10 Ways to prepare your Restaurant Business​ in the UAE​ for an era of sweeping change

The perfect storm of challenges

Oversupplied market. Turbo-charged tech evolution. Social media inflection point. Shift in demographic equation. Proliferation of online platforms. Elevated expectations. Delivery revolution. Costs through the roof.

It appears that every conceivable challenge has conspired and converged to create this seemingly perfect storm for restaurant operators….and many are succumbing to its gale force winds.

Focus on the forest, not the trees

Crisis mode is the default setting for anyone with their back against the wall, and it’s no different in the restaurant business. Counter-intuitively however, in dealing with simultaneous overwhelming demands on one’s resources, time and sanity, the wisest first step is a step back.

Let’s make that three steps.

One, start with wholeheartedly embracing the fact that by and large, the industry is on an accelerated and irreversible march forward and regardless of how you feel about change, it isn’t going away. Two, ditch the fragmented, scattered thinking and start viewing your food service business as a single composite. Three, understand that mere fire-fighting can prove fatally inadequate when the actual need is fire-proofing.

Now with the mindset overhauled, adopt a new approach to the business that by default, looks beyond the obvious, urgent and individual problem areas. Well beyond.

To that end, here are my two cents to existing, and yet to open restaurant businesses (in no particular order of importance):

1. Switch your thinking from the traditional ‘inside-out’ to ‘outside-in’.

In the past, the classic Food & Beverage retail model was established around key elements of the concept and subsequently, it would adapt to changes on the outside on a needs basis.

Today however, restaurant operations have a multitude of touch points that occur before the customer’s first physical brand encounter.

Developments in tech, social media, delivery systems, food preferences etc. profoundly influence these touch points and hence, have become intrinsic to a restaurant’s success. As a result, concepts need to be reverse engineered to accommodate these developments from day one.

2. Prioritize people and tech over fixtures and decor.

In the emotion-driven food economy, customers are increasingly demanding experiences with depth and impact, and these can only be delivered by well-trained people, robustly supported by tech and data. Although there might be room for some bells and whistles, physical features can generally be scaled back without hurting the business. Cutting corners on people (and their tech support) however, compromises the fundamental guest experience, and is certain to reflect on the bottom line adversely.

3. Be aware of the competition, but don’t obsess over it.

A key parameter by which brand positioning is established is vis-a-vis the competition. But with competitors growing thick and fast literally everyday, it is simply not viable to keep up with everything that’s happening around us. Moreover, research depletes valuable time and resources, that are usually in short supply to begin with.

Ultimately, what happens within your own extended operations will determine the success of your restaurant business. Besides, that’s the only thing you really have any control over.

4. Use a two page business plan across the company.

As a written representation of where a business is, where it’s going and how it will get there, a business plan is a vital business tool. Most companies spend an inordinate amount of time in producing one, with the final outcome usually being a bulky, esoteric document, understood by few and accessible to even fewer. Selective information trickles down to rest of the team, often inefficiently, piecemeal and in a way that obscures the big picture.

A simple, concise, two page business plan shared and discussed with every single individual in the company on the other hand, will ensure that the extended team is quite literally on the same page.

5. Know that ‘Millennial’ and ‘Gen Z’ are more than just overused clichés.

A transparent, seemless, mobile friendly, efficient omnichannel experience is fast becoming the new normal. Millennials swear by it, but Gen Z breathe it. Pay heed to how they think and what they want. This is critical, as not only are the numbers in these demographic groups set to rise significantly, but so is their influence.

6. Do less but do it well.

It is not possible to do everything at same level of proficiency – that’s just a simple fact. That consistency is the key to a sustainable food business is another immutable truth. So simplify, do less, but do it well.

Small pockets of excellence within your restaurant business are far more likely to get customer attention and loyalty than a 150 item, mediocrely executed menu.

7. Do a test run when possible.

Nowadays, numerous year-round pop-up restaurant options are available in most markets to test run your idea. These can help avoid expensive mistakes and tune your concept before infusing significant capital into it. With many of the kinks ironed out beforehand, the scaled up version of your restaurant will be far better placed for potential success.

8. Remain agile and flexible (as disruptors too will be disrupted).

There is no room for inertia or complacency in today’s restaurant business. With the pace at which the industry is changing, disruption will be a constant, and a dynamic nimble-footedness will be a crucial prerequisite to operating restaurants.

9. Think reverse globalization.

Over the past few decades, brands, cuisines and concepts have proliferated unabatedly across borders, geographies and cultures. It’s a sign of the times that ‘global’ isn’t necessarily a seductive word anymore. Increasingly, people crave simplicity, uniqueness and character – preferably local.

10. Be receptive to wisdom of the times.

Here are some examples: Unpretentious is good. Experiences don’t happen, they are designed. Small isn’t bad, its maneuverable. Stand for something, even if it doesn’t fit into a slot (‘healthyish’ is a positioning, if you decide so). Limit capital expenditure. Be super-anal about lease negotiations. Don’t rush to expand.

Bottom line: The restaurant business isn’t easy. Never was, never will be. Although the level of challenge seems to have gone up several notches, it isn’t just indicative of an industry in flux, but of the times of overall change that we live in. The future belongs only to the intensely committed. Those who prefer cruise-control will likely perish.

Despite the unprecedented all-round pressures, good food, service and experiences will remain the cornerstones of the business. Besides that, be prepared for a food service playbook that will need to be rewritten perpetually.

As for those who choose to continue focusing on doom and gloom, unfortunately, the only thing that mindset can manifest is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

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