Culinary no-no FLASHBACK: Running a restaurant during a bad economy

Michigan restaurants reopening but in desperate need of workers

If, and that’s a big ‘if,’ if restaurant customers are back, the major problem is restaurant owners are scrambling just to find staff to serve those patrons.

As I blogged last month the industry in Wisconsin continues to struggle mightily to rebound according to an exhaustive study.

Reminds me of the dilemma faced by restaurants back in 2009. Granted, no pandemic, but a rotten economy had owners staring at the real prospect they seriously needed to adjust, but how?

From 2009:

Last month, Wisconsin Commerce Secretary Richard Leinenkugel delivered a grim message at the Wisconsin Restaurant Association’s quarterly board meeting at the Best Western Midway Hotel Riverfront Resort in La Crosse.  Leinenkugel said 2009 would be “very difficult” for Wisconsin restaurants.

Wisconsin Restaurant Association President and CEO Ed Lump told the La Crosse Tribune that the industry is flat, in other words, slow. Lots of new dining establishments have opened, but in a rough economy, Lump says that only means “the pie is sliced pretty thin.”

The National Restaurant Association reports industry sales are expected to reach $566 billion in 2009, with the industry employing 13 million individuals in 945,000 restaurant-and-foodservice outlets nationwide. Overall restaurant industry sales will increase in current dollars by 2.5 percent over 2008 figures.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that those numbers translate to an inflation-adjusted decline of 1.0 percent.

Technomic, a Chicago consultant has been tracking the performance of the food service industry since 1972 and expects 2009 will be the industry’s worst year ever.

The first quarter of 2009 will be especially challenging for restaurants when patronage drops after the heavy holiday season as cash-strapped diners are thinking about their wallets, tax time, and not to mention New Year eating resolutions.

“People need to understand how tight the margins are in the restaurant business,” Alfred Portale, the chef and one of the owners of Gotham Bar and Grill in New York told the New York Times.

Every dollar, every butt in a restaurant chair seat counts.

So what’s a restaurant to do to survive?

Simple, according to New York restaurateur Stephen Hanson. The man who closed two restaurants in Manhattan says “the consumer will just shut down” in 2009.



Unless restaurant owners decide to get physical.

The NY Times reports Hanson told a group of his colleagues at a Manhattan conference in January that this is the key to keeping their businesses: “You need to hug the customer.”

What does that mean? Whatever it takes, go the extra mile to go out of your way for the customer. That could mean discounts, providing more for less, being less demanding (we’ll get into that later), throwing in some perks.

It starts from the second patrons walk in your establishment. Personally, I’d have the equivalent of Miss America standing at there to greet diners, dressed, how I shall put this…provocatively. But whoever is stationed there to deliver the all-important first impression, the welcome better be friendly, warm, natural, and real.

If a caller phones in asking for a reservation that simply can’t be met, do not sadly reply that you’re sorry, goodbye. Implore the caller to book another day and/or time. Do not hang up before you get a contact number to call back in case a cancellation results in an open table.

Wait staff, and this is tricky because it borders between attentive service and being too bothersome, need to check as efficiently as possible that everything, and I mean everything is OK.

How about some wine discounts or special lists highlighting vintages that won’t cost a house payment?

Have some early bird specials….discounts at those early hours when no one’s walking in and wait staff is folding napkins.

If you’re that stuffy (and not many restaurants are these days so you can walk in looking like a bum to one of the best places in town), think about easing up and being less demanding on that dress code. To be honest, I hate this suggestion, but in the long run, if the guy spends a bundle and tips well (odds are he won’t), does it matter if he’s wearing a tie?

Free parking? I like this idea, being used at the Chicago restaurant Everest. Drive 15 miles or less to Everest and you can get luxury car service for $15.

And would it kill you to send a plate of onion strings or whatever to the table of a regular patron? Not too long ago, I dined at Casa di Giorgio, my favorite Franklin restaurant. My good friend, Joliet, a waiter there whom I’ve known since his days at the Boulevard Inn,knowing that I liked both the clam chowder and the minestrone, brought them both to my table. It did not kill their business.

Restaurants have been trying to cope with rising food costs, but it’s not enough now that the economy has gotten even worse.

Work harder. Be nicer. Give deals. Lots and lots of deals.

The culinary no-no is that if you don’t hug real good and tight, your customers aren’t going to hug back.

More from the NY Times.

—Culinary no-no #98, February 8, 2009

That was 2009. Given the different numerous challenges facing restaurants in 2021, unfortunately, warm embraces won’t cut it.


Please say it isn’t so.

California pizza, $10 a slice?

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