There's a lot of looking forward around this time every year, and this site is certainly doing some of that, but we're also looking back as part of a process reporters like to call the "post mortem." The idea is simply to learn what worked and what didn't. Below are the eight lessons learned in 2016 about the fine art of running a restaurant.
1. Listen hard or get left behind
If there's one supreme lesson underscored over the past year at every food service-related event and research study and even inside the story of industry icons, it is that listening to customers is still just about the most valuable thing a restaurateur can do.
Customers are screaming at restaurateurs about exactly what they want, when they want it and how. That feedback takes the form of everything from big data, trend analyses and social media chit-chat, to bestselling books and even popular grocery items.
As Chick-fil-A found out in a studybefore the wildly successful launch of its mobile app this summer, customers — millennials, in particular — have realized just how much power their purchases wield, so they're voting early and often at the restaurant register.
Often they speak most loudly and passionately after taking in information from documentaries, online studies or even books, like2001's, Fast Food Nation. That may have been dropped into the pool of our consciousness at the start of the millennium, but its less-than-flattering restaurant industry information is still creating ripples across food service that will be felt for a long time.
2. The clear winners are thoroughly transparent
The issue of transparency revolving around food sources and overall quality is one that is making a clear distinction between restaurant industry winnersand losers in all manner of quicker-service formats, said Katie Sutton. Colorado-based Food & Drink Resources Chef and Vice President of Culinary Innovation.
Catastrophic business lossesresulting from food safety issues at some of the biggest chains has driven home the painful truth of just how tenuous the restaurateur's livelihood can be when any kind of compromised food or service sickens a customer. Those who provide the most transparencyabout where the food originated and how it was produced are clearly rising to the top.
"Everyone wants to know where their food and products come from. There will be more and more transparency when it comes to sourcing. Plus, I think we will see less packaging and will see more composting services that pick-up waste from restaurants," Sutton said in an interview with this website.
3. Dining goes "super"natural.
Related to her advice above, Sutton said for faster service restaurant models in this industry, this year drove home the point that clean, natural ingredients are no longer a perk but a necessity. That's how industry executives see it, according to QSRweb's State of the Industry report. Diners agree, which have spaned the growth of so-called "luxury QSR" brands, including Starbird.
"Go natural. There is so much competition, especially with home meal services, that you must serve high-quality foods," Sutton said.
Likewise, and particularly in the pizza category, those who both survive and thrive are those who embrace "bold" tastes.
"Go big on flavor, and go global," Sutton said.
4. Eating out no longer means eating "out"
Meal kits and meal delivery are coming into their own, and restaurants need representation in that realm to survive. For proof of that, look no further than any recent research study on the topic, including this one released in November, which found.
"Frozen meal delivery and meal kit delivery are not only here to stay, but they are going to start stealing business from restaurants in 2017," Sutton said.
5. Who says you can't be everywhere all the time?
Certainly not the food service industry, and especially not the faster service concepts, which have not only promised they will get deliver food to customers wherever they are, but whenever they want it and with as little total effort from the diner as is possible.
Food trucks, airborne (and almost reindeer-borne) delivery methods, all forms of online and mobile ordering and payment options, catering and even voice ordering make it easy for customers to ger served without lifting a finger possible thanks to an innovative, competitive and all-accommodating restaurant industry.
6: Vive la difference!
The most successful brands with the most dedicated followers were those that found ways to differentiate from their competitors. The examples fill the food service landscape with everything from the obscure to the obvious.
Arby's wildly popular venison sandwich LTO, for example, reinforced its dedication to meat eaters at a time when huge swaths of brands are aligning behind vegetable-based menu items. And Subway has long staked its ground on the notion of "fresh" ingredients and dedication to transparency with its early adoption of menu item calorie counts and other nutritional data.
This notion of differentiation as a success strategy was underscored at the Fast Casual Executive Summit outside Los Angeles this fall, where popular restaurant marketing gurus, including Sally Hogsheadand Gerry O'Brion spoke about the glories of brands that focused on everything from Jagermeister shots for breakfast to dinner rolls that are quite literally thrown at diners' tables.
"The thing that makes you different is the thing that makes you stand out," Hogshead said. "Different is better than better."
7: Time, but not necessarily timing, is everything
In an ever-faster world, where nearly consumers can get everything within a day just by pressing a few smartphone buttons, waiting for anything has grown completely unacceptable … and that includes food service.
You may truly be selling the food of the gods, but if you can't deliver it at god-like speed, no one is going to wait around long enough to try it. This idea is underscored in research, incluidng n a Chick-fil-A-sponsored studythat identified that an overwhelming majority of millennials said they would skip eating altogether if they had to wait in a drive-thru line.
As a result, brands consistently won this daypart by deploying everything from order-ahead strategies and technology, kiosk-ordering lanes and drone delivery.
8. Know thine enemy
Pay attention to not only what customer needs you're filling, but also which niches your biggest competitors are filling. Then, look for the areas where demand exists but is not being served. Fast casual pizza and burger brands have been succeeding for the past few years with the strategy, by filling the need consumers have shown for a step-up from QSR, that doesn't go full-tilt toward casual dining. But QSR brands, like McDonald's and Domino's, are making moves to take advantage of consumers growing demand for rapid food delivery, both here and abroad.
McDonald's, for instance,has deployed a service model blending in-store kiosk ordering with limited-table service. In one fell swoop, the brand managed to fill millennials need for speed with baby boomers' preference for human contact and assistance as they grow older. Meanwhile, Domino's is expanding on the wings of its international and technical development, with growth in emerging markets, like India, and time-pressured cultures, like the U.S.
These eight takeaways from the year that was are simply intended as part of that critical process of review so vital to all businesses. After all, as philosopher and poet, George Santayana, once said, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."
However, it is also true that, as writer Kurt Vonnegut once shot back, "I've got news for Mr. Santayana: We're doomed to repeat the past no matter what."
Those who succeed in the years ahead will probably be the same business people who prefer to follow Santayana's advice.
Photo source: iStock