Can You Provide a Better Third Place?

Can You Provide a Better Third Place?

Over the years I've written about the “third place,” a term used to describe the need for everyone to have a place, other than home or work, where they can go to relax and feel a part of the community. Full-service restaurants have always served as a third place for many people. So, at a time when economic pressures are wearing your customers down, the need for a third place, your place, is more important than ever before.

With that said, people are far more discriminating about where and how often they're dining out. That's why you have to be more diligent about getting it right. If customers are feeling a bit unsettled before they walk through the door, and many of them are, they'll have little patience for your mistakes. They're looking for you to make them feel better, not worse.

Also, this is a perfect time for you to put an extra focus on your regular customers and establish new regulars. Check out our story — Welcome to the Club — beginning on page 34. It offers a bunch of tips on how to take care of your regulars during these tough times.

If a recent IFMA study is right, the foodservice industry should not expect any economic relief until at least the second half of next year because of soaring unemployment rates, a slumping housing market, climbing gas and energy costs and other economic pressures. Is it any wonder why consumers are skittish?

The New York Post recently reported that a growing number of chefs have added all sorts of comfort foods to their menus to help ease customer stress levels. It's your job to make your customers and your accountant happy, so put mac 'n' cheese or other comfort favorites back on your menu. Your customers will thank you for menu items that will fetch a nice profit. The key is to adapt or put a twist on comfort foods so they're appropriate for your place and your customers. For example, mega-celebrity chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten recently put Tokyo clam chowder on the menu at his new Asian restaurant, Matsugen. In this case, he took a comfort-food favorite and gave it an Asian twist.

Also, consider some moves Darden Restaurants is making in light of the depressed economy. Sure, it has deep pockets, but it demonstrates that during tough times, sitting on your hands is not the answer. Red Lobster, for example, is making menu changes that stress freshness, flavor and culinary innovation. At LongHorn Steakhouse, it's remodeling a tired decor. It's also looking at couponing and increasing its marketing initiatives.

And never lose sight of your position as a third-place provider. If your place isn't as comfortable as it can be, make it so. If you can add some form of entertainment, whether it's live music, big-screen TVs or video games, consider it. People are going to be seeking some sort of stress relief. Find a way to give it to them.