Recession-Proof your Menu

In today's economy, diners place value as a top priority. Here's how to give it to them without changing your playbook.

Although some segments in foodservice show signs of recovery, it is still being hit hard by the recession. Technomic Inc., a Chicago-based restaurant consultancy and research firm, recently revised its 2010 U.S. foodservice industry sales forecast downward. One of the factors in revising its report is consumer frugality when dining away from home. "We're seeing a shift from weekday to weekend dining," says Sara Monette, senior manager of consumer research for Technomic. "So, instead of quick-and-easy eating out on a Tuesday or Wednesday, consumers are waiting for the weekend, and making it more of an event to dine out, and when they dine out, value is the determining factor." As for the near future? David Henkes, vice president of Technomic, weighs in, "Given current dynamics among consumers, we don't see the industry returning to the sales levels it previously enjoyed until 2011 or even early 2012."

How can restaurants thrive in this environment?

Restaurants need to offer a strong value proposition to lure diners, says Monette. "According to our research, the family-dining segment is doing a good job of accommodating diners looking for value. These restaurants offer a sit-down meal with a varied menu," she says. "That variety is key in eliminating the veto vote. They're also offering a good mix of price and size options."

3 Recession-Friendly Ideas from a Menu Consultant

Robin Schempp is president of Right Stuff Enterprises, a restaurant-consultancy firm in Waterbury, Vt. She advises restaurateurs in good times and in bad, before openings and re-openings, helping them hone their strategies and make their visions successful realities.

  1. Find culinary inspiration in recession-friendly trends.
    "Some of today's trends line up really well with trying to cut food costs," says Schempp. "Home-style cooking, dishes featuring local ingredients and small plates are all on-trend and cost effective."
  2. Add a smaller menu to your existing one that features shareables.
    "Don't change your whole menu! Your customers like you for what you've built," she says. "What happens when we come out of this recession and you're a completely different restaurant? Keep your signature dishes on the menu, even if they are loss leaders. A change there signifies a bad thing to customers." Instead, she suggests adding a small menu to the mix. "Make the smaller menu less structured, so diners don't feel pressured into spending a certain amount." This is a great place to really focus on cross-utilization, says Schempp. "You just need creativity in putting dishes together. For instance, small plates can be changed up through sauces and garnishes, but can utilize some of the same proteins that are on your regular menu."
  3. Mix-and-match is the new combo.
    "Run a section on your menu of mix-and-match," says Schempp. "Diners feel like they get more value if they can choose what they want as a combo meal for a fixed price." Expectations are changing about what menu parts diners can share, too. "They don't just want to share desserts or appetizers," she says. "Let them share entrées and salads. The key is in giving them the power to create their own meals. Diners today see value in that."
Vie Executive
Chef Paul Virant

One Chef's Strategy: Sunday Suppers

Vie is closed on Sundays, like many restaurants around the country. But in February 2009, chef/owner Paul Virant, started "Sunday Suppers" at this Western Springs, Illinois restaurant. Known for his classic French style with an American twist, he wanted to attract diners who might not necessarily see his menu as approachable. So, he began opening his doors from 2:30 to 7 p.m. the first Sunday of each month, charging $25 a person (kids 12 and under pay their age). The promotion has been going strong since, running about six times a year. For $25 (minus tax and gratuity), diners choose soup or salad and one of four entrées. (Desserts are offered for $3 or $4 more.)

The Sunday Suppers have been a roaring success, bringing in between 200 and 300 covers to this 85-seat restaurant. "Diners who come in on Sundays get the same integrity of food that's found on our regular menu, but for a lot less," says Virant (who recently went toe to toe against Masaharu Morimoto on Food Network's "Iron Chef America"). Entrées include dishes like chicken-fried steak, pan-fried rainbow trout and wild-mushroom crêpes. "Besides adding another night of revenue, our goal is to get these diners to come visit us on other days, maybe at the bar or for meals, whatever they want," he says.

Back in the fall of 2008, Virant introduced a menu item called "The Recession," a budget-friendly entrée offered at $15. Dishes ranged from wood-grilled pork belly sandwiches to brisket. In 2009, the rotating entrée was replaced with a 7-ounce dry-aged burger served on a housemade bun with housemade pickles and home fries. "So we still feature a $15 item, but it's now always the burger, which is hugely popular," says Virant. "We got a lot of local media from the promotion."