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Higher Menu Prices and Congruency

Menu Prices and IncogruencyA fresh restaurant marketing story for you with a wee bit of a moral in the end.

In order to be able to set and maintain higher menu prices than those of your competition, you need to carefully “choreograph” all elements of your customer’s experience. And in that, no detail is too small.

Onwards to a story.

We just had a nice dinner in San Simeon, California. A tiny village halfway between LA and San Francisco with a population of 400, it consists of a gift shop and maybe a dozen of hotels and restaurants on both sides of Hwy 1.

Given the geographic location (middle of nowhere), we didn’t expect much from the seafood restaurant attached to the hotel where we stayed for the night. Least of all did we expect their menu to demand a more-than-respectable $21+ average per entree.

Yet that’s exactly what it did.

A family with 2 kids at the table next to us, not able to cope with the sticker shock, got up noisily and hurried out the door in search of a more affordable option. (Kudos to the Maitre D’ who was prompt, vocal, and sincere in thanking them for coming and making it appear to the other guests as if he was parting with his best friends.)

We stayed. Part too lazy to move our buns, part curious to see how the kitchen would live up to a relatively high bar they’d set for themselves.

The restaurant was about half-full. The day being Monday, and many of the kids being back at school, that looked like a good night.

The waiter did his part well all the way, from offering the drinks to suggesting the specials, to becoming invisible when we didn’t need him, to re-appearing when we did. The food was worth every dollar the menu demanded for it, and possibly more.

Looks like we had a winner.

Except for one small but nagging detail.

Which was the busgirl (the person making the least money of all the people at the store that night) who answered every “thank you” with a dewy-eyed “uhuh”.

Now, since when does “uhuh” mean “you’re welcome”?

I found myself thinking about how well everything that night was orchestrated to make my experience congruent with the menu and to make me happy to part with the money.

And also thinking about how every lumpish “uhuh” thrown at me negated everything good that had happened to that point, and reminded of how far away from the city we were.

That is called incongruency and it is your biggest obstacle to your ability to increase and maintain higher check averages.

When it comes to restaurant marketing, little things aren’t little anymore. They are everything.

Three questions for you to ponder (your restaurant business will soar once you find answers to these):

  • How should you “choreograph” your customers’ experience?
  • How do you train your waitstaff now and how should you really train them?
  • How can you ensure they don’t bring their hapless social habits into your restaurant?

Restaurant Menu, iPod, and Your Underwear…

davidCelebrity chef David Adjey (star of Restaurant Makeover, and a chef to other celebrities like Dan Aykroyd), opens his book with his version of culinary “commandments”. Quoting as I remember it, one of them goes like this:

“Never order anything off a menu that is longer than your underwear.”

Green with envy that David has found this uber-powerful metaphor, I think of it every time I’m at a restaurant. (Even though I don’t need to pull down my khakis to know that the menu is ugh.)

The menu should never be taken lightly. Each item is a salesperson. A salesperson that doesn’t sell needs to be fired. A menu item that doesn’t sell need to be cut. Fast and to the bone.

And then some.

Because there is no room for things coincidental and circumstantial. The menu needs direction and purpose.

And focus.

A lot of it.

The kind of focus that makes it impossible for one’s mind to wander away even for a second. The kind that makes a buying decision a snap. The customer is here to have a great meal and definitely not to spend time solving charades and puzzles. The menu is a shortcut between a craving in the stomach and a hot dish on the table. Anything but, and trouble is imminent.

“iPod” has become a synonym for “MP3 player.” An indisputable market leader, it is very possibly a player with the least number of functions. Which is counterintuitive. Yet it sells like gangbusters, understandably torquing off all their competitors who just don’t “get it.”

A brief history lesson: When the first iPods hit the market, their hardware included an FM tuner and a voice recorder. Yet these two relatively important functions were not enabled on purpose. Steve Jobs (the CEO of Apple) decided to sacrifice functionality for the sake of clarity and simplicity. As a result, an entire new industry was created.

Same applies to the menu:

Less is easier.

Less is faster (faster order, faster dish, faster table turn-over).

Less is more money in the bank account.

PS: We recently recorded an interview with someone who reduced his menu to just one entree, one side, and one drink. His sales are going through the roof and people fly in to eat at his restaurant from all over the world (even Tokyo). Heck, he even appeared on Jay Leno! While the interview is being sound edited, all subscribers will receive an “uncut” version of the interview. (And if you’re not a subscriber, you need to sign up fast — there, in the top-right corner.)

Food Cost: This Horse Is Lame. Stop Beating Her, Brother…

food-pricesAs food prices keep rising, restaurant owners can’t help thinking about ways to deal with those eroding profit margins.

At times like this, it may seem like a good idea to shop around for better prices on your key ingredients. After all, what if you could:

  • Negotiate better prices with your current supplier?
  • Make several suppliers bid for your business?
  • Switch to new suppliers altogether?

This is a natural response. But you could be shooting yourself in the foot.

Here’s how.

Trying to get a better price on chicken breasts can only get you so far. The benefit to your business may be short-lived and illusory: The only way food prices are going is up. And you could be trying to solve the problem from the wrong end.

Think about what you’d have to give away to get a better deal:

  • Scenario #1: You sacrifice the food quality. If you are already a troubled restaurant, that could be the last nail in the coffin of your business.
  • Scenario #2: You replace your old supplier with someone less reliable. Then one night you may leave more money on the table than you could have saved on the ingredients.
  • Scenario #3: You throw yourself into heavy-duty negotiations that will suck up a lot of your time. You should know that your time has a high price tag attached to it and it may be better invested elsewhere.

Which brings us to the next point.

The fact that you can’t sustain the increase in food costs is a symptom of a bigger problem. If the menu is stale and unoptimized, if the concept is unexciting, and if you are doing a mediocre job of getting enough people to try your food, then don’t look for a bail-out from your supplier.

Sure, you shouldn’t be paying more than a fair market price for the ingredients. But you shouldn’t be paying much less either. If the basic economics of your business aren’t right, you’re fighting a losing battle against an enemy of your own creation.

That enemy’s name is “Poor Me” — and we’ve all met him at some point in our lives. He comes unannounced and turns a confident restaurant owner into a wimp who blames everything and everyone — government, weather, competition, economy, suppliers, even customers —  for the lack of profits in his business. To have a fighting chance, you need to get out of the cost-saving penny-pinching nickel-and-diming mindset and start plugging chasmic holes in your marketing.

When you can get enough customers to come and gladly pay the prices your food is worth, then you’d better be ready to seize the night. And that’s the night when you need your supplier on your side.

Tomorrow I’ll give you a tool that helps in managing food cost the right way. If you are a subscriber to, we’ll be sending you an email with your password to a special page on this website. And if you’re not yet a subscriber, you need to become one by tomorrow to get this special content! (Check the top right corner of this page for the subscription form.)