guest counts and consumer spending, strong challenges continue to confront operators in both staffing and retaining qualified workers.

TDn2K’s People Report Workforce Index continues to indicate that operators are pessimistic about the difficulty of recruiting in the upcoming quarters. Part of the problem is that hiring for new restaurant positions has started to pick up again. The number of employees in the chain restaurant sector increased 1.9 percent in April, compared with the previous year, up from 1.5-percent growth recorded in March.

Turnover is also impacting staffing. Turnover rates for both hourly employees and management staff increased again in April.

“The turnover numbers that we are reporting are stunning,” said Joni Thomas Doolin, TDn2K’s CEO and founder of People Report. “Many of the brands that we track are already facing unsustainable levels of staffing vacancies. Most alarming is the fact that over 70 percent of employees are leaving voluntarily as opportunities for better work increase.”

Meanwhile the overall labor market, which is nearing full employment, doesn’t hint at relief for operators any time soon. The consequences of turnover are well documented by TDn2K. Not only does it impact service levels and guest satisfaction, which correlate to traffic and sales, but it is also a huge source of additional costs that hurt the bottom line. According to a recent study by People Report, it costs an average $2,200 to replace a single hourly restaurant employee, while the cost of turnover for all levels of restaurant management is an average $15,000 per manager.

“The companies who are leading in the marketplace are starting by winning in the workplace,” Doolin said. “Being a great employer has never been more important.”

This exclusive series to Nation’s Restaurant News provides insight into the sales and traffic data from clients subscribing to Black Box Intelligence, a financial performance benchmarking company. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Nation’s Restaurant News.

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Falling restaurant sales puzzle experts

17 May

Restaurant sales fell again in April, according to the latest MillerPulse index, and experts are puzzled as to the full reasons for the decline.

Same-store sales declined by 0.9 percent during the month, and 0.5 percent on a two-year basis.

It was the 10th monthly decline in the past 11 months for the index, and the largest decline in the two-year number since the recession.

The decline is due entirely to a loss of customers. Traffic in the month fell by 3.5 percent. Traffic has fallen by 1.9 percent or worse in each of the past 12 months, and has been down by at least 2.7 percent in each of the past five months.









“This is an ugly looking chart,” said Larry Miller, cofounder of the survey.

That ugly looking chart points to an industry that is in its worst period since the recession ended in 2010. Yet it’s difficult to pinpoint a reason for the problems.

Miller has been among those who believe that the widening gap in prices at restaurants and grocery stores are to blame. Restaurants increased prices by 2.3 percent in April, according to federal data, while grocers’ lowered their prices by 0.8 percent.

Yet grocery store sales aren’t exactly going gangbusters, either. Grocery sales increased just 1.9 percent in April — while restaurant sales increased 3.9 percent, according to federal retail sales data.

Other economic figures should suggest an industry in growth mode. Unemployment is 4.4 percent, essentially full employment, and disposable income is trending higher. More disposable income typically translates into higher restaurant sales.

 Consumer confidence, meanwhile, remains at strong levels after increasing earlier this year, according to The Conference Board.

In other words, consumers have money and jobs and are confident in the state of their finances — and yet they’re not dining out.

“All the traditional correlations we look at, the things that make sense, they’re all breaking down,” Miller said.

One potential suggestion is that consumers are opting for more independent restaurants. But data on that theory is mixed, at best. And Miller, for one, doesn’t believe that’s the case.

“We’ve found no convincing evidence on our part that chains are losing share,” Miller said.

Another theory is that the industry has overbuilt. And there is some evidence that restaurants have been adding locations and expanding at a strong clip over the past three years, which might have outpaced demand and led to the declines in same-store sales.

Miller said that restaurants are not alone in their misery. Numerous consumer industries are struggling at the moment, in particular retail. “I think we’re having the same sort of issues that are out there more broadly in the economy,” Miller said. ‘The question is why.”

There is some belief that the industry could pick things up as the year goes on. Comparisons get easier this month and next month, and that could pull sales higher.

For now, however, sales and traffic remain troublesome. Traffic has been generally weak since 2012, but it has decelerated over the past two years.

And the traffic problems are broad based. Quick-service chains’ traffic in April fell by 3.3 percent. Casual-dining chains’ traffic fell by 3.7 percent.

Same-store sales at quick-service restaurants declined by 0.8 percent in April, while casual dining same-store sales fell by 1.1 percent.

Casual dining same-store sales have fallen in each of the past 13 months. On a two-year basis, casual dining same-store sales are down 1.2 percent. That’s the seventh straight monthly decline and second worst, after December’s 2.7 percent decline, since the recession.

Follow him on Twitter at @jonathanmaze


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Can Arizona become a foodie destination?

25 Apr

To learn a city’s best dishes, you need a local guide. The Arizona Office of Tourism and the Arizona Restaurant Association recently launched website Expedition Foodie to help out-of-towners plan their culinary adventure in Arizona.

The groups are collecting information about Arizona chefs and restaurants to feature on the website. Both organizations hope the site will help capitalize on positioning the state as a foodie destination.

In 2015, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization recognized Tucson as the first city in the U.S. for gastronomy, which means it has localized food production and has invested in natural resources to create international culinary experiences.

Arizona restaurants also are getting global attention, including Little Miss BBQ in Phoenix.

Scott Holmes, owner of Little Miss BBQ, said he met a group of people from Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, who planned to stay in Phoenix for a week.

“They flew in and this is the only restaurant that they knew that they were going to eat at,” Holmes said. “It’s amazing. It’s really, really cool.”

Little Miss BBQ has consistently ranked as one of the top restaurants in the state, even the country, according to Yelp. The site has ranked it No. 11 on its list of best places to eat in the U.S.

Scott Dunn, the vice president of communications for the Arizona Office of Tourism, said places such as Little Miss BBQ help get Arizona on the food destination map.

“Our culinary reputation has elevated with each passing year,” he said.

The line at Little Miss BBQ usually starts at 9 a.m., and by noon, the wait can take as long as two and a half hours.

“We get people who fly in and they try to schedule their flight so that they land at 9 (a.m.) and can get their bags and be here by 10,” Holmes said. “It really kind of blows my mind sometimes.”

This year, Phoenix was named No. 1 for “favorite” pizza by Travel and Leisure magazine.

Dominic Armota, food blogger and critic for The Arizona Republic, said Phoenix is making its way onto these lists by embracing its own history and resources.

“Phoenix is finding its voice when it comes to all things culinary,” Armota said. “It is a town that it is getting more confident in the food that is getting made, more confident in its history.”

Whether a food market, BBQ joint or pizza place, more tourists are saying food experiences are an important part of their vacations, according to the Global Report on Food Tourism by the World Tourism Organization.

However, many national lists of “food cities” in the U.S. focus on the same places – New York, Los Angeles, Portland, New Orleans, according to sites like Zagat and The Washington Post.

Phoenix – or any other Arizona city – usually does not make these lists. But Zagat did rank Phoenix/Scottsdale No. 9 on its up and coming food cities list.

The Arizona Office of Tourism reported that retail and bars brought in about $1 billion to the local economy in 2016, a 2 percent increase from the previous year.

The Expedition Foodie website is not the Office of Tourism’s only attempt to increase awareness about the food scene in the state. The site launched a video series called Arizona Expedition and hired food blogger Emily Elyse Miller to travel across the state and curate a list of eateries.

Tourism is Arizona’s largest export industry and brings in about $21 billion to the state annually. Restaurateurs and the Office of Tourism officials said they hope the website will boost the culinary status and bring in more tourist dollars.

Story written by Kanak Jha, Cronkite News.

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Happy hour pays off for bar operators, data finds

18 Apr

Wondering whether happy hour programs really pay off?

They do.

That’s according to data from integrated-point-of-sale provider Cake, which recently compared 400 bars with and without happy hours. All of the bars in the study use Cake technology.

During the month of February, Cake found that bars with happy hours had 33-percent higher transactions than those without.

Fogo de Chão

Here are more takeaways:

  • Bars with happy hours generate more revenue and more transactions than those without during the designated hours of the program. In fact, on average, bars with a happy-hour program saw an average increase in revenue of 26 percent during happy hour, and transactions up an average 24 percent, compared with non-happy-hour venues.
  • Size doesn’t matter. Even smaller bars generated more revenue during happy hour than non-happy-hour bars that might typically outperform them. Cake said non-happy-hour bars that typically generated more overall revenue by about 10 percent were outperformed by their happy-hour-offering peers by more than 20 percent during those hours.
  • With or without a happy hour, the peak time for both revenue and transactions is between 7 p.m. and 8 p.m. Bar operators should consider that fact when looking at staffing, Cake said. Or, perhaps happy hours should end earlier to capitalize on what is already a high traffic time.

Contact Lisa Jennings at

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