Marketers who want to reach the operators of independently owned restaurants must understand their target audience and develop strategies that resonate with them. This means understanding the challenges independents face and developing ways to successfully connect with them.
To get to know them better and understand their pain points within the restaurant industry, we interviewed independent operators in and around Cleveland, OH. Here’s what we learned.
Top Two Challenges of Independent Restaurant Operators
As of March 2022, nearly 90% of all foodservice operations had reopened their dining rooms. They hold high hopes that dine-in service can contribute to most of their sales.
These aspirations, however, are affected by the looming uncertainties which aren’t likely to disappear any time soon. The two that trouble Independents most? Sourcing and staffing.
Sourcing Food & Ingredients
Inflation is inevitable. As costs soar, however, nearly three-quarters of foodservice operators across industries now say that quickly rising costs of goods sold is their top operational challenge. That’s a 15% increase from January 2022 to April 2022.
Some of the independent operators interviewed said they’re forced to pass rising food costs onto their customers. Others are looking for ways to drive additional foot traffic, by hosting specialized events for example, to make up the loss.
about 2/3 of foodservice operators are now dealing with significantly rising food costs
One thing all of the independents agreed on when it comes to sourcing products: they don’t have time to learn new ordering technology. Owners and operators of independent restaurants want to continue ordering ingredients and supplies through their trusted Sales Reps. Now is not the time for change.
With that said, operators will grudgingly switch vendors if supply becomes an issue. For example, Superior Pho Vietnamese Restaurant typically sources Ohio beef and local produce. “We’ve had to entertain supply from different sources,” co-owner Chris Nguyen says, “just because our smaller suppliers can’t keep up with everything going on.”
Staffing & Labor shortages
Do foodservice operators feel adequately staffed and prepared to handle a dine-in rush? Not likely. Operators are struggling with hiring and retention. Staffing difficulties pervade most segments of the foodservice industry, but quick-service restaurants are one of the hardest hit.
The restaurant industry has always had high turnover rates, but the pandemic has exacerbated that fact. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ data from November 2021, more restaurant employees are quitting than in any other industry. What’s more, the “great resignation” has impacted virtually every restaurant position, from servers and bartenders to managers and chefs.
more restaurant employees are quitting than in any other industry
Why do restaurant staff quit? They’re leaving due to many reasons. Some of the most common motives include low compensation, poor benefits, long hours, rude customers and lack of growth opportunities. Others are leaving simply because they want to change career paths.
Laurie Torres, the owner of Mallorca Restaurant, says that staffing and “poaching” are huge problems for independent restaurants.
“Before it was kind of taboo for restaurants to poach one another’s employees. Now, you see not only us poaching one another’s employees, but you see the big operators outside of our industry poaching too. We may lose a chef, not to another restaurant, but to Amazon delivery at $35 an hour. That’s just unheard of.”
Restaurant owners are scrambling to attract and retain employees. Beyond benefits, many are rethinking how they approach leadership and management to help boost failing employee morale.
Chris Nguyen uses his position as co-owner of Superior Pho Vietnamese Restaurant to employ and empower a variety of underrepresented people from various communities and teach leadership through service. “We’re really proud of embracing diversity and mindful hiring,” he says. “I think we were one of the first Asian restaurants to hire non-Asian faces for front-of-the-house and back-of-the-house staff.”
Related Podcast – Part 1: Independently Owned Restaurants Series
Sales & Marketing Opportunities With Independent Restaurant Operators
Independents are often overlooked when it comes to sales and marketing. However, they can be a great way foodservice suppliers to expand their reach and attract new customers. Here are two opportunities to add additional revenue streams.
Food suppliers are vital to the day-to-day operations of any restaurant, especially independents. In fact, cultivating a strong rapport with the right food suppliers is just as important to the success of a restaurant as hiring the right staff.
During our interviews, there was one quality that operators said they looked for most from suppliers: flexibility.
One example came from Laurie Torres who said that she used to buy ancillary restaurant supplies in bulk. During COVID, however, she didn’t know from week to week what the restaurant was going to use. So she shifted to on-demand buying.
“Even though the demand for restaurants has increased, and we’re back to where we were before, we’re still ordering inventory on-demand as opposed to ordering in bulk.”
If a vendor says that they can offer a better price on 2,500 units of product instead of 200, Laurie said, “I don’t know that the savings is worth the risk of buying that much. I need a supplier willing to be flexible, adapt and accommodate less bulk and more as-needed ordering.”
Restaurants need to market themselves to get in front of hungry audiences. But marketing is often inadequate or non-existent. That’s because independents are too busy managing front- and back-of-house operations. Jess Edmonds, Catering Director & Partner at Spice Hospitality Group, admitted:
“At the beginning of the new year, I kept saying that my cup is empty. I have nothing left to give. My cup has to refill before anything gets thrown back at me again or I’m just gonna crash and burn.”
She isn’t alone. Most restaurant owners work at least 60 hours a week, and some, more than that. Work schedules vary and may include early mornings, nights, weekends and holidays.
Fitting in marketing is the least of their concern. That’s why earning free publicity or awareness for their restaurant—often through supplier programs, word-of-mouth, referrals or reviews—is highly attractive.
Another preferred method of publicity for restauranteurs is through influencers. Influencer marketing uses celebrities or other prominent people to promote brands.
Influencers can include famous bloggers, vloggers, Instagrammers and YouTube stars. Or, more simply, chefs, thought leaders and experts in the foodservice industry who have large followings on social media platforms.
Influencer marketing works because of how much trust influencers have built with their followers. Recommendations from them serve as a kind of “social proof” to a restaurant’s potential customers.
Chris Nguyen used influencer marketing to help make the Superior Pho Vietnamese Restaurant a local household name. One of the huge catalysts for the restaurant’s growth was through hometown heroes and food celebrities, Michael Simon and Jonathan Sawyer, as well as Adam Richman.
“They came into the restaurant pretty regularly. So I would tag them in social posts and thank them for coming out. And they would tweet back and post on their social media.”
Under his leadership, the small, ethnic, mom-and-pop restaurant received accolades and recognition from national media outlets. This includes names such as Food Network Magazine, The Travel Channel, Esquire Magazine, Buzzfeed and more.
As you can see from Nguyen’s experience, influencer marketing can be a powerful tool for businesses. Restaurants can use influencers to reach new audiences, increase awareness and boost sales.
Related Podcast – Part 2: Independently Owned Restaurants Series
The Best Channels To Reach Independent Operators
Independently owned restaurants are smaller and nimbler than their larger competitors.
They tend to focus heavily on customer service and innovation, so they’re always exploring new ideas. To reach them effectively, marketers should consider the following channels—favorites of the restaurateurs we interviewed.
Industry Articles & Blogs
To keep up with industry trends, independent restaurant operators turn to resources like the National Restaurant Association, Wall Street Journal and Forbes. Interviewees also mentioned that insights and expertise from suppliers can be helpful.
Restaurateurs like to connect with other local and national operators who are facing the same challenges. Networking with like-minded business owners reaffirms that they’re not facing challenges alone. They perceive anything that they can learn from their peers as valuable.
Time is priceless and hard to find. While restaurant owners enjoy networking, traveling to in-person events can be too time-consuming. Video conferencing became a necessity during the pandemic, but now it’s here to stay. Joining a virtual call or event allows operators to instantly connect with peers without the commute.
During the pandemic, operators had time to sit, listen and reflect on their businesses. When they couldn’t network in-person, they began tuning into podcasts. Listening to foodservice- and business-related podcasts helps operators grow and modify their business to adapt to the ever-changing landscape.
Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and now … TikTok. Social media platforms are a great way to connect with a younger generation of restaurateurs. They turn to social media to explore new menu ideas and look for ways to create unique experiences at their venue.
These large events are still important to the restaurant industry. Most operators go to trade shows to source new equipment for their restaurants. Some others, however, do attend to test out business concepts and menu offerings.
Related Podcast – Part 3: Independently Owned Restaurants Series
Remember that operators of independent restaurants have more tenacity and resilience than most business owners. They’re passionate people who care tremendously about their community, both personally and professionally. The pandemic has forced them to adapt, pivot and reshape their business—over and over again.
If you’re a marketer or salesperson in the foodservice industry, look for ways to support independent operators throughout the ongoing changes. Help them create unique and memorable dining experiences that let their restaurants shine.
Source: Datassential: Revitalizing Dine-In, April 2022
With 20+ years of marketing experience, Cheryl strives to clearly understand client goals and user needs. She then helps plan, develop and deliver relevant, high-value content that brings the two together.
Cheryl Boehm, Director of Copywriting