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Saturday, September 29, 2007

The Focal Point

Have you ever gone to a restaurant with two or more food service operators? I really enjoy these occasions. The insights are incredible. We're talking major critique on staff, cleanliness, speed of service, quality of food and many other insightful comments.

While these friends of mine carve up the dining room, I tend to focus on consistency. I watch nearby tables and see what is popular. I'll almost always go with the crowd at a new restaurant. Once I get my order, I'm evaluating the portion size just as critically as the quality of the food. Specifically, I want to know if I received either a bigger or a smaller portion than the norm.

One classic restaurant experience comes to mind. I invited a friend to a popular pub on a Friday. The pub specialized in seafood. He ordered sole and he never stopped talking about the fantastic experience for the next month. He was surprised at the generous portion size and the top quality preparation. In the many conversations he had with his friends, he highly recommended the pub. Let's put the experience in focus: we're talking about a beautiful 12 ounce portion of fresh Atlantic flounder broiled to perfection.

When we all went out about a month later, he insisted on returning to the pub. He ordered the same entree. This time he really received lemon sole. The pub offered a completely different presentation using 7 ounces of thin filet of sole in a lemon sauce. They lost a customer on the spot. He ate the sole and he even commented on the well prepared lemon sauce. The reason they lost his business was consistency.

The switch from a large 12 ounce portion of flounder to a petite 7 ounce portion of sole changed his mind. The focal point was the center of the plate entree. All the other meal components were fantastic. The generous salad with top notch house dressing was a winner. All classic sides of slaw and fries were prepared well and fit the entree perfectly. The negative buzz caused by the entree swap completely cancelled all the previous word of mouth promotion.

My friend never returned to the pub. He called all of his friends and told them of the switch. He is not a food service professional. He is a radiologist.

I can remember a discussion I had with my boss years 20 ago. We were changing a menu to highlight seasonal favorites. He said you have to be careful what you offer the customers. Its difficult to take away something once the expectation has been established.

Despite well executed meals on two occasions, this restaurant lost a potential frequent diner and created bad word of mouth exposure.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

About Dunbar Associates

I'd like to welcome everyone with an interest in the food and beverage industry. This blog is set for open comments. Every month has a central theme. The most popular blog posts are listed on the sidebar (left hand column). Everyone is encouraged to comment.

Actual consulting services are offered on a fee basis. Most of my clients start with a short two-day site visit. The visit gives me time to review the operation and develop an action plan. We review the plan and discuss possible assistance in the implementation. My clients include restaurants, hotels, caterers, clubs, institutional dining accounts and sports venues.

I'm often asked "What do you do?" and I'd like to quote a client: "You're very analytic but you're also down to earth." The advice you receive is not difficult to implement. If you would like me to train you in the advanced analysis I use, we would progress in stages geared toward your comfort zone.

Please look around the blog and join the newsletter list. It's free and is sent monthly.

On the signup list, please check Banquet Professionals if you want to receive my Professional Catering Newsletter. You will also find boxes for F&B Management Software, Onsite Consulting Services and Webinars.

I work closely with Keith Gellman tracking restaurant chain growth using a comprehensive database of groups in the USA and Canada. Keith publishes a weekly newsletter which is free to subscribers.

We have a cooperative called Dynamic Chains. The objective is to reduce the cost of goods sold for all cooperative members. Membership is free.

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Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Hidden Profit Potential

One sure way to a lower food cost percentage is a strategic menu price hike. If you need to disguise this activity, find all the top sellers (by count) hidden in your product mix. Look for soft drinks, coffee and tea, side salads, add-ons, substitutes and extras. Check the all modifiers with high counts and little or zero sales.

Too often, operators give away the extra slice of cheese, two strips of bacon, sauteed mushrooms, lettuce leaves and tomato slices. You'll often see a burger menu category with these add-ons listed after the choices. A common charge is 25 or 50 cents. The two strips of bacon can easily cost 25 cents. These low profit items will hurt your food cost percentage.

Take a second look at your burger category. I see many menus with a basic burger for $8.95 and 5 to 6 options priced $1 higher. Sometimes, the menu will list a bleu cheese burger for an extra dollar. There are plenty of excellent quality bleu cheese options in the market. If your spending $5 a pound for the cheese and your portion size is 3 ounces, your add-on cost percentage is 94%. Charge an extra $1 and reduce the portion to 2.5 ounces and the same bleu cheese will run 39%.

Soft drinks, coffee and tea are high volume choices. An extra quarter or half dollar a drink will produce major revenue increases. Often, the menu does not have to be changed at all to increase the prices on these beverage items. Soft drinks can be priced to hit a 15% cost of sales (or lower).

Finally, I see many excellent side salads offered for a modest charge with a sandwich or burger. Often, the price is $1.95 or $2.95 (sometimes 99 cents!). If you charge $1.95 for a 6 ounce salad with dressing, your cost of sales could be over 50%. Cost out your salad mix and add the cost of your most popular dressing and garnish.

Would you offer a customer this choice as a substitute for fries? Some menus offer this substitute.

On the other hand, I once saw a menu with chips, potato salad or cole slaw included with the sandwiches and burgers. The waitress asked: "Fries?" and I said yes. My check had a $1.95 charge labelled Substitute Fries for Slaw. The fries were excellent and over 50% of the customers had taken the bait.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Phenomenal Sides

A quick way to attack food cost issues in almost any operation is through a simple menu upgrade. Rather than attacking entrees, take a hard look at your sides. A few mouth watering sides prepared with less costly ingredients will boost profits every time.

Buffet guests will consume fewer meat and seafood items if they can't resist a great side dish or salad. A la carte operations should charge for the extra special side dish whenever possible. If you offer guests a full meal with their entree choice, offer the top side dish as an upgrade option.

Whenever the guests ask for help ordering from the wait staff, the side should be mentioned along with the entree choices. Perhaps, the dish requires a last minute preparation. Bringing this to the guest's attention can increase orders. Special optional toppings can be used to make an impression.

I believe Durgin Park does a phenomenal job of highlighting mouth watering sides, soups and desserts. Whenever I dine at this historic Boston landmark, everyone in the party raves over the traditional accompaniments. The Corn Bread, Baked Beans, Indian Pudding and Clam Chowder are frequently ordered. Newcomers don't have to guess "what's good?" at Durgin Park. The management offers their recipes for all of these favorites on their website. Whether you enjoy the line upstairs, communal tables, waitresses with an attitude or not, the Yankee favorites are top notch.

The best of the breed barbecue shacks get this concept. Brunswick Stew, hush puppies, slaw, beans, sauces and tea need to be first rate. These dishes will bring customers back and help keep your food cost percentage in line. When we drove to Atlanta last year, my family went 50 miles out of the way to try a BBQ shack recommended by a friend. We still talk about the sides.

Doug's Fish Fry in Upstate New York features fresh fish fried to perfection with three main sides: fries, onion rings and cole slaw. All three are tremendous. This is another place we drive out of our way for whenever we're near the Finger Lakes.

My favorite steak houses all have phenomenal sides. We go for the rillettes on baguette at Les Halles in New York. Sometimes the sauce is the draw. Michael Jordan's Steak House was out of Bearnaise sauce on one trip. We waited until a new batch was made.

America's favorite ethnic restaurants all get it. The Italian style greens in Carmine's New York (huge platter) or Tony Luke's in Philadelphia (optional filling for sandwiches) make the trip worth while. Here in Fairfax, Anita's Bean Dip made with Hatch Valley Chili Verde is a winner. Moby Dick's Kabobs hooks you with the flat bread and yogurt sauce. Char Siu Bao (buns stuffed with barbecue pork filling) are a must when we go for dim sum. Cha Gio (Vietnamese spring rolls) make our visits memorable at our favorite pho shop.

Don't crowd your menu with too many of these fantastic side ideas. You want a few carefully selected winners. Position the items on your menu so they can't be missed and don't keep secrets. The baked beans at Durgin Park are listed as an appetizer. You can get them separately or with your meal.

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