There are many ways to keep guests in their seats. And plenty of ways to lose them, too.
One positive side effect of rising wages, as far as restaurants are concerned, is higher consumer spending. Does that balance out the labor issue? Probably not, but it doesn’t hurt, either. In last year’s U.S. Food Expenditure report—an annual USDA study—it found that food-away-from home spending was higher than previous estimates. Full-service restaurants have held steady at 35.8 percent of the FAFH market over the last 20 years. In 2017, U.S. consumers spent a record $1.62 trillion on food and beverages. Of that figure, 53.8 percent, or $869 billion, went to food purchases away from home. As the national median income rose from the 20-year low of $54,569 in 2012 to $61,372 in 2017, guests’ propensity to dine out lifted as well. In 2017, food-away-from-home purchases increased $24.7 billion from the $844.5 billion spent in 2016.
But while guests are dining out more, traffic remains challenged. This likely has something to do with the fact that, per the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of restaurants jumped close to 16 percent in the past 10 years (The NPD Group counted 660,755 total U.S. restaurants in spring 2018).
This past spring’s count, however, was a percentage point decline from the previous year. Last year’s growth was the slowest rate in the past eight years. It suggests the restaurant industry ballooned to meet rising demand, as well as take advantage of lower barriers to entry during the Great Recession, like more affordable rents and willing landlords, but has now course-corrected a bit. Like retail’s retraction over the last decade, there were too many restaurants, too few customers, and not enough money to go around.
What this reality created is an industry with more willing customers, but less room for error. If a customer receives a subpar dining experience, whether that’s via online ordering or in the restaurant itself, they can bolt to a host of options. Whiff a core experience promise today and the guest could be gone for good.
So a good question to ask is what are the deal breakers? What issues would a customer let slide and what are the ones that will have them swearing off your restaurant?
Supply platform Zoro surveyed close to 1,000 diners who eat out at least once a month in an effort to answer that dilemma. It isn’t always possible to make everything perfect. But there are simply a few operational elements you can’t get wrong.
“It can be funny to hear about the outrageous things people have seen in their food at restaurants, but for restaurant owners and managers, these types of incidents are no laughing matter,” says Corie Colliton, Project Manager at Zoro. “These findings show that every member of a restaurant's staff, from the owner to the valet driver, needs to prioritize cleanliness and professionalism. Even one mistake in either of these areas can affect your restaurant's bottom line and turn a loyal customer into someone who puts your restaurant on blast via Twitter or Yelp."
Eat with your eyes
Before a customer gets their plate, they’re walking through the front door. The last thing a guest wants to see is health hazards, long wait times, and awful service. Ever walk into a restaurant and stand awkwardly around, hoping for someone to greet you? That might be forgivable on a busy night. That same host employee visibly ignoring the customer, though, or being rude, is probably not. Or witnessing that same scenario in an empty restaurant where the worker simply doesn’t seem to care.
As the chart below shows, frequent diners jump right to the service issue at 83 percent. That’s a sit-down restaurant’s greatest opportunity to separate from counter-service competitors. It’s also the most-fickle point. Get service right 100 percent of the time and guests might forgive other setbacks.