The most recent numbers from Black Box Intelligence reflect what has been an ongoing trend for the last several months—improving same store sales. Sounds like great news, right? It could be, if another key metric wasn’t trending in the wrong direction.
Traffic numbers in restaurants are on a very steady down slope. In the third quarter, traffic was down 1.3%, and in October, traffic slowed down by another 2.2%.
The bottom line: Fewer people are dining out, but they’re spending more money.
Earlier this year, a survey of 500+ consumers asked them several questions about their preferences and experiences when dining out, as well as how they are making their decisions. The results could help restaurant operators adjust their customer experience to help bring more traffic through the door.
Despite Low Traffic Numbers, Americans Still Dine Out Frequently
Consumers have a lot of choice when purchasing a prepared meal these days: Restaurants or prepared foods from a grocery store? Dine in or take out? Fast food, fast casual, or full-service dining? The list goes on and on.
Sixty percent of the above-mentioned survey takers had dined at a restaurant, whether sit-in or delivery, once a week or more frequently. Another 25% reported doing the same two to three times a month.
But there is stiff competition.
Nearly 70% of the same group has purchased prepared foods (pre-made sushi, fried chicken, sandwiches, etc.) at a grocery or convenience store in the last month, indicating that the convenience of prepared foods is taking root in American life. This is an increase from a similar survey conducted in 2016, when slightly more than 65% of respondents said they had purchased a prepared meal from these sources.
What Are Customers Really Looking for in a Restaurant?
It should come as no surprise, that the driving factor for choosing a restaurant is the quality of the food. Respondents of this survey were provided a list of 10 areas of food safety and operational items to choose from and asked them to choose up to five that matter to them most when choosing a restaurant. Food quality and taste was the frontrunner by far, but restaurant cleanliness was second.
The third item on the list might surprise people. It wasn’t speed of service, or order accuracy, or service quality—while they all do matter to customers, it’s their previous experience with a location or chain that matters most.
When Customers Want Answers about a Restaurant, They Go Online
Social media and online reviews are playing an increasingly important role in how customers share their experiences with restaurants. The news about social media and online review sites is good for restaurants. If you’re doing a good job with your customer experience, your customers are willing to talk about it.
Respondents were extremely likely to use social media to share a restaurant experience on a social media platform such as Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram: 58%, said they would be very or somewhat likely to share a restaurant experience on social media. Even better news? Among those who fell into these two categories, nearly two-thirds say they are more likely to share a positive experience than a negative one.
The same holds true for online restaurant review sites, such as Yelp! And OpenTable. While fewer customers say they are very or somewhat likely to share their experience on an online restaurant review site, 49% of those who use review sites once again say that a positive experience is more likely to garner a review than a negative one. A full 66% of those who would be likely to use an online review site are likely to post a positive experience over a negative one.
Especially in the case of online restaurant review sites, this is important. Why? Because nearly three-quarters of respondents sometimes or often use restaurant review sites to help select where they will dine. Among those respondents, the online review carries significant weight in making their decision. Nearly 25% say online reviews are extremely or very influential in their dining decisions, while another 41% qualified them as moderately influential.
Delivery Problems and Who Customers Blame
Most restaurant operators know that there are big dollars to be had in the delivery space. But, the results of this survey indicate that restaurants have a bit of work to do.
Well over half (58.9%) of those surveyed had ordered food for delivery in the six months before the survey. Of those, nearly 30% experienced a problem with their order: Food being cold, wrong food, took too long to deliver the food, etc.
Here’s the important takeaway for restaurants offering delivery: Whether you manage delivery yourself or use a third-party delivery service, customers that experience problems place the fault squarely on the restaurant. Among those that experienced a delivery problem, 79.55% say the restaurant was to blame. That’s important because with third-party delivery service, the restaurant does lose some control over time it takes to deliver, food security, and more.
Foodborne Illness Outbreaks Have a Long-term Effect on Revenue
A 2018 study from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health put a price tag on foodborne illness outbreaks for restaurants: Anywhere from $4,000 up to $1.9 million wrapped up in “lost revenue, fines, lawsuits, legal fees, insurance premium increases, inspection costs and staff retraining.”
The survey results discussed in this article show that the effects of a foodborne illness outbreak could linger for much longer than anyone truly realizes.
Nearly 30% of respondents said they would never eat at that location if they knew a foodborne illness outbreak had happened there; 24% said they would stay away for between one to six months, and another 18% said they would stay away for six months to a year.
The responses get more dramatic when chain restaurants have foodborne illness incidents. When asked if they would avoid eating at other locations in the chain if a single location was involved in an outbreak, more than 31% said yes, and a whopping 50% say maybe. The majority of respondents would give the chain a second shot, however. Only 19% say they’d never eat at any location in the chain again; more than half (over 58%) report that they would only stay away for between one month and one year.
If multiple locations of a chain are involved, the percentage of respondents that would avoid eating at other locations in the chain more than doubled to more than 68%. The bulk of those who would stop eating at other locations in the chain (31%) say they’d never eat at the chain again, while another 18.5% would avoid the chain for longer than a year. Another 23% say they’d stay away for six months to one year.
Customer Experience Investments Can Reap Big Rewards
This survey revealed plenty of other details about what customers are looking for—what cleanliness factors drive them crazy, what they think of health department scores (and which groups are really paying attention), what really turns them off when they read it in a review—but the real takeaway is this: Restaurants willing to invest in customer experience and a culture of food safety will reap the rewards from customers.
Food that is not only fresh and delicious but is also safe to eat is a must for any restaurant. Foodborne illnesses are a real threat to consumers and can permanently mar the reputation of the chain or restaurant who spreads them. If you’re at risk for serving up a chicken breast with a side of Salmonella or a burger crawling with E. coli, it is just a matter of time before someone gets sick. According to the CDC, about one in six Americans will get sick from a foodborne illness each year; more than 125,000 people per year become ill enough to be hospitalized.
Beyond the moral obligation to serve up quality food and to make sure your customers don’t get sick, attention to food safety can also prevent a public relations nightmare for your brand. The very mention of foodborne illness triggers a connection with Chipotle, even though many of the brand’s news-making outbreaks were over three years ago. Keeping customers, your business, and your reputation safe are just three reasons to incorporate food safety best practices into your daily routine.
Promote Customer Safety
You’re in business to serve your community or a specific population, so it is in your and their best interests to ensure the food you are serving up is not only tasty, but safe as well. Proper attention to everything from handwashing, to choosing the right cutting surfaces, to serving and storing food at the proper temperature, and properly labeling prepared foods and ingredients ensures you’re not harming the very customers you are trying to serve.
When you can be confident that your sanitation, storage and labeling process are the best they can be, you can serve every customer with pride, knowing you’ve provided them with the best possible meal or item. Your customers will know they can patronize your establishment with confidence that you take their safety seriously and are consistently dedicated to quality.
Protect Your Reputation
Chipotle, Taco Bell, and other brands found out the hard way: News spreads fast. In this era of smart phones and instant communication, that hair attached to your pasta is horrifying for more than just the patron who ordered it. With social media at the ready, one mistake could be broadcast to an audience of thousands in just seconds.
In 2015, Chipotle made headlines, for all the wrong reasons. The brand had outbreaks in multiple locations, spanning 11 states. Even after a public and thorough store sanitation and cleansing, consumers and media still question the level of food safety in the brand’s locations and how these outbreaks were handled by the company. Chipotle had a more recent incident this summer. The chain committed to retraining all of its restaurant workers nationwide on food safety after nearly 650 customers became ill from eating at one of its Ohio restaurants. Tests showed sickened customers had Clostridium perfringens, which is a foodborne disease that occurs when food is left at an unsafe temperature.
Taco Bell has been under investigation for foodborne illness multiple times in the past few decades, dating back to 1995. From Salmonella to E.coli, the brand continues to struggle with food safety, making it a frequent target of both the news media and comedians cracking jokes at the brand’s expense.
Protect Your Business
Chipotle suffered in more ways than one during that series of publicized outbreaks. The company’s stocks and profits plummeted, even after the outbreak appeared to be over. Jack in the Box never fully recovered after a tragic case of E. coli outbreak that resulted in the deaths of four children almost two decades ago.
Consumers have long memories, and there is no such thing as an isolated incident anymore. Focusing on food safety in this digital, social-media-powered era is more important than ever before. Simple steps, from properly training your employees about food safety, to implementing the right tools and technology to manage a food safety program, to properly labeling and testing food before you serve it, can help your brand maintain its sterling reputation and keep your customers safe.
Every step you take towards implementing proper food safety protocol is a step in the right direction for your customers, your business, and your reputation.
Another day, another potentially brand damaging story—just ask Little Caesars. On February 7, the health department closed down an Indianapolis-based location because customers found some rodent feces on their pizza—it was clearly a food safety violation, and pretty disgusting. Meanwhile on the other side of the planet, athletes prepared their entire lives to compete in the Olympics. More than 100 people contracted Norovirus around the Olympic sites in Pyeongchang, where the athletes were in danger of getting a violent, contagious stomach illness that would derail their dreams and prohibit them from competing.
We live in a world that eats out, and if we don’t develop new techniques to protect customers in restaurants and food service settings, more people are going to get sick (or worse) from foodborne illnesses. The current food safety process is broken, and needs to be fixed in restaurants nationwide and globally.
At Google, Larry Page has spent two decades managing the speed of a search result for the company’s core service. From 1997 forward, Page has obsessed about the right results as fast as possible. When has Google ever been slow? People use the search engine daily because it always works.
For restaurants to grow and thrive, they need habit formation from fickle consumers. Habits are formed when restaurants deliver on their value proposition slice after slice, burger after burger, and salad after salad. So what is your organization doing to make sure that every meal is extraordinary— not only delicious, but also safe? What are you doing to prevent Norovirus and other foodborne illnesses?
Well, you’re probably not studying the data to create better processes. A 2017 survey of the top 500 restaurant chains found that 85% use paper logs or spreadsheets as their core technology for safety, quality and standards management. Paper logs, line check clipboards or homemade Excel sheets on a laptop are inefficient and ineffective systems to manage something as critical as food safety.
Many restaurants have upgraded their mobile ordering software and relaunched their menus on LED screens, but still make employees use clipboards to conduct food safety line checks and QA audits. This devalues the importance of their food safety operating protocols. Restaurant teams are comprised mostly of millennials and Generation Z— the mobile generations. They expect to be trained, do work and solve problems with their phones. But when their employers train with paper manuals and complete work with paper forms, it’s a huge disconnect for them.
Moreover, how did people at Little Caesars HQ in Detroit have insight into that recent incident in their Indianapolis store? What operating data do they have to examine? What line checks happened in store on the day in question? When was their last third-party food safety audit? What corrective actions were taken? That information would be hard for them to know, if, like the vast majority of restaurant chains, they were not collecting and analyzing data with modern tools.
Upgrading your operating technology so that your people have digital tools is not expensive. Software is much more affordable today because of the software-as-a-service revolution and the extraordinary computing power and proliferation of mobile devices. An emerging ecosystem of safety and software companies is ready to take your facilities into the 21st century. But the C-Suite has to decide it wants to empower its employees to do their best work and commit to having real-time data that is actionable and accurate.
Having mobile ordering software and LED screens for menus is helpful and valuable. But food safety is the most important component of every restaurant (and other food service companies). It is imperative that the food service industry embraces digital solutions to elevate their food safety standards. Without proper food safety standards, any organization could face a crisis like Little Caesars and the Olympics recently experienced. All it takes is one tainted meal to harm your guests—and your brand.
Restaurants can face major risks related to pest activity, which is why a proper Integrated Pest Management (IPM) program must be in place. However, restaurant owners are not the only ones who should play a part in the IPM program; employees should participate as well.
Often times, live pests are sighted in restaurants, which can result in immediate consequences to a restaurant owner’s bottom line. Therefore, restaurant employees should be trained on how to prevent and react to pest sightings in their establishment.
The following tips will help restaurateurs get their employees on board with pest management:
- Contact a pest management professional for a complimentary on-site employee training that will teach employees the importance of pest management and how it could affect the diners’ experience.
- Diners have zero tolerance for pests. Ensure employees know the protocol for pest sightings, which should include:
- Catching the pest for identification
- Recording when, where and how many pests were seen
- Assisting your pest management professional to determine the method of treatment.
- The most productive way to keep all employees involved in pest management is to add one or two pest control responsibilities to their daily routine. These responsibilities should align with employees’ roles and can be as simple as regularly emptying trash cans and re-lining them, or clearing and sweeping food debris.
- In common employee areas, post educational materials such as sanitation checklists and pest identification sheets that provide information on common pests and potential health threats.
- Establish an open line of communication that encourages all employees to report pests immediately. Remember that employees can bring pests into the restaurant on their belongings from home, so it’s important that they know pest sighting reports are encouraged to prevent pest activity in areas such as break rooms, the kitchen or the dining area. Fostering an open line of communication will help restaurateurs get ahead of any pest issues and related health and safety threats.
In the past two weeks, this blog has covered how Norovirus is the leading cause of foodborne illness worldwide, some potential sources of outbreak, and the importance of proper handwashing, developing an employee health policy, building a comprehensive food safety program, and training of employees. One critical aspect of Norovirus management is proper attention paid to cleaning and disposal of body fluids.
Proper cleaning and disposal of body fluids
The food code requires that retail foodservice establishments have proper procedures in place for emergency body fluids clean-up. Body fluids incidents in the dining room, play areas or back of the house are arguably the single most important source of Norovirus cross contamination in the restaurant, if clean-up and disposal are not performed according to standard operating procedures. The components of an effective and compliant SOP for emergency body fluids clean-up may include the following:
- Written step by step procedure to contain, isolate, clean and disinfect affected areas;
- Ready and easily accessible emergency body fluid clean-up kit;
- Use of PPEs like disposable aprons, gloves and protective eye glasses;
- Norovirus approved disinfectant as a kill step before and after clean-up;
- Containment of body fluids spill using absorbent yellow spill pads to reduce aerosols;
- Affected area should be isolated to avoid accidental dispersal by guests;
- Discard all affected open food and decontaminate all affected surfaces;
- Stop all food prep until body fluids are contained, cleaned and affected area disinfected;
- Perform clean-up with disposable towels and yellow spill pads for easy disposal;
- Wear triple gloves to avoid contaminating the clean-up kit and storage area;
- Dispose clean-up trash straight in outside dumpster without passing through kitchen; and
- Employee must wash hands twice, first in the bathroom and then in the kitchen.
The pathogen kill-step is the most important step in the body fluid clean-up process. The preferred option is to use a disinfectant grade chemical instead of regular sanitizers.
Ecolab’s Insta-Use Multi-purpose Disinfectant Cleaner is effective against Norovirus (and other viruses), mold, mildew and bacteria. It cleans, deodorizes and disinfects in one labor saving step and packaged in an easy to use compact cartridge with less storage space requirement. Caution: Disinfectant is not approved for food contact surfaces and cannot be used as a replacement for regular sanitizers on food contact surfaces.
Proper training of team members and associates is required before use to encourage compliance.
In conclusion, Norovirus is still a major infectious pathogen associated with foodservice operations in spite of several regulatory control and technological advances to curtail its occurrence and prevalence. Until a viable vaccine or an effective drug becomes available against Norovirus, rigorous implementation of food safety procedures, behavioral changes and continuous training of both foodservice workers and customers will remain the industry’s best practices at prevention and control. Overall, it makes a lot of business sense to do all that it takes to protect your customers against the threat of Norovirus infection, and by so doing, equally protect your business brand and the entire public health.