Scoping out the competition in the restaurant business is decidedly the most delicious and satisfying market research an entrepreneur could ask for. With conference and trade-show season in full swing, the opportunities for benchmarking and inspiration-hunting are all around, especially for those willing to venture off the convention floor and explore.
While special skills aren’t required to conduct your own research, we asked a couple of professional industry watchers to share some best practices, including where to start. “About 30 percent of the due diligence we do is following what the media is reporting on regarding consumer dining habits,” says Gerry Ludwig, a research chef whose team’s annual street-level study includes visiting more than 100 restaurants and eating more than 1,000 dishes in 15 days. “The other 70 percent is us watching very closely what’s happening with new restaurant openings in the three major trend-driving cities: New York, Chicago and Los Angeles.”
Ludwig shares his findings at a number of conferences (including MenuDirections, hosted by Restaurant Business’ corporate parent). The process is not very scientific, he admits, but operators in every foodservice segment can find something valuable in the details. Here, tips for conducting your own taste-around.
Follow the foot traffic
“Check the local press for groupings of new openings, and try to hit more than one in the same day,” says Mary Chapman, senior director of product innovation for Technomic, which publishes a list of hot new concepts every year. In pedestrian-friendly areas such as malls, note how people choose their own dining destinations.
Find the flavor story
If there’s a certain flavor profile you want to explore, research to see who’s executing it well. “You can’t just randomly mix and match flavors and expect them to work,” Ludwig says. Look at the restaurant’s website and menu before you go, he says, and understand its story. Then, check out what diners are eating in-house and posting to social media, before you order.
Pack many palates
Does a concept really appeal to the demographic it’s targeting, and how? “It’s fun to bring younger team members with you; you get different perspectives that way,” says Chapman, who recently visited a concept with a logo she found cool and retro, but the younger set deemed out of style. “They were clearly appealing to GenX and not millennials.”
Survey people, not just plates
“Watching the customers is as fascinating as watching the staff,” says Chapman. “Are they comfortable getting in and out of the restaurant? Do they come in and know what they’re doing? ...Both are signs of operations that are flowing smoothly and make sense.”
“It’s harder to look in the mirror than look at another concept, but walk in the door as if it’s yours,” advises Chapman, noting that it often can be easier to critique than to see the positives. “You won’t have the ‘aha moment’ until you have it, so don’t go in with blinders on.”