Features 10 Ways to Beat the Recession and Stay in Business on StarChefs.com
10 Ways to Beat the Recession and Stay in Business
March 2009

Don’t let the economy get you down. We know it seems like a dark and dreary time for some in the culinary industry, especially with an increasing number of restaurants closing their doors left and right. But we’ve also seen a number of successful restaurant openings, and many of our old favorites across the country are still going strong.

We took a look at what those places are doing right, and have been impressed by the innovative ideas that have come out of restaurateurs and chefs. We’ve seen everything from subtle changes (like getting rid of flowers in the bathrooms) to outrageous deals (like pricing based on each day’s Dow Jones Index). Faced with the challenge of staying open, restaurants have been forced to reexamine their practices and tighten their belts; think of it as a spring cleaning for your business. Based on our observations of eateries nationwide, we’ve come up with 10 ways to help beat the recession and stay in business.

  1. Bring in Customers
    It might seem obvious, but this is the core issue that restaurants are struggling with. Okay, you don’t have to stand on a street corner in a chicken costume to get people in, but we’ve seen plenty of other creative—and less embarrassing—tactics. Prix fixe deals, including extended Restaurant Week specials, have been a popular strategy; it gets customers who might not otherwise eat at your restaurant in the door and hopefully hooked as a new regular. At Pig ‘n Whistle in Seattle, Vuong Loc has an “industry night” every Sunday, when everything on the menu is half-price for those in the culinary profession. Or lure people in with booze through discounted cocktails or wine. Once they’ve been reeled in and sufficiently impressed, they’ll be more likely to return; maybe next time, they’ll order a la carte.

  2. Encourage Loyalty
    Now that you’ve gotten people in the door, you need to keep them coming back. Yes, loyal customers have always been important, but now more than ever chefs and restaurateurs are bending over backwards to show their appreciation for those stalwart customers who continue to show up, in good times and bad. Make your regulars feel special. Squeeze in a repeat customer even if you’re booked. A comped drink or appetizer, or simply a “Hi, Mr. Jones, how are the kids?” will go a long way. Whatever you do, don’t take those regulars for granted—they’re the foundation of your customer base.

  3. Cut Costs (to the Restaurant)
    There are plenty of ways to cut corners—and costs—without affecting quality. Many chefs are doing more things in-house, from baking bread to making charcuterie. Try experimenting with less expensive cuts of meat, like offal, which can provide an unusual offering at a lower price. Philip Tessier of Bouchon in Yountville, CA, has taken expensive meats off the menu, like rack and loin, and is purchasing more local fish to save on shipping. You also don’t have to discount menu items if you already offer great food at a reasonable price. Even something small, like reducing your flower budget or closing an hour earlier, can make a difference.

  4. Think Outside the Menu Box
    In order to draw people in, chefs are getting inventive with their menus. Atypical formats are receiving plenty of press—and drawing customers. Weekly intimate, prix fixe dinners seem to be the trend du jour; we’ve seen them at all price points and revolving around different themes—recession-friendly, celebrity-chefs behind the stove, seasonal, beer with charcuterie. Increasingly restaurant-goers are looking for something new in their experience, so let your imagination loose and think outside the box.

  5. Keep the Quality
    With all the talk of cutting corners, it’s important that you don’t snip quality along with that. Today’s diners give a lot of thought to where they give their business, and what they receive in exchange. This means good food and service in a comfortable environment. This may be part of the ABCs of restaurant management but, simple as it may sound, you can’t let this fall to the wayside in the process of trimming your budget. Jesse Mallgren of Madrona Manor in Sonoma County still buys the best ingredients, but he gets them in smaller amounts to cut down on waste and save money.

  6. Work Better, Work Faster
    Efficiency is one of those buzzwords that pops up everywhere during an economic downturn, but with good reason. It’s always positive for any business to take a look at how they do things, and how they can do them better and faster. Maybe your dishwasher can prep vegetables between service, or you can streamline the kitchen by decreasing the number of items on the menu. If everyone pitches in and picks up the pace, you get more turns at your tables, more food at a quicker rate from the kitchen, and more profit for the restaurant.

  7. Train (and Keep) Staff
    Yes, this is an industry with high turnover, but there are plenty of places that manage to keep their staff for years. And when your employees want to be there, it shows. They come in on time and with smiles on their faces. For the FOH staff, this rubs off directly on customers, who get that warm, fuzzy feeling passed right to them. For BOH staff, it means they are more committed to quickly turning out quality food. So how do you keep your staff, and keep them happy? Chef Joe Isidori, who will be opening Harbour in New York shortly, says “Invest in your staff. Build culture. Make sure your staff believes in your business model.” He argues that beyond serving good food, it’s impeccable service and a comfortable atmosphere that sets restaurants apart and keeps customers coming back. To make sure this is the case from the start, Isidori has been holding “school” for his entire staff for the past few weeks so that everyone is on the same page. Christine Keff of Flying Fish in Seattle advises, “Stay positive for your staff. They take the lead from us. Encourage them as much as you can. Also, make staff meal the best you can—it really counts right now.” It’s important that your staff is appreciated; we’re not saying you have to wax poetic or kiss their feet, just make sure they get acknowledgement for what they do well.

  8. More Drinks at More Prices
    Extended beverage selections are a simple way to bring in customers and up their tabs. Having a house cocktail gives diners an easy way to select a beverage for the start of the night. Include wine, beer, and sake pairing options with tasting menus to pique interest in drinks, and assist those diners who are easily intimidated by the beverage menu. Think about expanding the wine list to include more options at more price points; these days there are tons of great choices at lower prices, and customers will be grateful to have the wider selection. They might be prone to drink more of a less expensive beverage, and that adds up.

  9. Be Flexible
    We know you love that dish on the menu even though it only gets a few orders a night, but it’s time to let go. In these tough times flexibility is one of the keys to success. If you shorten the menu, then you use less labor and therefore less people in the kitchen, saving you both staffing and production costs. If closing an hour earlier means that you don’t have decrease your staff, give it a shot. Christine Keff of Flying Fish in Seattle took proactive measures like this immediately and even though it meant letting a few people go, she says the rest of the staff bonded together because they recognized the efforts she was making.

  10. Get the Word Out
    There are lots of ways to get the word out, and using a combination of different methods is helpful. Doing some of the previous things on the list will lend a hand. Ask your regulars to help generate word-of-mouth buzz. Food magazines and blogs based in specific cities often follow deals and specials very closely, so shoot an email off to the food editor/blogger to let him or her know what you’re doing.