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Improving traffic patterns

Steal the directions from up-and-comers’ road maps.

We interrupt this column for an important business alert: An undecided consumer has been spotted on Restaurant Row.

He appears to be hungry, heavily armed with credit cards, and unafraid to use them.

So, how do you snag him?

That’s the question of the moment, with traffic emerging as the elixir restaurateurs need most in this time of stagnant sales and rocketing costs. Drawing more sales from each guest can only take them so far; like Dracula, they need more bodies to put the bite on. Yet chain restaurants’ customer counts dropped by an average of 1.5 percent year-over-year in May, says Black Box Intelligence. It and others diagnose the problem as a drop in visits per customer, which they attribute in turn to flat income levels.

Ironically, Black Box says consumers’ willingness to spend is at a three-year high. Patrons just need some encouragement to indulge. So what’s the come-on they can’t resist?

The theories are as varied as the body hunters themselves. Burger King is trying longer sandwiches. Taco Bell is betting on another Mexican mash-up. Arby’s is bringing back its most successful LTO of all time. Shake Shack asked celebrity chefs to riff on the retro chain’s sandwiches. Domino’s tweaked its phone app so couch potatoes merely have to mutter what they want, sparing them the ardors of touching finger to screen.

Starbucks, a glutton for patrons, is angling for more trendinistas with a new service, free phone recharging. An Applebee’s franchisee hopes the cachet of being an early participant in Tesla’s electric-car recharging network might attract trend-conscious road warriors.

But that’s still old-guard stuff. What tractor beams are being used by the brash up-and-comers who intend to steal the customers of fat and established brands? Fortunately for you, we’ve devoted much of this issue to the concepts that have been most successful in that effort. We call them The Future 50.

You’ll learn about their traffic-drawing strategies in a special section. But don’t look for some ray gun that vaporizes customer resistance. If anything, many of their traffic-boosting devices might’ve been picked up at the yard sale of an old-line restaurateur.

Consider, for instance, how many rely on what is likely the most common customer beacon in the business. If we devote whole pages of the calendar to commemorations like National Turnip Month, we should spend at least a year in celebration of the humble restaurant blackboard. Rare are the restaurateurs who didn’t use it at some stage in their careers. You’ll learn it’s still a powerful tool in the age of smartphones and social media.

Other Future 50 upstarts rely on classic boardwalk or summertime lawn games. For still others, it’s heightened interaction with the staff, the very opposite of what can happen with mobile-ordering apps and other high-tech traffic facilitators.

Indeed, the playbooks used by many of the Future 50 challengers could have come from the attics of successful 1950s entrepreneurs:  Leapfrog the establishment in the appeal of your food, service, ambience, pricing and overall experience. Deliver a better time, and you’ve nailed that better mousetrap.

All the rest of the stuff is either short-term pain relievers or outright gimmickry. But take a look for yourself.

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