This post is by Restaurant SmartBrief contributor Janet Forgrieve.
One of this summer’s big trend stories centers on restaurants that launched deeply discounted specials to fill tables during the recession and now must figure out ways to wean their guests off the unprofitable deals and move them back to regular-priced fare. Chains that slashed costs to the bone are now looking at ways to boost margins back up and working like mad to find opportunities to raise prices without sacrificing perceived value.
Diners aren’t making it easy, according to a recent story in the Orange County Register, which cites new research showing consumers plan to continue cutting back their spending on restaurant meals. The story also points out that the deals have worked in restaurants’ favor by fostering a new sense of loyalty among patrons.
At Racines in Denver, the trend is a nonissue, largely because if you don’t change something, then you don’t have to change it back. The casual eatery, known among many of the town’s movers and shakers as “the” place to meet for power breakfasts and comfy dinners with pals, hasn’t changed its menu or moved prices up or down in more than a year, says co-owner Lee Goodfriend. It also hasn’t lost any business — customers might sip a glass of wine at home before heading out to eat or opt for a burger instead of a steak, but the downturn hasn’t hit as hard here as it has at some other places and the casual restaurant has even benefited as guests have traded down from pricier establishments.
The restaurant’s biggest nod to the recession was not changing anything at all. “We usually add new items and take away things that aren’t selling well about once a year to make sure people don’t get bored,” says Goodfriend, who launched the restaurant with two partners in 1983. This time around, though, boring may be working, as customers come back for the familiar, filling entrées that often carry single-digit price tags, she says. In fact, if there’s one talked-about trend she is seeing at the restaurant it’s that customers have a yen for comfort food and the ambience that goes along with it.
“There’s a lot of value in the food itself, which tends to be less expensive and more filling, so you can often get two meals out of it. On top of that, it’s comforting, to go to a restaurant with friends — you get entertainment and a meal,” she says.
Her favorite comfort food? “Hot turkey sandwich with lots of gravy. It reminds me of going out to dinner with my family when I was a kid — my brother and I would order them when everyone else was having burgers and it became a tradition.”
Are you seeing — or not seeing — your restaurant in the latest crop of trend stories? Tell us about it!