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Restaurant Resource Center

Navigating the World of Online Restaurant Reviews

8 Ways to Improve Business During Off-Peak Hours

Every restaurant and café has them: Those slow times of day or days of the week when the tables aren’t turning. It’s tempting to send staff home, but that's problematic. First, it doesn’t generate revenue. Second, it tempts fate.

“The minute you send staff home, you get a soccer team of 15 kids and their parents,” says Maged Fattah, co-owner of Local Urban Kitchen, with eateries in Pt. Pleasant Beach and Brielle, NJ. “There is no scientific way to predict that, but we use an average-order-value per table as well as the average sales per off-peak time period to come up with a typical ‘slow period’ projection. Then we staff against the projection.”

That’s a great way to save money with proper staffing levels, but how can you approach off-peak times to make money? With a little brainstorming and number-crunching, according to Peter Serantoni, owner of Cha Cha’s Latin Kitchen in Brea, CA. Dream up some promotions and then run the numbers.

“As long as your dollar margins are reasonable and you schedule and manage labor productivity efficiently, you can maintain a decent ROI by leveraging sales increases against your fixed costs,” he says.

Here are some ideas:

1. Talk to Loyal Customers

Start at the source. “Focus on the customer and find out what you can do to make these off-peak times more convenient and enjoyable for them,” Fattah suggests. Then use that to develop ideas that appeal to those interests and behaviors.

2. Get Professional Help

If you’ve got the budget, work with an experienced hospitality marketing, events or PR pro to develop ideas for attracting new diners. “We spend a lot of time exploring and testing various promotions,” Serantoni says. “It’s sort of never-ending as we like to keep all of our marketing initiatives fresh and exciting to our guests.”

3. Create Themes

Restaurants are often slow on Mondays, so Cha Cha’s developed theme nights to attract customers on that night. According to Serantoni, Monday's Date Night, a two-for one dinner deal, increased sales 24 percent in its first year. “The intent is to drive additional revenue in a way that is not contradictory or hurtful to the overall integrity of the concept in question. It has to be a conceptual fit even if discount driven.“

4. Provide Entertainment

Getting people through the door early in the week requires more than tasty food and good service. Cha Cha’s Taco Tuesday promotion features an all-taco menu, half-off premium tequilas and a live Latin band, making Tuesday its third-busiest day of the week. Local Urban Kitchen hosts open mic and comedy nights for local musicians and performers and serves custom tapas-style meals “designed to maximize taste as well as margins,” Fattah notes. “Our average table order value increased by about 20 percent.”

5. Host Private Events

If you’ve got a private space, consider filling slow periods with large-group meals, like office parties or professional association meetings. Allow attendees to order from the menu or offer a special line-up at a premium price. Some restaurateurs even rent out the entire establishment on off-nights if the price is right.

6. Work the Wine

Margins on alcoholic beverages are high, meaning you can discount prices a bit without eating into your profits. Cha Cha’s Wednesday Enchiladas and Wine night special includes half-off wines by the glass or bottle with the purchase of an enchilada combination. The promotion increased average sales by 15 percent. Fine dining establishments often provide table-side wine tastings to patrons on slow nights when the staff wine expert or sommelier has more time to spend with diners. “Once the program is known as a stable weekly event, it will be an important driver of business,” says Jörn Kleinhans, owner of The Wine Elite Sommelier Company in Beverly Hills and Newport Beach, CA.

7. Offer Educational Opportunities

Restaurants like Local Urban Kitchen source locally, creating an opportunity to bring local producers in for presentations and special tastings during slow times of the day. This attracts regulars and new patrons who want to meet the people behind the food or learn more about farm-to-fork. You can do the same with wine and craft liquors. Kleinhans works with several restaurateurs in Southern California to provide monthly sommelier-guided dinners. Led by your chef and a sommelier, these activities carry a fixed price and require reservations. Get your partners to promote the event to their mailing lists so you get exposure to a new audience.

8. Promote and Advertise

Highlight your off-peak activities via your Web site, email newsletter and table-tents, and consider buying advertising. “You can always use Google AdWords to advertise specials during off-peak times,” Fattah says. “So when a local customer Googles something like ‘waterfront restaurant’ or ‘organic restaurants,’ for example, you can have custom ads for those time periods exclusive to those off-peak hours.” If your special nights are recurring, consider adding that information to review sites, as well.

Filling the tables during off-peak hours requires some creative thinking and clear budgeting. Use these tips to grow and maintain business during slow periods.

Carrboro, NC-based Margot Carmichael Lester grew up in a gourmet grocery and parlayed that into a career writing about food, drinks and business for a variety of outlets, including in-flight magazines, consumer titles and Web sites. She has owned her own business, The Word Factory, for two decades. A devotee of dining at the bar, she favors sparkling wines and anything with bacon.