The Side Dish: The Need for Restaurant Reinvention in the Face of Recession

In early 2007, only four years into the life of our catering business, we saw the recession coming down the line. As a full-time, year-round food business, we relied heavily on corporate customers during the “off” season – outside of weddings and holidays. As the year began, we noticed a pullback in corporate spending across the board, with less luncheons, holiday parties, and business events booked. As a facilitator of one of the only organic school lunch programs in the area, we also noticed that fewer parents were interested in spending money on an outside meal program, choosing instead to tighten the reins of their own household and provide paper bag lunches. We were faced with a turning economy, and we had to make a decision that was right for not only our business but also our personal paths. Do we ramp up our operations, acquire a massive business loan to cover us in the lean times, adjust as necessary? Or is it in our best interest to call it a game before the recession sucks us in?

While we chose to bow out of the industry gracefully, many restaurants, caterers, and food service companies have held on during these lean times, choosing instead to adapt, revise, and reinvent their businesses accordingly. It’s a growing trend I’ve noticed particularly during 2009 and here in the beginning of 2010. But is it enough to survive?

Take the adjustments being made by Domino’s Pizza, documented in a recent ad campaign. The on-air spots, which began running before Christmas, show dismayed Domino’s customers berating the company’s sole product from toppings to crust, and the company’s attempt to improve on the quality of the pizza. It’s a very smart move, in my opinion, particularly during a time when consumer faith is at an all-time low. Instead of continuing to produce a mediocre food product, the company has chosen instead to conduct extensive customer research, open to the idea of reinventing the one thing they’ve built so many years on.

While it may not prevent them from taking a Detroit-sized tumble, I think it takes a lot of guts to really step back and examine your company for its weakest points, let alone build an ad campaign around it. I believe it takes even more chutzpah to revise a menu or a restaurant concept and head in a different direction in order to save the life of a food business. The difficult economy is forcing restaurant owners to take a long hard look at where their kitchens are really headed. What’s really necessary to reprioritize and reorganize in order to keep the customers coming? Restaurants are dropping like flies left and right these days, and despite the tumultuous market, surprisingly, another one is always ready to take its place.

Many are adjusting in an attempt to roll with the times. Chef Tom Colicchio dropped a ‘Tom-bomb’ when he announced his intentions to renovate and reintroduce a new restaurant in the space of his popular Craftsteak in New York City. Looking for an eatery concept closer to his heart, the award-winning chef opened Colicchio & Sons last month, offering a menu more in line with his popular Tom:Tuesday Dinner idea. Something just a little personal, he explained, but surely necessary in order to adapt to the fall in consumer spending at pricier restaurants.

Larger companies are also making the change, from Domino’s to Britain’s Little Chef, the co-star of Chef Heston Blumenthal’s Big Chef Takes on Little Chef. The ailing chain of traditional British fare brought in the chef made famous for his talents in molecular gastronomy in an effort to revive their falling countryside icon. While it will certainly take a great deal of money to implement an entirely new concept into their 100+ locations, it’s a necessity to save the brand.

Though we may not see the results of these evolutions immediately, restaurants, caterers, corporate food services, and food manufacturers can all learn from these examples. Too often egos can get in the way of making the best decisions for the life of a company, and from big to small, it’s imperative as a business owner to recognize the need for reinvention. Especially in these tight economical times, it can ultimately be the difference between failure and success.

~Jennifer Heigl

2 replies on “The Side Dish: The Need for Restaurant Reinvention in the Face of Recession”
  1. says: Carbzilla

    GREAT article. I’m in the corporate events industry, and we saw similar moves in the last couple years with clients trying to scale back while producing top quality experiences for their audiences.

    I also think Domino’s strategy was genius. We order from them every few months and never had a problem with the quality to begin with. The biggest impetus for us was price as other “designer” delivery options were almost three times the price and not that much better as far as taste went (maybe we’re just not pizza snobs). Their website is amazing – with calorie counts and the ability to increase or decrease the amounts of a certain topping. We’re bigger fans than ever.

    I’m sorry you had to close down the catering in this difficult times but, at least in Seattle, things do seem to be turning around.

  2. says: jenniferhh

    Thank you! Good to hear that Domino’s is headed in a positive direction.

    It was difficult to close the business, yes, but it was a good time to walk away. It was a great experience, and it’s lead to even greater things. 🙂

    I think things are turning around as well, which is very encouraging.

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