Lets’ make it hard for people to buy stuff

Some of the common sales mistakes hospitality operators make in restaurants and cafes

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I’m still amazed at how many times I walk away from restaurants and cafes that have cost a packet to set-up and fit out, wondering if the owner really knows what they are doing. It happened recently, in Adelaide, when I wandered into a modern looking, fashionable Chinese restaurant and found that the front-of-house staff didn’t speak English. Hello?

I have to assume that the greater population of Adelaide don’t speak Cantonese and I wonder how may sales opportunities they lose because customers can’t make themselves understood. It must cost the owner a packet in lost revenue. I wasn’t the only Aussie in the restaurant at the time and I saw that others were becoming frustrated at the staffs’ inability to communicate. My parting memory of the experience was walking out the door and hearing an exasperated male voice saying: ‘I didn’t order that, I wanted vegetables!’.

I’ve since added this one to the long list of sales atrocities I’ve seen in this industry over the years. It might help at this point to explain where I’m coming from — I look at a restaurant or a café dispassionately — they are food factories with sales offices out the front. The factory has to produce efficiently and the sales department has to sell effectively or the owner won’t make any money. Lets have a look at the common mistakes that are made by the sales staff, apart from the language barrier described above.

Perhaps the most common mistake is with the menu descriptions themselves. If they don’t sound appetising or they are full of unfamiliar culinary jargon, you will lose potential sales — people don’t buy what they don’t understand, simple as that. You have to make food sound appealing without resorting to language that is not in common usage. I still see appalling menu descriptions quite regularly, often grouped together on one menu. That can get expensive.

The next issue is, how is the menu delivered and presented — verbally, in writing or pictorially? My greatest pet hate is the complicated verbal rendition of the specials you often get in fine dining restaurants. The research is quite clear; we don’t have very good listening skills, and are unlikely to remember much more than the first and the last items described.

This was driven home recently when I visited one of Melbourne’s top restaurants and we were treated to the full performance, only to have my guests call the waiter back to the table twice to restate the specials list. No wonder they had one waiter to every eight customers. They would have gained better sales from a written supplementary specials menu that you could digest at your leisure at the table. Here we are not only losing sales, but inflating labour costs at the same time. Doubly expensive.

The same restaurant had dimmed, moody lighting which looked very attractive and definitely created atmosphere, but I was horrified when I looked at the menu — it was written in tiny type, in a difficult to read script. Out came my reading glasses, but still no go — I couldn’t read it. I ended-up going over to the head waiter’s lectern where the restaurant bookings book resided because it had a reading light over it. The interesting thing here is that when I looked around the restaurant the average customer was over 45 years of age. Don’t make us look inadequate in front of our guests, or we’ll never come back.

Some places do the opposite — they have a chalk board or write menu items on a mirror in big letters. Great if it is neat and legible, but often it is scrawled, hard to read or full of spelling mistakes. I don’t usually go for the ‘nokki’, the ‘risoto’ or the ‘samon’.

Clever mid and lower market level operators use pictures of the food they want to sell, or at least the high margin items. They know that the eyes buy more than the ears. The old saying that a picture is worth a thousand words is especially true of sales. How often has a customer seen a dish go by and said: ‘I’ll have that, please?’ It doesn’t have to be a picture either; the real thing will do quite nicely. It’s the old principle of the dessert trolley — shove the desserts out on display in the middle of your restaurant and you’ll sell heaps to all the sweet tooths whose eyes are wired to the ‘I want’ part of their brains.

It’s the same with wine lists — if you reproduce a facsimile of the wine label, you will stimulate higher sales. Interestingly this also applies to the wines no one recognises — especially the ones you bought well from the boutique winery and put a 300% markup on.

By the way, don’t fill them up with free bread before they order. That’s not good for business, either. That second slice of sourdough will cost you an entree or a dessert sale. Continuing this line of thought, the chilled bottle of tap water you placed on the table will cost you the sale of a bottle of mineral water. You have to wash the glasses and serve it, why give it away for free?

I can see some of you starting to bristle at this point, thinking that I’m going too far, but I think I’m doing you a favour by challenging your thinking. If your margins are declining and you are concerned about your profit trends, I suggest you change something. You’ve already spent a motza setting-up your place and luring people in. How efficiently are you selling to them? As I’ve asked this before in previous articles: ‘How much money is going out your exit door, intact in wallets and purses, if somebody had made the right noises or presented the right product? Think about it.

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