Restaurants, more than most businesses and particularly those in city areas, want to be cool. That should go without saying, right? Of course, you want to be known as an exciting, enticing place to go out to and have a great time.
But there is no one secret ingredient for being a trendy and hip restaurant. In fact, often enough, if you try too hard to seem cool you can look like … well, you look like you’re trying too hard to be cool.
So what can you do to make your restaurant the next big hot spot? And is there such a thing as going too far? Here are some ideas to start your brainstorming … with a few warnings along the way.
Introducing trendy elements to your restaurant menu can give you that cool appeal. For instance, breakfast for dinner. All-day breakfast is a huge trend right now, and getting to enjoy those flavors at any point of the day has a real appeal for a college-aged and recently-graduated crowd.
Obviously, chicken and waffles is another great attraction that capitalizes on the breakfast trend, but what about a cereal bar? Stock dozens of different varieties and milk flavors and present them buffet-style for late-night guests to enjoy.
Speaking of late night guests, for those above the age of 21, how about cereal or breakfast-inspired shots of liquor? A Cinnamon Toast Crunch-inspired drink with equal parts Fireball and Rumchata, finished with a cinnamon sugar rim, could be a huge attraction for those nostalgic for those Saturday morning bowls of cereal in front of the TV.
Even if upscale breakfast for dinner doesn’t work for your restaurant’s menu, start thinking outside the box for fun, cool ideas you can weave into the style of menu you already have. Even just using a favorite kids cereal to replace bread crumbs on your fried chicken, or making that cereal into a granola topping for salads, could bring some quirky fun to your menu.
In 2016, trivia nights have come back in a big way for restaurants catering to 20 and 30-somethings. It’s a great incentive for young, unmarried people or groups of friends to come together for a specific, low pressure activity, and not just for the usual bar scene that may get tiresome or be reserved only for the weekends.
If your restaurant has space for it, try rolling out a trivia night either once a month or a couple times a month on a week night you don’t normally have a huge crowd. It’s especially helpful if you can set it up in your bar area, since people are not likely to play trivia games and eat a full meal at the same time. They are likely to order a drink or two and order plates of appetizers to share, however.
Breakfast focus and trivia night are both things that you can easily implement for your restaurant, but do so only if they fit your target consumer and your overall brand. If adding twists on breakfast food doesn’t mesh with the flavor profiles of the rest of your menu, then that is not the best addition to pursue.
If your restaurant is too quiet and reserved an atmosphere for a trivia night, then it might not be the right idea of your place. That’s okay! Never force a hip idea into what your business already is. The goal is grow something organically out of the atmosphere you already maintain.
If your concept is more upscale, also think about ways to include a fancy signature dish to your menu. This should be something with flair — and something unique to your chef’s background and experience — that you can price higher because it’s unique to the local market and fits your overall brand.
Just make sure the experience is worth the price for your diners. This could be an extravagant dessert or an expertly cooked whole fish (which in itself can make a great presentation). Whatever it is, however, execute it flawlessly.
Robert Santibañez, chef/owner of Fonda in New York City, said it best: “Stay doing what you do, but do it better. If you need to change, always change within your concept but for the better. If you are serving hamburgers, try to make that hamburger better, try to buy a better bun, try to buy a better beef, try to buy a better sauce, try to make your own ketchup… I mean, within your concept, you can still do hundreds of things. So stay true to what you do, stay true to know how to do best.”
Every so often, some cool restaurant ideas just can’t be predicted, because they rise out of the community themselves. Take, for instance, the recent Pokémon Go craze. Restaurant owners didn’t try to pressure their guests to try it. This was something their customers were doing all by themselves. But many restaurants have found ways to make the experience of being a Pokestop fit within their brand to drive more traffic and sales.
Another great organic restaurant trend rising directly out of community involvement? Secret menus. Secret menus are custom orders guests have requested so many times that the kitchen just knows how to make it whenever it’s ordered, even though it’s not actually on the official menu. Word of mouth (particularly over social media) drives customers to know to ask for it.
If you notice the same custom orders start to be requested by more than a few customers, make sure every server or cashier is on the same page and knows what to do if the “new secret menu item” is ordered. Your kitchen staff should know how to make it and your front-of-house staff should be able to respond with a sly wink at a moment’s notice and quickly accommodate the order.
More than anything, what makes successful trends work is authenticity. Pretending to be cool and “hipster” won’t magically transform your restaurant into a successful hotspot. Forward-thinking foodies can tell when a business is trying to fake being cool.
Restaurants who really get it wrong will get mocked for their bad attempt at being cool. Or even worse … they’ll be ignored. No amount of trendy gimmicks will save a restaurant that can’t engage with their diners in an authentic way.
The key is to take a good look at your business model, your customer base, and your overall brand. What makes sense for you to try in your business? What trends from your customers should you be looking out for? What fun elements can you add while not diluting your brand?
And are you doing anything right now that feels inauthentic? It’s never to late to change course and reinvent the cool for your restaurant’s image.
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