How to Open a Restaurant, Part 6: The Essential Software Tools You Need to Run Your Restaurant Business

When opening a restaurant, the number of products and systems designed to streamline operations is wide-ranging and dizzying. The systems purchased and implemented at the start are costly, and even more so to replace, so it’s important to do your research when selecting your restaurant’s tools to ensure that you get it right the first time. In this article I will focus on the two most universally used operational systems in restaurants – point of sale and reservations – as well as other management tools you should consider to set your restaurant up for success.

Point of Sale (POS)

A point of sale system is like your restaurant’s central nervous system, serving as an indispensable link between your guests, service team, kitchen team, accountant, General Manager, and Executive Chef. Skipping the research and defaulting to a brand just because you are familiar with it or want to save money can lead to major regrets and missed opportunities down the road. The goal is to avoid spending money on functionality that you don’t need or purchasing a low-cost product that doesn’t sufficiently support your business.

In general terms, you get what you pay for in the POS world. Systems range from tens of thousands of dollars to less than $100 a month. They each have strengths and weaknesses and different sets of capabilities, so the best way to know that you’re investing in the right one for your specific restaurant is to first establish what you need from a POS.

The world of POS is split into two major camps: local server systems and cloud-based, wireless systems. The former includes industry standards and well-known platforms like Micros or Aloha, where the latter includes more recent, iPad-based products like Breadcrumb, Revel and Square. As I mentioned, there’s a use case for either style, but it’s wholly dependent on your restaurant size and operational needs.

If you’re setting out to open a large restaurant with multiple dining areas, bar, private dining and a large staff, a local server system is a must. The durability of these restaurant-grade systems, as well as the stability of the connection and quality of support make the much higher price tag of these platforms completely justified.

Conversely, if you’re planning to operate a smaller restaurant with a simple menu and modest staff, it might make much more sense to opt for an iPad-based, cloud system. When you’re opening a restaurant, cash flow is of the essence and over-spending on POS that far exceeds your business needs can put you behind before you even get started. These platforms are easier to use, take up less space, and are significantly more sleek and affordable in a smaller operation.

In order to find the right POS for your restaurant, you’ll need to do some in-depth competitive research, solicit numerous bids, and ask your colleagues about their experiences with the systems they use. In the meantime, here’s a basic breakdown of some of the more important features and functions of POS and where each style system excels: 

Guest Management     

I have seen and worked with restaurateurs that use OpenTable only as a reservations system; this is a huge missed opportunity. OpenTable is a comprehensive guest management tool that, when used properly, has the power to raise service levels, improve guest loyalty, and substantially increase revenue.

OpenTable ensures that you are maximizing the daily seating capacity of your restaurant and then making those seats available and accessible to more potential customers in your market than any other reservation system can. Calculating how much revenue each seat of your restaurant can potentially earn you each year ($35 check average x 1.5 turns x 360 days = $18,900) is a good exercise to demonstrate that investing in the most recognizable, widely-used, capable, and comprehensive reservation management tool is smart business. Unlike the POS market, going with a lesser-known system will have a significant negative impact on your revenue; when it comes to reservation systems, it is absolutely necessary to place yourself in the biggest possible pool of customers.

OpenTable’s job isn’t done once a guest has made a reservation and been seated in your restaurant. For the vast majority of businesses, a steady flow of one-time visitors isn’t what keeps them busy, open, and thriving over the years. Repeat guests and regulars are a must, and in today’s increasingly competitive market, it takes more than good food and good service to get people to come back. The difference is hospitality. One of the most important pillars of this intangible game-changer is the ability to make your guests feel important and recognized, which is what OpenTable’s software is built to provide for you as a restaurateur. Simply put, It gives you the power to record and manage guest preferences and then utilize them to provide outstanding guest experiences easily and consistently. 

As you build profiles for your guests over time, OpenTable makes it easy to launch targeted marketing campaigns based on the contact information and preferences, and spending habits that you’ve collected from your customers. The best way to ensure that marketing campaigns like event promotions gain traction is to focus on sending the information to the right people as opposed to the largest possible volume of people.

Other Management Tools

There are so many programs out there designed to help you complete all sorts of tasks that oftentimes the hardest part is wading through the options and figuring out what you actually need. In my opinion, there are a few critically important, time-consuming functions performed by a restaurant’s management team that can be completed more effectively and efficiently with the help of some inexpensive software tools.

Shift to shift communication. The communication habits of your management team are crucial to the success of every service, so don’t rely on sticky notes and text messages to deliver important messages. Your managers should be writing in a logbook that’s distributed to your entire front and back of house management team after every service to communicate information such as employee issues, guest complaints, facility maintenance needs, flow of service, and sales. Programs like ShiftNote centralize all of this information in one searchable, shareable, easy-to-use resource that keeps your key team members in the loop.

Scheduling. For most restaurant managers, making the schedule is simultaneously the least desirable and the most important responsibility to be tasked with. Improper scheduling can lead to poor service experiences, wasted labor dollars, and disgruntled employees. This is often an inevitable result when one person is trying to build a restaurant's internal gameplan in Excel or Word, while trying to remember what days Emily has school, when Justin needs to be out of town for a wedding, and whether or not Jack and Ruby can switch shifts without one of them incurring overtime. ScheduleFly is a great example of a program that can quickly eliminating manual and haphazard work, and creating a central place where management and staff can ensure scheduling stress is minimized.

Sales management. You rely on your management team to constantly make decisions with the goal of increasing revenue and decreasing costs. These efforts range from driving business in off-peak times, altering menu pricing, removing or changing items that aren’t selling, and coaching weak servers. The ability to effectively drive profitability depends largely on the quality, specificity, and ease of access and manipulation of important sales information. Even if you have an advanced POS system, a program like Avero will provide significantly more insight into the performance of your restaurant, by making key data available, comprehendible and actionable.

The old adage “a craftsman is only as good as his tools” certainly rings true when it comes to arming your restaurant with the means to be successful. By doing your research and being strategic when assembling your restaurant’s tools, you’ll give yourself and your team the best opportunity to thrive.

Posted on March 15, 2015 .

How to Open a Restaurant, Part 7: 3 Preview Events That Will Prepare You to Open Your Restaurant

Pre-opening events serve three essential functions: they are a dress rehearsal for your entire team, they provide an exclusive first look of your restaurant to key players in your community, and they give you an opportunity to receive critical feedback and make changes before you open your doors to paying customers. Feeling strapped for time, money, or both, some restaurateurs forgo these critical preview events and decide to just open the doors and get going. This can prove disastrous, as your first few weeks of service are the most important ones you’ll ever have, and losing the trust of your “early adopters,” receiving negative reviews on social media, lacking support from the press, and discouraging your staff early in the game are all surefire ways of damaging your short and long term success. Build preview events into your opening budget and don’t buckle in the face of internal or external pressure to get the doors open and start making money; preview events are an investment that absolutely cannot be skipped. In this article, I’ll walk you through three of the most valuable types of pre-opening events and how to make the most of them.

Friends & Family Meals

WHAT: This type of pre-opening event should happen as close to opening day as possible and serve as a comprehensive dry run. You’ll invite friends and family of the restaurant to dine in exchange for critical feedback and the right to make mistakes sans judgement. In a nutshell, these guests are your guinea pigs, so all or most of the meal is typically complimentary. This is the most important opportunity your staff will have to practice cooking your menu, mixing your cocktails, talking about your wine list, and going through steps of service before opening day, so you’ll want to structure it exactly the way you would a normal service.

WHO: So, which “friends and family” should you invite? Typically, invitations to these meals are pretty coveted and you’ll have no shortage of volunteers. Above all, invite people that you trust to be honest with you and whose opinions you respect. Another thing to keep in mind: If you have a few big hiccups on your first night, will the people you’ve invited understand and forgive or send a snide tweet to their 5,000 followers? Make sure it’s the former.

TIPS FOR GETTING THE MOST OUT OF IT:

  • Host at least two days of friends and family meals, but three or four days is ideal. You want the opportunity to receive critical feedback, make mistakes and correct them before you open.
  • Control your cover counts. You’ll be surprised by how many friends and family members you have all of a sudden when you give away free meals at a hot new restaurant. Decide how many people you want to serve each night based on your budget and your operational capabilities and then stick to those numbers.
  • Make sure your entire staff is involved. This may mean giving servers smaller sections or having more cooks in the kitchen than you normally would, but the primary purpose is for everyone on your team to get some hands on, real time experience so that they’re comfortable and confident going into day one.
  • Make feedback cards for your guests. Remember that honest, critical feedback is a significant portion of your ROI for this type of event so getting your guest’s thoughts on paper and reviewing comments with your team every night is an absolute must.

Press Preview

WHAT: Creating a small event dedicated to giving the press a first look at the restaurant when it’s still a few weeks away from opening day is a great opportunity to generate buzz as you head down the home stretch, and also build goodwill with the people that will be critiquing you and following your restaurant for years to come. Going above and beyond to show that they are important to you will help keep your restaurant’s name top of mind as others continue to open.

WHO: Invite all of the major food writers in your community - this includes magazines, newspapers, websites, and widely followed bloggers. For press events, focus on quality, not quantity. If you have too many people in your space, you’ll lose the feeling of exclusivity and also lessen the likelihood that you’ll be able to make a personal connection with everyone in attendance.

TIPS FOR GETTING THE MOST OUT OF IT:

  • Take the time to make the invite personal. Depending on how many people you’ve got on your list, sending a well-branded, thoughtful paper invite or making individual phone calls are the most appropriate ways of getting your press preview on their busy calendars.
  • Don’t mind the dust. An unfinished interior makes the experience feel a bit more exclusive and also ensures that there will still be an element of surprise the next time they come in.
  • Provide some tastes of your menu and cocktails during the event. Taking a tour of the space is an essential part of the experience, but getting your future supporters and critics excited about the product you’ll be serving is just as important. Remember to keep it simple - 3 perfect bites are better than 10 imperfect ones.
  • Work the room. Having a group of media heavy hitters in the same place at the same time is a tremendous opportunity - embrace it! Your entire management team should be on the floor getting to know each individual that took the time to attend and entering their information into your reservation system so that you know to take extra special care of them when they come in to eat.
  • Send them home with something unique. A sweet treat with a branded recipe card or a bottled cocktail are examples of items that will make a lasting impression. Skip things like printed menus that are liable to continue to change as opening day approaches.

Opening Party

WHAT: Opening parties can take many different forms, but the best ones have a greater purpose than solely celebrating your restaurant’s opening. Remember that all of these preview events are an investment of time, money, and resources, so you want to be sure that you’re capitalizing on them. Hosting a fundraiser for your favorite local charity or turning your opening event into an appreciation party for the many people that helped build your restaurant are both great ways of getting more out of this type of event.

WHO: The who will largely depend on what angle you choose to take with your opening event. If you partner with a charity, make sure that the guest list is appropriately balanced between their guests and yours. Appreciation parties should include your contractor and significant subcontractors, you’re branding and design team, chefs and restaurateurs that helped you navigate opening woes, investors, vendors, neighboring businesses, and anyone else that you couldn’t have built your restaurant without.

TIPS FOR GETTING THE MOST OUT OF IT:

  • Ask your vendors to donate some product in exchange for featuring their brand on signage or menu cards at the party (inviting them doesn’t hurt either).
  • Make some signage with your social media handles and an event specific hashtag to encourage your guests to post photos and help build the anticipation before opening day.
  • Keep your guest list at a reasonable number. You want people to have an amazing time, so don’t open the floodgates and crowd the space or stretch your food and drink budget.
  • After enduring the long and generally grueling process of opening a restaurant, there’s a natural urge to rush to get the doors open and begin generating revenue. While many novices take this approach, the pros understand the tremendous opportunity pre-opening events represent. Your aim is to be in business for many years, so avoiding the temptation to skip pre-opening events is more than just an investment in a few nights of free dinner - it’s an investment in your restaurant’s future.
Posted on March 1, 2015 .

How to Open a Restaurant, Part 8: How to Build Buzz for Your Restaurant Opening

Opening night in a new restaurant is among the most thrilling and energy-filled experiences there is. When your big night comes, you’ll want to ensure it’s met with ample attention from the media and community around you by making a concerted effort to create buzz. This process begins long before you ever open your doors, and will be a huge catalyst to ensuring your early success, as well as establishing a core group of regular diners right out of the gate.

While each restaurant is different, there are some surefire ways to ensure your restaurant opening is eagerly anticipated and well-documented. Here, I’ll share some tips on gaining media attention without the help of a hired PR firm so that you have a full, happy restaurant of patrons when opening night comes around.

  1. Know your audience. Before you start making decisions about where you want to focus your energy, carefully consider your target market. Who are they and how do they prefer to engage with the restaurant community? Understanding what sources of information influence your diners will help you choose the most effective marketing channels for your restaurant. If you’re not sure, host an informal focus group (i.e. buy lunch) for a handful of people that represent your target market and ask them about their habits. Once you have a solid idea of what blogs, magazines, newspapers and social media accounts your future guests rely on for information, you’ll know exactly who should be included in your marketing outreach.
  2. Start your social media feeds early. You should start social media accounts (Instagram, Twitter, Facebook) as soon as you’ve chosen the restaurant’s name. Document and share the progression of construction, menu item testing, staff training, and anything else that will help your audience get to know you, your team, your space, and your brand. Giving your guests the opportunity to take the pre-opening journey with you will create a sense of ownership and build familiarity with your brand before the restaurant has even served its first guest.
  3. Love thy neighbor. Earning the trust and support of your immediate neighborhood is extremely important because they are the guests that will be filling your seats on freezing cold nights and holiday weekends. Show the community that you value their patronage by hosting a social hour with wine and light snacks and ask attendees to drop a business card on their way out. This will earn you some immediate good will, give your staff a chance to build early relationships with neighbors, and give you a high quality head start on your mailing list. Enter these names into OpenTable right away with a guest note that indicates that they’re neighbors so that your team is always on top of giving them a little extra love.
  4. Host a media focused sneak preview. Creating a small event to give the press a first look at the restaurant when it’s still a few weeks away from opening day is a great opportunity to generate buzz as you head down the home stretch, and also to build goodwill with the people that will be critiquing you and following your restaurant for years to come. Going above and beyond to show that they are important to you will help keep your restaurant’s name top of mind as others continue to open.
  5. Hit the pavement. Local retail stores, condo building, hotel concierges, and other restaurants in your area are valuable sources of word of mouth marketing; after the opening buzz dies down, their referrals (and personal patronage) will help you fill reservations during off-peak times. Put together some on-brand treats and have a few members of your team personally deliver them. Be sure to include some general information about your restaurant including location, hours of operation, private dining options, and menu style.
  6. Give them something to write about. When you’re three+ months away from opening, there’s a limited amount of media coverage that can realistically be shared about your forthcoming restaurant. During that time, find other ways of putting yourself in front of the press by hosting pop-up dinners, doing guest chef appearances at other restaurants, and helping with events for food-related non-profits.
  7. Work your network. Personal introductions are the difference between getting five minutes of an influential person’s time and having your email perpetually buried in that same person’s inbox. Leverage your professional connections to find the friend of your mentor that knows the food writer of your city’s most popular publication so that you have the opportunity to personally invite them in for a tour and taste a few dishes before anyone else has.
  8. Stay on brand. Social media content should share the same voice as your website and other branded materials. If you’re a chef-driven, ingredient-focused restaurant, skip the emoticons. The photos, captions, and articles you share should look and feel like one contiguous story and not like a random collection of multiple people’s thoughts. Your guests can only get to know your restaurant if it’s representation is thoughtful and consistent. When preparing food for hosted events or giveaways, focus on quality, not quantity and make sure that presentations are picture perfect as they will likely be photographed and shared on social media.

By employing these strategies, you’ll ensure that your restaurant opening receives all the attention and notoriety it deserves. There are, of course, countless restaurants worthy of press coverage, but it’s those that make a concerted effort to cultivate a brand identity, involve key audiences early on, and make it a point to get the word out that are poised for initial and sustainable success.

Posted on February 15, 2015 .