“Season” the moment: 4 ways to cope with seasonality in the restaurant business
Like every other business, the food service industry experiences seasonal changes, some minor to the point of being unnoticeable, and others that can seriously impact the bottom line. The type of restaurant and its location have a significant influence upon those changes, as well as the most appropriate means of dealing with them. The challenge that every restaurant owner and manager faces is knowing the difference between the minor and the serious as they relate to his or her unique operation, and responding appropriately to each.
Naturally, the climate at the restaurant’s location can play a big role in how the eatery operates. It is doubtful, for example, that a restaurant that leans heavily upon the al fresco dining experience would find Nome, Alaska to be an ideal location, at least for nine months of the year. By the same token, a restaurant that specializes in stick-to-your-ribs comfort food might not experience the same level of success in an extremely hot locale such as Laredo, Texas as they would in the aforementioned Nome, where residents spend the majority of the year shivering. These are extreme examples, of course, and as indicated above, the restaurant industry in general is seasonal, no matter where a particular restaurant is located and what type of food it serves. But even the most optimally located restaurant can experience subtle or dramatic fluctuations in its business, depending upon the time of year.
Some types of establishments are able to capitalize fully on the changing seasons; in fact, that’s part of their business model. Perhaps the most famous example is the aptly named Four Seasons Restaurant, an upscale institution that first opened in 1959 in Manhattan and is credited with introducing the idea of seasonally changing menus to the United States. However, seasonality can be much more of a challenge for a restaurant located in an area without a large native population and/or year-round tourism. If the restaurant specializes in a specific and limited type of cuisine (e.g., fresh locally caught seafood), the challenge can be even greater. An establishment such as a bakery might have almost more business than it can handle during specific holidays, but find itself struggling to keep its doors open the rest of the year. In most places in the Northern Hemisphere, an ice cream parlor will probably be much busier in mid-July than in January. You get the idea.
During your own restaurant’s busy season – whichever time of year that may be – getting business probably isn’t the big challenge. You’re probably more focused on keeping an adequate staff and maintaining quality control, both of which are topics for whole separate articles. But perhaps you would prefer to have a more steady flow of business throughout the year. Maybe you’re tired of the feast-or-famine cycle and wish there were a little more feasting, for you as well as for your clientele. That’s where you often have to get creative. Here are a few tips.
1. Zag when others zig. Believe it or not, it can sometimes be a smart business move to go completely against the dictates of logic in your marketing approach. One need only look at the Christmas in July celebrations that some eating and drinking establishments put on – with great success – to see that something needn’t make much sense to work well. There are pubs that hold special “Saint Practice Day” events, months before St. Patrick’s Day, or that hold indoor “Beach Parties” – complete with imported sand and bikini volleyball tournaments – when the temperature outside is more conducive to playing hockey on a lake. The festivity of the season translates well, the customers’ longing for a different season is satisfied, and the operations get a needed boost during slow periods. Win-win.
2. Milk the season for all it’s worth. Some specials and events are by necessity tied to seasonal goings-on. For example, it only makes sense to schedule family-friendly events and special kids’ menus during spring break, summer vacation, or at other times when kids are out of school. Enter one of the game-filled, kid-intensive pizza franchises on a school day, and you’re likely to see a skeleton crew of workers twiddling their thumbs, waiting for the bell to ring. Still, during slow seasons you can get creative and offer an event or special around one of the thousands of national or international days or weeks or “awareness” months. Just enter “national awareness months” into your search engine. If you don’t find one to suit you from one of the many lists that pop up, invent an awareness day, week, or month of your own and promote the stuffings out of it!
3. Be seasonal in your menu. The smart restaurateur knows to offer specials that are geared to whatever produce is in season. What that famously swanky restaurant in Manhattan began more than fifty years ago has become a much more common practice among restaurants of all types, particularly in recent years as the “buy-local”/farmers’ market trend has taken hold. In addition to being able to offer high quality dishes using seasonally-available foods, it is likely that the cost of those seasonal foods will be lowest at their peak harvest time, allowing the chef to offer lower prices as well as higher quality – both wonderful for boosting the bottom line. Some eateries have even turned such seasonal profit boosters into signature offerings that significantly increase customer traffic.
4. Make yourself as visible as possible all year round. Finally, no matter where you’re located and what type(s) of cuisine you serve, you should do everything possible to maintain your restaurant’s visibility all year round for visitors as well as locals. That’s why it’s important to have an attractive and informative web site, and to do everything you can to make sure your site ranks high when a potential visitor (or local customer) searches for restaurants in your area. Feature your menus and seasonal specials on your site, and if you have time or have a staffer you can trust to do so, start and maintain a blog, and participate fully in social media such as Facebook and Twitter. If you’re in an area where there’s a lot of tourism or business travel, establish relationships with local hotels and rental units such as short-term apartments. Give the staff and management of these businesses incentive to try your restaurant themselves by offering coupons or gift cards, and give them menus and other display materials to place in their rooms or at their front desks. Cab drivers and airport limousine services can also be great referral resources. And don’t forget to do your own Internet searches to make sure you’re included on all the major sites that list restaurants in your area.
Turning a seasonal challenge into a seasonal spike in sales and profits isn’t really that difficult. It takes some imagination, a good dose of common sense, and an ability and willingness to think outside the box – or off the calendar, as the case may be. But since these qualities are pretty well ingrained in chefs and restaurateurs anyway, the solutions to would-be problems are typically right in front of their faces. The biggest obstacle is usually overcoming the fear that something won’t work and just doing it. Winter, spring, summer, or fall – you can learn to make the most of each season, and perhaps you’ll even reach a point where there are no lean seasons, where it’s all feast and no famine.
Let the good times roll!
Let us know how you handle seasonality in your restaurant or catering business.