Opinion

Struggles in the restaurant sector

In the last three months, we have seen a real struggle from high street restaurants. Some of the biggest chains are reporting branch closures, profit losses and underwhelming performances. These include high street favourites Café Rouge, Jamie’s Italian, Byron Burger and Strada.

We cannot but wonder what has brought this on, why customers are being skeptical and selective and what can be done about it. Here are some possible reasons chain restaurants may be finding it difficult to retain customers.

  1. Over the last decade, there has undoubtedly been a shift in dietary habits and we have been seeing an increase the casual diner adopting diet that is healthier and more focused on quality.  An order of a ‘skinny burger’ without bread and a detox superfood salad is a nutritious and healthy meal option; there are, however, times when you want to tuck into a portion of chips with your main meal. Not necessarily healthy, but it doesn’t have to be the case. There are ways of reducing fat, grease and toxins when frying, so restaurants should be looking into improving food quality and making this food, which Brits love and regularly eat, healthier and more nutritious.
  2. The effects of Brexit are not leaving anyone unaffected. No one can really know the extent to which our economy will be impacted over the next few years and this uncertainty, coupled with fears about job losses, is inducing cautious attitudes towards spending. People are possibly looking into ways they can save and one way of doing so, is by reducing the number of times they eat out. We are potentially also seeing the effect of the reduced value in the pound. While restaurants try to source local ingredients where possible there is also a need to import some goods which have become more expensive.
  3. The rise and rise of mobile. Smart phones and social media have taken food and its enjoyment to different levels. Food lovers are snapping images of their plates ensuring they look like works of art devoured in cool and trendy settings, before posting them on #foodgram. This points to demanding customers, but not as restaurateurs knew them; inevitably, they have to focus on gratifying their ‘feast your eyes on this’ element of a meal which seems to go hand in hand with palette satisfaction.
  4. Customer opinions make or break a business. With so much competition in the food industry, there has been a major shift in expectations from customers.  They really want restaurateurs to understand them as individuals, connect with them personally and cater for them uniquely. This can be a hard ask for any big chain that has to address varied customer audiences.  A restaurant’s rating depends on customer feedback and immediacy is key; rumours spread fast online and affect opinions which can impact the restaurant’s success rate.

So where does this leave you, as a restaurant owner or chef who wants to stand out? Having worked in this sector throughout my career, starting out as a chef, I believe it is imperative to think about several things that might help ensure customer stream for your business.

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  • Manners matter. Every customer is unique, so offer the best customer service you possibly can. A meal is much more than what’s on the menu, it’s an experience which people pay for; your staff, whether in independent restaurants or across chains, should always treat customers with professionalism. Bad or inconsistent service will turn away customers just as quickly as bad or inconsistent food quality.
  • Customise your offers to the casual diner to get them to eat out more frequently. Use the data you collect wisely and consistently, so that you are targeting customers with meal deals that are relevant or exclusive to them. Offer incentives to encourage them to return to the restaurant regularly, such as loyalty cards or birthday treats.
  • Embrace digital communication. Use your social media platforms to your benefit. Ensure you highlight upcoming offers, menus, discounts or events. Emphasise the great experiences people have had at your restaurant, make sure you also acknowledge negative feedback and don’t forget to reply to customer comments.  

By Sam Wilbraham, director of oil filter firm, FriPura 

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