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10 RLC ideas worth stealing

Reviewing our notes after the show, the editors of Restaurant Business spotted 10 ideas that any non-attendee of the RLC shouldn’t miss. We suspect that some would’ve been lost to attendees, too, because of the sheer volume of innovations that were aired during the event. Consider this your Cliff Notes for the keepers:

Several attendees cited the trick that a Charlotte restaurant uses to get drinks to patrons quickly—typically before the server has finished reciting the specials—while leaving the guests slack-jawed with amazement. Here’s what the customer sees: A server approaches the table, welcomes everyone and then takes drink orders. Then, without leaving the table, he or she explains the specials. Magically, the drinks appear, courtesy of a runner. Here’s what the guest doesn’t see because of the servers’ training: After writing down the drink order, the waitress puts her hands behind her back as she talks. Clutched out of view of the guest is the tab. A runner slyly plucks it without any show, seemingly as he’s merely passing by, then fills the order and brings it to the table. Voila: Drinks without any indication to the guest of how the order was placed.

Five Guys Burger & Fries has a marketing budget of several million dollars, but it doesn’t spend a penny on ads or any other pitch to customers. Instead, it uses the money to improve service and the quality of the guest experience, with the expectation that word of mouth is more powerful than commercials. The chain has contracted to have units constantly mystery-shopped. If employees are found to be doing a good job, they get a significant bonus, routinely. The dollars come from that marketing fund.

It’s easy to look at a person’s resume and see how much foodservice experience he has. But how do you gauge the intangible qualities that make a person right for a job in hospitality? Louis Basile, founder of Wildflower Bread Company, says if an applicant doesn’t maintain eye contact in the first interview, it doesn’t matter what’s on the resume; they don’t get the job. If you can't maintain eye contact, it means you are not a people person.

What flags a kids menu choice as healthful? Last year, Mom and Dad were looking for items that were low in sugar. This year, they’re concerned about pesticides and  chemical residue, according to Ian Davidson of the marketing agency C3.

As a final check of your operation’s viability, ask yourself three questions, advised Greg Creed, the CEO of Taco Bell:  Why do we exist? What do we stand for? What’s our purpose?

He also suggested that brands use their staffs as advocates for a new product. Let them taste the item before customers or the media do, and then ask them to relate the taste and experience via social media.

Hispanics hold onto their culture and language more than most immigrants, but you don’t need a Spanish-language menu to better attract Hispanic customers. You can more subtly send a welcoming message through color schemes and flavor profiles.

Also, because Hispanics are more likely than non-Hispanics to view eating out as an opportunity to socialize in groups, having large tables can be help. But nothing works if you don’t train your staff to be as gracious toward them as they would be to any other guest.

The best way to survive a food contamination or other crisis is by planning ahead, stressed marketing consultant Linda Duke. She recommended a simple test to see if your chain is prepared: Ask unit-level managers if they have the number handy of the local health department.

Investors who really want to understand a restaurant concept before putting money into it should work the kitchen line and front-of-the-house jobs. Jason Mozingo, senior managing director of the private-equity firm Centerbridge Partners, spent a day in P.F. Chang’s training program to learn the concept from the inside out.

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