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Operations

How restaurants are forecasting customer traffic

Operators battled hurricanes, forest fires and more in 2017, and while the new year has just begun, meteorologists are already releasing forecast predictions for the rest of the year. A lot remains unknown, weather-wise, so operators are developing best practices, arming themselves to weather the storms and other disruptive forces of nature.

Plan of action

While the best course of action before, during and after a storm depends on its scale, Hudson Riehle, senior VP of research for the National Restaurant Association, says he’s seen operators use one tactic: altering menu composition to deal with the conditions.

That’s the route taken by Waffle House. It has multiple limited menus, depending on available utilities, says Pat Warner, director of PR and external affairs for the brand that is often seen as best in class when it comes to staying open during hazardous conditions. The 24/7 concept’s endurance is so well known, in fact, that FEMA uses an unofficial Waffle House Index to determine the effect of a weather event. If Waffle Houses are forced to close, it’s likely a pretty bad storm.  

Waffle House employees can also consult the company’s weather playbook for step-by-step actions to take. That playbook is constantly updated, says Warner, and will soon include knowledge gained during hurricanes Harvey and Irma. One of the most notable changes will be additional protocol for running the restaurant under boil-water advisories. 

“One of the things we learned ... is that waffles aren’t the best thing to make during boiling-water advisories—not because we can’t make the waffle batter, but because of the cleanup,” Warner says. “You don’t have the water to clean up the sticky batter.”

Other updates to the playbook include organizational changes. “Right now, [the playbook] is organized by storm. Instead, we’re going to organize it into sections such as ‘Preparation,’ ‘Storm’s approaching’ and ‘After the storm,’ because a lot of [practices] overlap whether you’re talking about a winter storm or a hurricane,” he says. 

weather forecasting map

Tapping predictive technology

Having a plan in place may help mitigate potential lost sales, but some operators are turning to technology before weather strikes. Chains like Garbanzo Mediterranean Fresh use real-time data from predictive analytics tools to gain insight into how upcoming weather may impact business, and plan accordingly.

The fast casual, for example, uses predictive analysis to better manage its labor, says Director of Marketing Devin Handler. The chain adjusts staffing depending on how many guests the tool predicts will come in based on upcoming weather conditions.

While Garbanzo anticipated rainy and sunny weather would affect guest counts, Handler says the most surprising thing Garbanzo learned from the tool was wind’s impact on traffic. “Apparently, people don’t go outside in certain trade areas when it’s windy,” he says. “We would’ve never guessed that anecdotally.” 

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