Expert Interview – Improving Restaurant Operations

Restaurants are a huge part of the U.S. economy and according to the National Restaurant Association represent $700 billion in annual sales and employ 14 million people. They are the last stop in a complex supply chain of food products, supplies, and equipment before the finished product reaches the end consumer. Mitch Irvine has been part of that supply chain for over 25 years. He has held positions with a broadline food distributor, a manufacturer of foodservice disposables, and for the last 8 years Mitch has served as the Regional Sales Director for Dade Paper with a focus on the restaurant segment.

LC: You have been involved in supplying the restaurant market for a long time. What are some major changes that you have seen in recent years that impact restaurants?

MI: There are several major changes that have impacted restaurants in recent years. The economic downturn, corporate chain influence, local restaurateur pushback to that influence and the ever changing desire of the American palette for new and unique concepts and foods.

The economic downturn in 2008 reshaped the restaurant landscape and caused most all underperforming operations to simply shut down, leaving the strong, savvy operators to improve their game to attract the shrinking market share of Americans’ with discretionary income.  As we have seen the rise of higher-quality fast casuals begin to dominate, it began putting the large traditional fast-food operators against the ropes.

And, as we have seen the more popular concept chains grow, their influence in the market resulted in others try to mimic their success.  I personally have seen local operators take their shot and life savings to make their own dream concept a reality, only to be buried by incompetent work staff and low-priced products producing a mediocre experience.  This is a toxic blend of circumstances that yield a quick collapse of their concept.  This goes to the belief that it is imperative to bring your best to market and your customers will know the difference between a penny-pinching operator and one that sees value in growing their business with a quality approach.

As the successful local restaurateur sees their peers fail, they learn from those mistakes and sharpen their skills.  They offer locally-sourced, healthful foods that attract the consumer that is eager to support their local economy, yet demands quality over a cheap meal.

Finally, the consumer does know the difference between quality and those products that are pushed as a price point. The restaurateur that cannot see or understand that distinction is destined for extinction.

LC: What are the major concerns of restaurateurs today and what solutions are available?

MI: Some major concerns of restaurateurs are tighter health regulations and changing consumer behavior.

There was a recent e coli breakout that showed even the strictest of corporate mainstream systems implemented into the restaurant sanitation process are not foolproof and can have disastrous results.  Operators today need to dial in to their systems in a much more focused manner, especially their sanitation program. Their reputation hinges on delivering a quality experience and a deadly pathogen outbreak that reaches the news outlets can permanently destroy their reputation.

Recently, we were asked to assist an operator in the aftermath of an e coli breakout. We were able to provide a medical grade hand wash that was required by the local health department directly after their shutdown. That is an extreme case, so for those operators that have been fortunate enough to avoid a pathogen outbreak, implementing a strong and rigorous hand wash procedure is the best defense against these enemies.

Along with hand washing, cleaning the dining tables and surfaces that are touched by food with quaternary based products provide the pinnacle for success in deterring outbreaks.  And, sanitizing the dishware and glasses with either a chlorine or quaternary based product or high temperature sanitation, is not only a health department regulation, but also the only options to assure the health of the guests.

LC: Having a knowledgeable partner to help select those products is important.

MI: Yes it is. That’s our job.

LC: Tell me more about the changes you have seen from the consumer standpoint.

MI: Americans are becoming busier every day, resulting in an ever-growing take-home meals market.  Restaurateurs need to distinguish themselves not only with the quality of their food, but also the packaging. Destination quality is paramount in today’s “to go” orders. Quality packaging speaks to the pride that the operators put into their food. If the package works well, seals properly, fit into the bag, nests comfortably amongst the other packaging, etc., the customer experience will be positive and operational efficiencies will improve. Customers will return more often and not with a dry cleaner’s bill in hand due to a leaky container.

LC: What are a few things that a restaurateur can do today to improve their operations?

MI: Providing the cleanest possible atmosphere and environment will help edge out the lazy competitor who skimps on the level of quality required to deliver that experience.  By using the most modern tools and equipment such as microfibers and closed-loop chemical management systems, the operator will see improved productivity and higher levels of cleanliness.  And, best practices as a part of their systems will stretch out the returns even further such as a cleaning checklist that is followed closely and managed daily by the operator or someone diligent and trustworthy to follow through with the work.

Another immediate change a restaurateur can implement today is focus on their customer. They need to invest their time in ways to draw more customers into their establishment and repeat those visits as often as possible.  By delivering a top notch experience, quality food, sanitary facilities and pleasant staff, the restaurateur can build on each satisfied customer one at a time.  We often encounter the operator that spends time away from their business looking for low-cost supplies from cash and carry outlets rather than trusting an experienced supplier to help them identify the best product for their situation.  Cost is often a concern so we show them how to get the best value while ensuring that customers are happy and enjoy their experience.

Mitch Irvine and his team of restaurant segment specialists are available to consult with restaurateurs on a variety of topics. He can be reached at mirvine@dadepaper.com .

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