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Building Sales: Through Check Average and Frequency

To make the most of their operations, restaurateurs need to leverage every asset they have available to them. Whether it is making sure that every bit of their chef’s experience and talent is evident on the plates in their dining room, that the most appropriate and pleasant wines their vendors can supply are being sampled and considered for inclusion in their wine program, or negotiating the best terms for a line of credit with their banker, the more effective they are at not wasting opportunities, the better off everyone is. When it comes to assets, one of the biggest you can have as a restaurateur is your current client base. These are people that were attracted enough to your establishment to have given it a try, decided that they like what you have to offer, and have made your restaurant a part of their lives. Although gaining new customers is important and necessary, and efforts must certainly be made to attract them, it’s an expensive proposition in terms of money, thought and time. When these efforts pay off, there is no doubt that it’s a great feeling to see new faces at your tables. But never forget that a dollar is a dollar, and you’ll also get a great return by giving existing clients good reasons to happily spend more while they’re with you, and to return more often to do so. While it is an older issue of Restaurant Start-Up & Growth the August 2011 magazine has an article that gives some great tips on building sales.

Our two goals are to increase our check average, and to increase the frequency that our regular customers visit us. Since the basis for both of these occurrences is increased customer satisfaction, it is no coincidence that there is at least some overlap in getting both jobs done. The only way we are going to consistently get our customers to order more items, or more expensive items, while in our restaurants, is to offer them things that they really want, that they will actually enjoy, all in an atmosphere where they feel comfortable and happy, while trusting that well-trained staff have their best interests at heart. These are some of the same things that will cause them to return in the future, rather than give your competition a chance. In essence you are “killing two birds with one stone.” One of the first techniques to employ in raising your check average is up-selling. At its most basic, up-selling simply means having your waiters and bartenders suggest to your customers an option or two that the customer may not have considered, or at least didn’t mention. “Would you like fries with that?” is the perfect question to ask if you are operating a hamburger franchise, but will be less appropriate and effective in other situations. Having your waiters ask, “Would you like a glass of Chardonnay with that?” while possibly being better than making no effort at all, will probably not inspire your guests to begin their exploration and climb to new culinary heights. There’s a good chance it won’t even get them to consider straying from their normal beverage of choice, whether it be iced tea, coffee, or tap water with a slice of lemon. If a particular customer is already enthusiastic and curious about wine, he or she will be disappointed at best, or annoyed at worst, if your wait-staff can’t meet them half way. If a guest has not had much experience with wine, the only way to encourage them to get with the program is with an obvious dose of honest zeal from the staff, with a particular focus on your wines and menu, and how great they are together.

A wine program that will increase your sales as well as be an overall asset to your operation will require a two-pronged attack. First, a person who is experienced and well versed with the world of wine and how it relates to your menu must work with various vendors to assemble a wine list. This list must make sense for your particular situation in terms of price points, length, variety, your clientele and just how it relates to what is coming out of your kitchen. It must be understood that a wine list is not a static thing. It should be updated in light of the season, changes in menu and tastes, availability of product and other factors. Be sure that the person you have writing and maintaining your list is up to the task; it’s especially nice if they can work with the chef to some extent, or even better if the chef can do this themselves. It would be just as big a mistake to let your wine vendors write your wine list as it would be to let your produce vendor and seafood vendor write your menu. Even if you can’t afford to have someone on staff full-time to act as your sommelier, seek out professionals who are available for hire on an as-needed basis. In the same way that it would be an uphill battle for your waiters to sell food from a menu that made no sense, didn’t offer enough of a selection for a typical guest to choose from, or was written by a someone interested in selling a product to you rather than selling a product to your customers, a poorly conceived wine list won’t be worth the paper it is printed on.

One of the best ways to insure that your wine program will be a real tool to help increase your check average is to have a well-conceived list of wines by the glass. Although we all love to sell a table a bottle or two, a few glasses of wine are a lot more profitable than everyone having an iced tea. For many people, for various reasons, a whole bottle is just too much of a commitment or expense. If you can offer them a glass of wine that will be worth the expense, calories and effort in terms of really adding a new level of enjoyment to their meal, everyone wins. The successful sale of a glass of wine starts with the wine list. The wines offered by the glass will, of course, vary greatly from one restaurant to another, but some basic guidelines will always apply. First, there should be a wide enough variety so that for the most part, whatever a guest is in the mood for, you’ll have something close. At the very least, your by-the-glass offerings should include sparkling wines; lighter, non-oaked whites (like certain Sauvignon Blancs and Pinot Grigios); richer and fuller whites (like some Chardonnays); Rosés (both slightly sweet, like a white Zinfandel and dry, like a Tavel); lighter, fruitier reds (such as Beaujolais or a light Pinot Noir); and bigger reds (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Zinfandel and others.) You might also consider a dessert wine or two. Depending on your clientele and menu, it might make sense for each of the above categories to have choices from different regions, made from different grapes and, certainly, at different price points.

After you have a good wine list, the next step is to put a wine training program in place that will give your waiters a fairly thorough knowledge of winemaking, geography, styles, varietals, tasting, and food and wine pairing as it pertains to your restaurant. This should include a mix of written materials and regularly scheduled wine tastings that include food and wine pairings. Besides the obvious result of a more educated staff, if done correctly, these activities can be great ways to increase enthusiasm and teamwork among your crew; be sure to include any interested kitchen staff. Besides teaching general wine knowledge, special effort should be made to demonstrate how and why specific wines on your list pair well with particular menu items, and to introduce any new wines to the staff in terms of how and why a guest would enjoy them. All of this will help to make your staff more professional, comfortable, and better able to make confident, meaningful recommendations that your guests will consider to be welcome, helpful advice as opposed to a lame sales pitch like “would you like wine with that.”

Even if you feel that the kind of up-selling that a well-crafted wine program as described above would offer wouldn’t be a good fit for your business model, consider having a list of specialty cocktails, available both before and after dinner. Some of the same criteria that apply to a wine by the glass program apply here as well. First, your offerings should include a variety of styles, from well-made standbys like Margaritas, Martinis and Bloody Mary’s, to some creative, contemporary choices. Some should be dry, some sweet, some more masculine, and others more feminine. If a list of ten different Margaritas or a dozen different single malt Scotches makes sense within the framework of your concept, go for it. And don’t leave nondrinkers out in the cold. A few attractive non-alcoholic choices will give everyone a chance to join the party. Help your staff to sell these drinks by training them to know the offerings inside and out, encouraging them to be on the lookout for guests they think might enjoy one, making sure the drinks look as good as they taste, and by having high quality, good looking drink menus printed and available.

Along with a well-trained wait staff, your menu is one of your most important sales tools. Although menu design is a complex topic unto itself, it’s worth covering a few basic points here to insure that your printed menu is a help rather than a hindrance in increasing your check average while encouraging your customers to return. First of all, don’t make the mistake of discounting the importance of the menu each of your guests is handed the first few minutes after they sit down. The size, feel, legibility, layout, colors, cleanliness and design are all just as important as its content. Especially for first time visitors, it is one of the initial criteria, along with the décor and how they were greeted, that your guests will use to size up your establishment. Making a good first impression in this regard is crucial in determining how long they will want to stay and, consequently, how much they will eat, drink and trust their waiter’s suggestions and opinions. Successful menus can be sophisticated or zany; whisper subtle suggestions or shout the obvious; emphasize bargains or downplay costs totally but probably not all at the same time or in the same restaurant. Be sure that your menu has the right tone for what you’re trying to sell.

It’s a good idea to update your menus on a regular basis. Retailers learned a long time ago to regularly move and rearrange their merchandise to prevent customers from bolting past most of their inventory, as if on auto-pilot, to get to what they want and then leave before considering more options. Don’t forget, you’re in retail, too. Help your customers break out of any ruts they may have gradually gotten into by handing them menus that they haven’t memorized. While you won’t want to omit your classic and most popular items, adding new ones, or at least variations on established themes, will keep your guests interested in what’s coming out of your kitchen. With every change of season, you and your chef are given a natural opportunity to evolve your menu. The grilled shrimp with mango chutney that made so much sense in August should naturally give way to braised lamb shanks with risotto by January. If you conduct a staff tasting including a couple of wine options at different price points each time a new dish is added, your odds of selling the new items along with the perfect beverage will increase dramatically. And so will the odds of your guests having a much more satisfying and memorable meal, so that they choose your restaurant over a competitor’s the next time they go out.

We’ve talked about the importance of offering plenty of food and drink options that your guests will want to try, really enjoy when they do, and having an informed staff that is comfortable and competent at selling them. The other main thing that will keep your customers coming back for more is to leave no doubt in their minds that, when they are in your restaurant, their presence is genuinely appreciated, and that it’s all about them. If we were to realize only one thing about our guests, a good choice would be to understand that each one of them wants to feel important.

“The desire for a feeling of importance is one of the chief distinguishing
differences between mankind and the animals.”
Dale Carnegie, How To Win Friends and Influence People

Within the confines of a restaurant, how to accomplish this should be no mystery. When your front of the house staff first meet each guest, besides the obvious necessity of a pleasant and sincere greeting, they should make the effort to try to figure out what their priorities seem to be. Are they there to discuss business, catch up with an old friend, have a romantic interlude, enjoy a culinary adventure, or get out by 7:00 to make a show? Each instance will require a different demeanor and level of interaction from the staff. A one-size-fits-all mentality will turn more of your guests into detractors than fans. Perhaps the most important thing a waiter must do to be a success is to really listen closely when a customer speaks to them. Their goal should be to understand just what the guest is trying to communicate to them and, without judgment and to the best of their ability, get them what they’re after. If something’s not understood, they should feel free to politely ask for clarification. The simple act of making an honest effort at genuine communication will work wonders at guest relations. Another point to remember is that a waiter or bartender should not miss an opportunity to make their guests look good in front of one another; without, of course, descending into parody. If, for example, you have an effective wine training program in place, there is a good chance your staff will know more about wine than many of their guests. Any recommendations they make should be delivered with confidence and enthusiasm, never arrogance on condescension. Any choice made by a guest should be greeted with appreciation of its merit. A sincere “thank you” should be a regular part of each staff member’s conversation, whether responding to a guest for sharing a recommendation or thought, or a co-worker’s helpfulness. As in every other aspect of your operation, setting clear expectations coupled with regular, constructive feedback is crucial. Of course, the best way to have a staff that makes your guests feel welcome, comfortable, respected and happy to be there, is to hire welcoming, comfortable, respectful and happy people to begin with, easier said than done, and then do everything you can to encourage them to stay that way.

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