The issues for smaller, family owned restaurants became a visible reality to me while spending some time in Southern Illinois. Being a southern cultured region in a northern state, Southern Illinois faces the potential for clashes in culture that can affect local business. An hour away from Missouri and Kentucky, much of the cuisine reflects that flair. The particular town where I lived is home to some 25,000 residents and nearly 20,000 students, but still maintains a small town feel. However over the span of my two and a half years there, I witnessed a variety of restaurants fall victim to closings, and it took me a little while to notice a particular trend. Small, family-owned businesses were in danger and many were going out of business daily. A restaurant dedicated to southern American dishes shutdown after 30 years of business. My favorite Mexican restaurant which had served the area for more than 20 years, closed its doors overnight. Another quaint Italian restaurant followed suit shortly thereafter. Even a popular campus bar, in the heart of downtown, had dissolved. Across the street from that location was a soul food restaurant that lasted all but a few months.
Did something change, or have we just become too comfortable with the familiarity of the big chain restaurants of the world? Cities and towns across the country are pondering the same question, but are left with very little answers. All that most small, local restaurants can do is be who they are and hope the people take notice. There are a few changes others can make to increase their viability, but with the unfortunate economic circumstances facing the country today, there are no safe bets. Here are some ideas.
Alter the menu, but don’t turn it upside down
No one wants to go to the quaint, cozy restaurant that is known for its tacos only to be served spaghetti. Take note of what items are popular and scrap the ones that are called for less frequently. It may seem simple, but I’ve seen many smaller scale restaurants and bars hold onto items simply because they’re family favorites and have an uncle’s name attached to them. When business diminishes, all loyalty to unpopular food items should go out the window. In replacing these items, look at restaurant trends and online threads for direction. Don’t veer too far off the path that has kept you in business this far, just look for things you could tailor to fit your lineup. Odds are that you have pretty talented and creative cooks. Let them work their magic.
Buy your ingredients locally
Buying local sounds easy, but often times, it is anything but. Sticking to smaller, neighborhood friendly restaurants can be a tall task in an age of ever-expanding technology where many chain restaurants have adapted to the new wave. Convenience is king, while authenticity and craft have become mere jesters to our on-the-go lifestyles. I’m all for the success of any business in a time of economic uncertainty, but there is something particularly disheartening about watching some small restaurants fall by the wayside. Both larger scale and neighborhood favorites have a place in the world. The problem is the difficulty of both to find a place in the same town.
Consider switching décor and the flow of the restaurant
I know plenty of people, myself included, that love going to “hole-in-the-wall” restaurants, as long as there isn’t an actual hole in the wall. Cleanliness is an obvious factor in determining whether a customer will come back or not. If you haven’t practiced good restaurant hygiene in the past, you probably should make some adjustments quickly. If your establishment is already squeaky clean, think about giving the décor a bit of a change. Environment is key in drawing customers back. Offering a comfortable atmosphere to your customers can often be as important as the food you serve. Repaint the walls, make adjustments to furniture, or even restructure your seating arrangements to try a new, less expensive aura. Making small repairs to current fixtures can be very affordable. See some tips in our furniture rescue blog. A little change can go a long way in setting a particular mood for your establishment.
Cater to the younger, maturing crowd
It may surprise you, but millennials will soon be in control of many things in this country and will be the primary spenders in your restaurants. You should start winning them over now while they’re beginning to earn their own income. Food blogs are where creative minds come to disperse their knowledge for all to see. Check a few out and see where cuisine is going. If you don’t serve alcoholic beverages to pair with your meals, you should probably start. It’s understandable if you object, but if you don’t, it may be a good idea to get on board. Liquor, beer and wine selections help restaurants increase time spent by customers in their establishments, and in turn, go a long way in helping a business’s bottom line. Add alcoholic beverages to your menu with care when thinking about young professionals, however. Many of them are past their college days and would like to move past the divey bar scene in favor of a more matured environment. Pairing wine and beer with entrees certainly helps.
It’s an arduous task, but there are things you can do to give your restaurant a fighting chance. Some changes will work better than others depending on all the variables involved, but with your experience you should be able to see the difference before it’s too late. Business is an evolutionary world, and restaurants are no different. Take notice of change and don’t be afraid to take on something new. It may sound simple, but sometimes, that’s all it takes.