Menu Simplification Helps Operators Cope with Labor Crunch
The majority of restaurant operators across all segments of the industry reported that their staffing levels were below normal at the start of the year, according to the National Restaurant Association’s 2021 State of the Restaurant Industry report. By May of this year, the NRA reported that employment at eating and drinking places was still down about 12% from pre-pandemic levels, citing data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Papa John’s, for example, recently said it would offer $50 bonuses for referrals and up to $400 in “appreciation bonuses” to be paid throughout the year to its 18,000 corporate-store employees. The announcement followed similar offers throughout the industry, including a commitment in March by Darden Restaurants to offer $17 million in bonuses and raise its hourly pay floor.
Menu simplification is another strategy that many operators have deployed, not only to accommodate staffing shortages but also to streamline inventories and drive overall operating efficiencies.
Removing Slow-Moving Menu Items
Applebee’s Neighborhood Grill + Bar trimmed its menu down to about 100 items last year, compared with about 160 before the pandemic, and plans to retain the simplified version going forward, said John Cywinksi, the company’s president, in an interview with CCN Business. The leaner menu eliminated slow-moving items as well as those that are difficult to prepare. Among the items cut were BBQ brisket tacos, sweet and savory grilled chicken, some soup dishes and a few burger varieties, he said.
“Early in the pandemic, the U.S. business removed dozens of menu items,” he said. “As a result of this focus, our drive-thrus got faster, margins grew, customer satisfaction improved. Put simply: Our restaurants became easier to run and more profitable. Reducing complexity set the stage for the right investments in the core.”
“That area is all about efficiency, consistency and the food quality, but an efficient takeout area needs to be well-staffed in order to take and execute the orders,” she says.
Similarly, having well-trained kitchen staff is also important for the support of the takeout and delivery operations. That’s where partially prepared foods can help, says Challingsworth.
Minimizing the labor requirements in the kitchen potentially frees up restaurants to invest in personnel who can handle off-premises fulfillment rather than trying to pull servers from the floor to do this, for example, Challingsworth explains.
This has proven especially effective for restaurants that have created virtual, delivery-only brands, such as the Chicken Sammy’s, The Wing Dept. and Fresh Set concepts that rolled out this year at Red Robin. Each leverages the gourmet burger chain’s existing ingredient inventory and assembly procedures, which allows Red Robin to add incremental sales without extensive additional investment.
Offering existing ingredients in this way not only expands the use of these inventory items, but it also creates a perfect vehicle for encouraging trial, as these dishes can often be positioned as shared sides or appetizers and are frequently offered at a lower price than the entrée dishes that feature these cross-utilized ingredients.
– Monica Challingsworth, global relationships at Synergy Restaurant Consultants
Eliminating items from the permanent menu doesn’t necessarily mean they can’t still be featured, however.
Similarly, some items could be offered as part of discounted meal bundle available only by ordering through the restaurant’s website or app, to encourage customers to order directly rather than through a third party.
“You have to look at every piece of your business from the guests’ perspective,” she says.
For more ideas about offering your guests a rewarding experience with a simplified menu in today’s challenging labor environment, visit McCain Foods.