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So…to fail to change is a surefire way to fail. When everything seems to be against restaurant success – those who strategically stand tall and change direction are the ones who win. Just look at the current picture for restaurants:

[]         THE LABOR POOL: Quite possibly the worst labor situation for restaurants – ever! It is not only hard to find great employees – it’s even difficult to find ones that a few years ago you would never, ever hire.

[]         COOK RETENTION: Hanging on to competent, dedicated, and passionate cooks is even more difficult since they live in a sellers market. If they are good, they are in demand. When they are in demand – operators are willing to pay the price and offer more comfortable work schedules. You can’t blame the good ones for leaving.

[]         OVER THE TOP COMPETITION: For some strange reason, even with the increased level of challenges and the likeliness of failure – more and more restaurants continue to open. This flood of competition is focused on gaining market share and as a result they work overtime to cut into your piece of the pie. In the end, everyone seems to lose.

[]         INCREASING PRICES OF INGREDIENTS: Your vendors and their suppliers show no mercy. This flood of competition places greater stress on the supply-chain, which in turn opens the door for increasing prices. Whatever the market will bear rules in this type of business environment.

[]         LEASE AGREEMENTS THAT ARE NO LONGER REASONABLE: It has always been the case that restaurants lead the way in gentrification efforts to bring downtrodden areas back to life. Restaurants create energy, interest, and business as the innovator crowd throws their support to foodservice operators who create a buzz. The area comes back to life, business comes on strong, and the entire area becomes energized. As soon as this becomes apparent – new landlords smile and raise rents so that they can cash in on the changes – oftentimes pushing restaurants into a corner where small profits turn into no profits.

[]         PRICING YOUR PRODUCTS BEYOND CUSTOMER’S DESIRE TO PAY: In response to all of these conditions – restaurants are inclined to maintain the excitement of their menus and service and simply raise prices again and again to compensate for out-of-control expenses. At some point restaurants inevitably price themselves out of the market and create a perception of price gouging.

[]         MINIMUM WAGE HIKES: Yes, our industry has a reputation for lower than average wages and minimal, if any, benefits. It is a tough, labor-intensive business that is quite unforgiving when it comes to profit, so the employee is often on the short end of the stick. Rather than collectively seek fair solutions, we wait until the government feels that they must intervene on behalf of the employee and insist that wages go up while none of the factors that keep wages low are addressed. Should employees receive a living wage? Of course, the answer is yes – but without finding solutions to rent, ingredient costs, low profitability, etc. the only result is restaurant failure.

How do we (those who own, operate, or hold the position of chef in a restaurant) adapt and survive when there are so many reasons why we should fail? The answer is likely quite complex, but here is one partial solution that is within our grasp – CREATE MENUS THAT CAN ADAPT TO THESE CHANGES.


In the current business environment, large menus don’t cut it. Too many choices lead to inconsistency, especially with a shallow labor pool. Large menus mean larger inventories of expensive ingredients with short shelf lives, more equipment to support a larger number of hands to do the work, and less focus on doing what you do exceedingly well. Keep it simple, keep it seasonal, buy the best ingredients you can, and execute preparation at the highest level.

[]         MAKE IT CONNECT

Smaller menus allow restaurants to connect to a cuisine, a culinary focus, and natural complements between appetizers, entrees, and desserts.


Take your time to weave cross utilization through the entire menu and production system. Total elimination of waste may be too optimistic, but great menu planning can help to bring you close to zero.

Painted in Waterlogue


It is still about creating food experiences and the best restaurants will invest the time in planning for full integration of sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste. The best menus will be hard to resist if these connections are made.

[]         STEP BY STEP

Giving chefs poetic license with food may seem like the best way to encourage passion in cooking, but this does little to build consistency in appearance, flavor, and cost. With a labor pool that is less passionate, and fewer in numbers, it seems time to build a system with your menu that walks cooks through every step in production and plating. Some may cringe at this and proclaim that it inhibits creativity, but there is a reason why many of the chains still remain profitable in tough times.

[]         BUILD IN PRIDE

Now comes the balance – “How can we create a step-by-step system of production and create a sense of pride for cooks and chefs at the same time?” Consistency and pride are not mutually exclusive. Pride comes from a job well done, beautiful food, ingredients that are cared for properly, cooks that are cognizant and protective of the source of those ingredients, flavorful food that is always on mark, happy guests, and a restaurant that is popular and financially viable.

Painted in Waterlogue


Why should a guest choose your restaurant over another? Marketing firms invest countless hours and financial resources to answer this question, when oftentimes it comes down to this simple reality – is there something truly unique, truly special, and exceptional in quality that can only be found in your restaurant. What will it be? Is it a particular dish made in a way that sets you apart? Is it your personalized service? Is it the theatrics around a food presentation? Do your due diligence and work on finding that “something special” and play it for all that it’s worth. To Morton’s it was their roast beef cart, to the Palm it was their incredible steaks, to Wolfgang Puck it was a unique approach to wood-fired pizza at Spago, to Joel Robuchon it was his whipped potatoes that were half butter, to Outback it was the Bloomin Onion, and to Katz’s Deli it was the hot pastrami on rye – find your signature.


It is hard to make a profit on high cost ingredients when selling prices have a ceiling. The talent in cooking a steak (certainly still an art to do it right) is less pronounced than making a leg of chicken just as exciting – yet how many restaurants take the time to figure out a way to bring the chicken leg into prominence. The chicken leg is profit waiting to happen – invest in it.


We continue to surrender to the feeling that bigger is always better. Bigger when dealing with proteins either shreds away profitability or drive restaurants to charge obscene prices. Work on building the whole plate with interesting variety – well prepared vegetables, relishes, chutneys, reductions, etc. and keep those protein portions under five ounces. No one needs that 18-ounce strip steak, or five-pound lobster – work on making the plate interesting, of real value, and avoid putting customers in a position to regret their indulgence.


If the menu is planned correctly then restaurants can maintain operation volume with fewer hands. “Less hands” place a restaurant in a position to find more talented individuals and pay them well. When the formula of efficiency, quality, pride, and good pay is packaged, then a restaurant might actually be able to ride the storm and come out on top.


I am not inferring that restaurants should eliminate that delicious steak, or maybe some seasonal halibut or beautiful diver’s scallops, but when they exist on a menu for premium prices, make sure there are ample lower priced, just as special, items on the menu to create opportunities for guests to find value that fits their pocketbook.


Last, but not least, this may not be a menu issue, but a stressed out labor pool has made me think clearly about operating hours and I believe that, if you can generate enough sales to stay afloat – five days per week is a real solid answer to success. This gives the operation a time to rest, every employee some predictability in their lives, the chance to keep your “A-Team” together whenever you are open, and relieve some of the stress from trying to find adequate numbers of employees to stay the course.

Food for Thought!


Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting


www.harvestamericacues.com BLOG