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French Style Cafe needing to Reinvent Itself

QUESTION

I run a 60-seater restaurant in a reasonably busy market town in the South East. Our offering is not quite fine dining, but at the upper end of the bistro scale and influenced heavily by classic French cooking. Traditionally we were a restaurant where people came for special occasions, birthdays, anniversaries, or family celebrations. Unfortunately, business has fallen off dramatically in the recession and I am conscious that it is time for a revamp as I feel that both the design of the restaurant and the menu on offer is quite dated.

I am unsure of what direction to take or where to look for new ideas. I note that there has been a big move towards casual dining with a number of new restaurants opening up in this sector, due presumably to the fact that there is no longer a big market for fine dining.

I am not against completely changing our entire business model, or even launching an entirely new restaurant, but it is a risk and I am concerned about alienating our existing customers. However, it is abundantly clear to me that we have to do something major to stem the decline in our business as our clientele is aging and in danger of literally dying off. We have already implemented a major cost-cutting plan which has helped increase margins so where we really need help now is freshening up our business to attract new customers.

ANSWER

Your situation is not at all unusual in the current climate. Good quality restaurants which have been in business for years are finding that their customer base is shrinking and the spend is down generally. Your business is on a steady course at the moment as you have taken preventative action in relation to costs. A word of warning on cutting costs. It is very important that cost cutting does not impact on either the quality of food or service, i.e. the concentration needs to be on becoming more efficient at every point in your business and thus improving quality of food and service while doing this.

The good news is that as a nation we now have a firmly established habit of eating out on a regular basis. Rather than making radical changes which may irritate your staff and customers it may be time to change the emphasis in your restaurant from French classical which can be costly to produce to French café food, using less expensive but equally delicious ingredients, most of which can be sourced locally. Your premises could be given an inexpensive face-lift with lighter colours on the walls and a French café look- think French seaside. Get rid of costly linen (your cost cutting measures may already have taken care of that) on the tables and use polished timber table tops or painted table tops if your tables are not of good quality. Ensure that the bright interior of your restaurant is clearly visible from the street (no half curtains on windows) and redesign your menu in a simple café style format. Print in-house on good quality paper, but presented perhaps on a clip board for a more casual approach. Your chefs have French classical cuisine expertise so switching to French café food should not be a problem for the kitchen either in terms of skill or cost control.

Flag the changes you are going to make in terms of food, price and decor with your loyal customer base and potential customers through social media, your website and within the restaurant itself. Make your customers part of the story by keeping them informed. The process should not take any longer than a few days.

You mentioned the ‘aging clientele’. Recent research has shown that this sector or the Grey Market as it is called, has very significant spending power- even taking the recession into account- and many restaurant owners are now realising that our ‘seniors’ are a valuable and loyal market. When designing the new menu take this sector into account and again let them know that your restaurant is catering to their specific needs by offering early evening rates or midweek seniors selection.

Another market which many restaurants are ignoring to their cost is ‘women’. Research is consistently showing that women make the decisions about eating out, women eat out more frequently than men and spend more. Your café can target women through Bookclubs which meet on a week night – market ‘A Book and a Bite Nite’ where your café would nominate a book to read to one or more book clubs and have the members come to the restaurant on a designated early to mid-week night to discuss the book over dinner. The café would be the ‘Book Club’ for the evening. Of course if you pick a foodie treat such as Chocolat or Aphrodite it would make for a very enjoyable food theme. This initiative could also be marketed through social media. Cost and present a short uncomplicated menu which is easy to prepare and serve to your female audience.

Pay further attention to your female customer base by offering Lighter Ladies Lunches, smaller dessert portions for those who like to eat part of their partner’s dessert and a lighter choice on the evening menu. Ensure that your toilet facilities are spotlessly clean and that the atmosphere is casual but five star standard.

Finally, ask your staff, ask your male and female staff where they and their friends eat out and why?. Staff are observing your business becoming quieter and will have their own ( often very good) ideas on how to turn things around. Ask your customers also how you can meet their needs now that some of them do not have as much money to spend. Owners sometimes forget what expertise is directly in front of them and which is also completely free!

AS published in The Hotel & Catering Review

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