Restaurateurs have always been masters of reinvention. The spark of inspiration that transforms this morning’s farmers market delicacy into tonight’s sell-out special — it’s the same skill that allows them to adapt their businesses to ever-changing economic conditions and customer tastes.
2021, of course, presents no shortage of opportunities for that creativity and inspiration to shine, as restaurants continue to evolve. In the recent virtual event Future-Proofing Your Restaurant, a panel of experts — Tom Sopit, managing partner of Los Angeles’ Employees Only, Allison Arevalo, founder of Brooklyn favorite Pasta Louise, and Charles Bililies, founder and CEO of San Francisco’s fast-fine Greek restaurant Souvla — spoke with journalist and food personality Aarti Sequeira on the ingenious ways they’re growing their businesses now, and defining the future of the restaurant industry. Read on for five key insights on the restaurant trends that are here to stay, and shaping the future of dining as we know it.
1. Diversify your revenue streams
Many restaurants have embraced new product offerings to help replace indoor dining revenue and keep customers coming back. Allison Arevalo points to the instant success of Pasta Kits — customers choose from seven kits, each with a pound of fresh pasta and focaccia bread, paired with a curated wine and homemade sauce. Arevalo never expected to do so much retail business when the restaurant first opened, she says, “but this was something the neighborhood needed. It’s an easy way for families to bring home an incredible dinner that feels special. Everyone gravitated towards it.”
Arevalo’s also had success with merchandising. Pasta Louise’s Square-powered online store sells pasta-print masks (an item so popular it’s often sold out) and other merch in addition to a full menu of food items. “Merch on its own doesn’t make a big difference, but we’ve found offering it as an add-on is successful,” Arevalo said. “People love adding a mask to their pasta order.” It’s an observation backed up by Square’s recent The Future of Restaurants survey, where 59 percent of consumers said they’re willing to buy items from businesses that aren’t part of their core offerings.
Souvla founder Bililies has also seen success with productizing. Souvla’s online marketplace offers a robust selection of merchandise alongside menu favorites: herbal olive oil, seasoning blends, and Souvla’s own line of Greek wines. There’s also stylish enamel pins, denim totes, and customized Go Vino wine glasses. In addition to the added revenue, merch also keeps his business top of mind with customers. “People who have moved out of San Francisco send merchandise to friends as a reminder of good times in our restaurant,” Bililies said. “They get to keep a little piece of your restaurant in their home.”
2. Make takeout into an experience
There used to be nothing especially inspiring about picking up takeout. But with carry-out representing a larger-than-ever portion of revenue, smart restaurateurs are making sure their takeout offerings stand out from the pack. For Arevalo, that meant something as simple as setting up contactless “stoop pasta pickups,” which gave her the chance to personally connect with her customers as they picked up their food (albeit from a distance). At a time when people most needed it, she says, “it was great to have that moment of connection and conversation.”
Tom Sopit took a more multi-sensory approach at Employees Only. When indoor dining shut down, he switched up the destination cocktail spot into WeHo Night Market, an open-air market where vendors sold a variety of dishes, plus desserts, breads, and even plants to-go; customers picked up takeout in a festive environment with music and movies playing. “We wanted to provide an experience for people, even if it was just for 10 minutes,” Sopit said.
3. Add value to your outdoor space
It’s no secret that many of our dining experiences now take place outside, where hospitality takes the form of outdoor igloos and heat lamps. But the panelists are finding ways to fully embrace their outdoor spaces’ potential, transforming them into sites for integrated dining and entertainment experiences.
After the success of WeHo Night Market, Tom Sopit and team transformed it into Summer Social Club — a cheery outdoor space where diners enjoy daily rotating menus curated by local chefs. “We were inspired when the music festivals shut down last summer — that’s a big part of our community in Los Angeles,” Stopit said. “So we created this beautiful outdoor space that’s part music festival, part backyard.” He called his local chef friends who were laid off at the time and told them if they brought the food, he’d bring the people and booze. Summer Social Club is now a popular culinary incubator where dining outdoors isn’t an inconvenience, it’s part of the experience.
4. Bundle entertainment with dining
Of course, outdoor dining in winter is a slightly easier sell in LA. But even Brooklyn’s Pasta Louise is getting in on the fun. There, Arevalo introduced Dinner + Movie Nights, a weekly event where patrons purchase $30 presale tickets that include a seat in the restaurant’s heated garden dining area, an appetizer and pasta, and a bowl of homemade parmigiana popcorn during the show.
The themed events have become a popular birthday-party destination for both kids and adults. “We have a grown-up party tonight,” Arevalo said. “They bought out all the tickets so we let them choose the movie. It’s an experience for people to get out in a really sparkly way.” In a time when every table truly matters, selling out your dining room in advance is also a boon to restaurateurs.
5. Embrace the power and potential of your tech
Tech can do more for your restaurant than ever before, and it’s a power many business owners are embracing. The Future of Restaurants survey found that 91% of restaurants are looking to kitchen automation technology to help streamline their operations in 2021. Our panelists are embracing tech’s potential for creativity, too. For example, Tom Sopit loves QR code menus, not only for their efficiencies (they’re contactless and save on costs), but for the ways they allow him to personalize customer experiences by say, sending a special birthday greeting to diners. QR codes also make it easy to deliver on his chefs’ latest inspirations — now, changing up the menu only takes a few clicks. The tech, Sopit says, makes things “a lot more fun, because there’s a lot more you can do with it.”
At Souvla, Bililies embraces a system that integrates customer orders from multiple platforms, like his online store and delivery partners, and automatically prints them to his centralized kitchen for greater efficiency. Souvla also has a mobile app integrated with its point of sale system and online store, where customers can save their payment and go-to order. “It’s a very quick and easy order experience,” Billies said. “Because the app is running on Square’s architecture, it was a far more economical solution as opposed to building a full app from the ground up.”
An especially clever integration is one that syncs Souvla’s online marketplace with the restaurant’s Instagram account. Now, when customers spot a tasty-looking photo, they can add it to their shopping bag, and order it for delivery or pick-up in just a few taps. “We’re living in the golden age of restaurant tech right now,” Bililies said. “Being able to put Souvla at customer’s fingertips and automate those systems — it just makes life so much easier.”