Open your eyes to what your customers see
In fact it can often start before they even arrive in your road. Your online image will determine in many cases if people will even get close.
It’s time to for you to look with fresh eyes at the exterior of your premises and check there’s no peeling paint, it’s free of litter and cigarette butts, well-lit, well-signposted, well-hazard-analysed, plants alive and well-tended, no weeds, no dirty windows. It’s pretty much standard stuff and comes down to having standards and values that are in line with your style of outlet.
Once you understand that everything is a deliberate and positive creation you can really get the detail right – and this is what counts in the context of your menu
1. Menus – Chapter 3 in Eat Your Competition For Lunch looks in detail at this vital bit of kit - style, fonts and layouts. But in essence, the quality of your menu; weight of paper, professionalism of layout and print will count – as will the stickiness, glass ring stains and dog-earedness.
2. Marketing materials – other stuff you have around the place from wall posters (there’s only so much clip art one can bear – particularly if the food offer is top end) to table-talkers. I once sat down to a posh Christmas lunch where my place was reserved with a sign that was so ancient it looked like it had been through the washing machine. The point was, there’s nothing I could complain about – my place was reserved – there was nothing wrong. But there was nothing right about it either, and the truth is it made me feel unloved. And while we’re on the subject of reserved signs, it annoys me when I reserve a table and when my guests and I turn up, I see ‘Palmer,’ on a piece of paper. My name isn’t Palmer. It is Alison Palmer, or Ms Palmer. Just putting the surname is plain rude. How hard is it to put a Mr or Mrs or Ms or, heaven forbid, find out the first name of the person who’s about to put £100 into your till?
3. Crockery, glassware, cutlery and napkins - all frame your food and add to its perceived value. As a general rule of thumb, posh food needs very superior plates, knives and forks, glassware and napkins.
Basic food needs basic plates – so generally the lower the price points on your menu, the more you can scrimp on the crocks. But do give a lot of consideration to the platform your food arrives at the table on – a humble burger and chips can be transformed in customer perceived value by presenting it on a larger plate or on a chopping board. There was a trend at one time for serving certain dishes on a slate – these dishes looked fabulous in terms of presentation but were actually rather tricky to eat as there were no ‘edges’ to help diners scoop food onto the fork.
Putting basic food on a posher plate might mean you can charge a bit more – but it doesn’t work the other way round!
Chipped or cracked crockery is a no-no whoever you are. As are hot meals served on cold plates. Do not do this.
Big plates are great for presenting impressive looking dishes but how many can a waitress carry at once or fit nicely on your tables? If you’re a high-speed food operation you will need to consider this.
The quality, style and weight of your cutlery is important too – this needs to reflect the style of food and be appropriate for every course and dish.
Ditto napkins – even if you’re a mid to low-end operation don’t dismiss linen napkins in favour of paper – or the heavier ‘Benders’ napkins. If your diners are likely to get through three or more paper ones (one per course) then linen may well be a cost-effective way as linen stays with you through the meal rather than being scrunched up and discarded as each course is taken away.
Top Tip: Always cost your napkin price, or linen laundering price, into a dish cost as it is a vital component of every plate of food.
4. Condiments – test every salt and pepper pot daily to make sure they are ‘flowing’ but also invest in them with a not ‘the-cheapest-because-everyone-pinches-them’ mentality. If your food style would be better matched with ‘finer’ versions of your current salt and pepper pots then it’s up to you to train the staff to ‘manage’ their use i.e. removing them after the main course when clearing the table to avoid customers ‘accidently’ slipping them into their handbag.
5. Bric-a-brac and pictures on the wall – remember YOU are not your customer, what you personally like has no place here. Remember two things:
Think theatrical – not domestic – this means size, scale and impact. You can get away with giant mirrors, furniture and pictures to enhance your food stage.
Bric-a-brac and pictures - set the mood and feel of the place, this deserves much thought.
6. Service area/bar – this focal point whether it’s a bar, a counter or a waiting station can be a great display space to promote products and events rather than a dumping ground for all the practical clobber needed to serve. Look and really see what your customers see. You’re not selling old half-pint glasses stuffed with ball-point pens and keys, an ‘adorable’ cuddly toy given by a customer or cheap darts trophies.
7. Blackboards – if you use chalkboards please remember that Day-Glo chalk pens are only appropriate in Working Men’s Clubs and dives. I’m sure there are those that disagree and say it’s a matter of taste – but seriously – who’s taste? If it’s yours I refer you to the ‘You are not your customer’ statement above.
It seems blindingly obvious, but you need clear writing that doesn’t dip off the end of the board, correct spelling and a simple clear message in writing big enough to be read from a distance. The board is for your customers not for you so look at it from their perspective. Avoid clichés and try and have some fun on the boards and they’ll be more effective.
8. Loos – never underestimate the power and influence of the loo over the decision to visit your establishment. Women in particular will make a subconscious decision whether to revisit based on the quality and cleanliness of your loos alone! In fact 29% of people just wouldn’t come back
according to a recent Harris Interactive poll. Let’s face it if your loos are a bit tatty, or worse still, grubby, your customers (88% according to Harris) will judge that the rest of your business is the same – which implies your kitchen – where their food is prepared! Do you blame them, if what they can see is less than pristine, what’s it like where they can’t see – your kitchens and store rooms?
The quality of loo rolls, hand-creams, hand-driers or paper towels needs to match (or exceed) the quality of your food offer and the prices you are charging.
9. Temperature – ‘climate control’ is the silent customer judge of your premises – people will only notice when you get it wrong. There are some simple things you can do – such as if you have an open fire make sure it’s lit at least an hour before you open the doors so the first customers through the door are greeted with glowing warmth and not a smoking squib. The general rule is that the higher the price points on your menu the more attention you should pay to achieving the perfect ambient temperature at all times – that means air conditioning and decent heating.
Oh, one other thing: if customers keep their coats on while with you, they’re telling you that your place is colder than their house - and it is unlikely they’ll return.
10. Chairs - a lot more thought than anticipated should go into matching your chairs to your menu. Most operators tend to go for the cheaper end of the market simply because they are under-capitalised for furniture spend. This is a mistake. Consider your food, your style of operation and your menu price points – do you want customers to linger over a leisurely three courses and stay chatting into the night at the table buying high GP desserts, digestifs and coffees? If so you will need to provide chairs that won’t numb the parts that matter. If the seat is too hard people will fidget after an hour or so and may not decide to return again – probably never really knowing themselves why. If you want to turn your tables or if your average meal sold is a snack or simple one course, then chairs at the comfiest end of the scale would be a mistake as guests will linger – making it harder to turn the tables.
11. Music – mood killer or mood creator? Remember you are not your customer so personal taste (or the taste of your staff) should not come into it. To reflect your customer base you will need to consider different categories of music at different times of the day and the week. You can vary the tempo and volume of the music according to how empty you are and the sort of ‘vibe’ or atmosphere you want to create.
The right choice of music for your diners will make them feel they ‘belong’. Science shows that music we listened to in our formative teenage years has strong emotional power to help us form bonds with a place where we hear it – use the power of nostalgia to create that loyal bond by playing music from the teenage years of your customer base. For example, if your customers are in their thirties play music from the nineties. If your customer base are in 50’s and 60’s play music from 1960’s and 1970’s.
You can also use music to help turn tables (speed up the tempo) or sell more courses (slow the tempo down).
Juke box – if you think this may be appropriate for your outlet, you will be putting the atmosphere created in your place totally in the hands of your customers. Great when things are going well – particularly giving customers a chance to hook into the nostalgia aspect of re-hearing songs from their past. But bear in mind the mood of a place can change in a second depending on the music played – going from the Beatles to AC/DC could really upset some of your customers. Best to stick to one genre of music appropriate to your core customer base.
Top Tip: Put markers on the volume control – for different times of day. Create playlists with different styles of music for different times of the day e.g. easy listening for middle-aged lunch time trade, up-tempo between 5-7pm for creating atmosphere as guests arrive. Wallpaper/bland music is a lazy option and has a negative impact. It says to your customers subliminally ‘we can’t be bothered to think about the music you might enjoy’ and it can have a negative impact on repeat custom.
In one of our pubs my husband would put on a crazy selection of music at closing time – to encourage people to leave – songs like Jerusalem, Tie Me Kangaroo Down and Stairway to Heaven – the late night eclectic music became legendary quite quickly and the hope that it would clear the place backfired as people would actually hang on to the bitter end to have a sing along!