You wouldn’t believe how most of the restaurant industry operates.
Today, the majority of medium- to low-end restaurants don’t even cook the food they serve.
Instead, they buy premade meal kits filled with frozen ingredients they heat up and assemble. I’ve seen kits for everything from poke to pizza. A lot of bakeries purchase frozen croissants and dough that is high in preservatives and toss it into the oven.
This approach to dining is crazy to me.
Customers want to enjoy delicious dishes, not microwavable meals. And restaurateurs who don’t source ingredients or cook aren’t creating dining establishments—they’re middlemen.
As the founder of Kale Me Crazy, a superfood cafe, I’m strongly against this way of operating. It’s harmful for customers’ health and bad for the restaurant industry as a whole. No wonder it’s so hard to find high-quality, fast-casual fare: Too many people don’t understand the value of serving good food.
But the problem doesn’t stop with restaurateurs not making their own food—many don’t conceive their own menus. If you’re not making your own menu, you have nothing proprietary to your concept. And if you’re just another restaurant with a mediocre menu, your chances of failing are much higher.
Here are three ways to focus on your menu to help ensure your restaurant’s success:
1. Identify your staples and create new menu items around them.
It’s important to have a strong concept and communicate it through your menu, but you also need to stay dynamic.
Focus on your bestsellers and staples, but switch things up once in a while.
Integrating seasonal ingredients, changing your menu each quarter, and keeping up with trends are three effective ways of keeping things fresh without disappointing your repeat customers. After I saw poke was huge on the west coast, I introduced it on our menu in Atlanta. Recently, we added salmon because it’s popular and fits with what our clientele wants.
Rotating in new dishes can also help your bottom line. If any of our items don’t sell as well as we hoped, we phase them out to bring in something better. The key to doing this smoothly is to create new items based on ingredients that already exist in your kitchen, or do a limited trial period with a dish. That way, you can keep doing what your store does best, while potentially delighting customers with new menu items.
It’s a win-win.
2. Listen to your customers.
Without a happy clientele, you don’t have a restaurant.
I can’t stress how important it is to think about what your customers want before tweaking your menu. Let’s say you want to open a Mexican fusion restaurant, but you plan to do so in a hip area with young professionals who tend to prefer healthy, vegetarian options. In this example, might want to break from the “authenticity” by leaving the pork out of your rice or refried beans.
Keeping your clientele satisfied is a nonstop process, and the best way to do it often isn’t immediately evident. The important part is to constantly seek out your customer’s feedback—and listen when they give it. For example, our customers asked for more protein, so we added a smoked salmon toast and a post-workout smoothie to the menu.
If you’re a single-store operator or run a corporate-owned store, it’s relatively simple and straightforward to make these menu changes. Because I run a franchise, though, it’s more challenging—rolling out a new menu item typically requires about three months of preparation, because any change we make to the menu needs to happen at all our locations.
To get a good sense of the dishes my customers like, I have a “testing” store—the corporate location—where I try out new items. Based on feedback and sales figures, I know within a month whether an item is a hero or a zero.
Avocado toast, for instance, took off immediately during our testing, so it was a no-brainer to introduce it to all our stores.
Listen to your customers, and they’ll make it easy for your concept to become a success. (Just keep in mind that customers will have a lot of ideas, so look for patterns in their requests and act accordingly.)
3. Stay simple, but not boring.
The best food is always simple and fresh.
If you use real, quality ingredients, your food will taste good. That’s it.
The best way to differentiate your menu from every other restaurant’s is to make your food by hand: no preservatives, no artificial ingredients. This type of proprietary product and procedure is what keeps clients wanting your food.
We make everything in-house and from scratch, from our salad dressings to our almond milk. And customers appreciate that extra effort and notice the difference.
Create your own menu, be different, and listen to your customers, and they’ll keep coming back for more.