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That's Special!

That's Special!

By Patricia Hochwarth

Most Wanted: A menu special does not have to be fancy. It simply has to be desirable.

Thy Daily Fish: Cafe del Rey in Marina del Rey, CA features freshly caught fish on a Day Boat del Rey specials menu; it sells out every night.

Bean Counter: Po' Boys Creole Cafè is a full-service New Orleans-themed chain with seven locations throughout Florida. Red Beans and Rice are among the Louisiana-style dishes offered during daily value meals certain days of the week and a Sunday Bayou Brunch. "Tuesday was a traditional slow period and this special has turned this day around," says cofounder Jon Sweede.

Chef's specials. Blue plate specials. Early bird specials. Daily specials. Fresh sheet specials. Restaurant guests love their specials. According to a recent consumer research study commissioned by RESTAURANT HOSPITALITY, more than two-thirds of consumers order from a specials menu at full-service restaurants, primarily because they perceive these menus offer a better value. In addition, patrons are always looking for new and unique menu items.

That said, is there a method to specials creation and selling? You betcha. Just like the science of menuing, there are tested strategies for putting together an effective specials program that appeals most to guests while putting more profits in the operator's pocket.

Creating specials can also be a complex task, with a dizzying number of variables to consider, from detailed daypart analysis, to the concept and price points, to profit margin projections. It also requires proper training of your staff, because if they're not selling specials correctly, not only will you not make money; you could take a loss.

"Specials can be powerful, for a number of reasons," says Bill Paul, a Cincinnati-based menu consultant. "First, they can really help freshen and expand the daily menu. They can act as a restaurant's test kitchen, for trying out new products, new styles of merchandising, different concepts. They can act to utilize unused inventory that needs to move out. Specials also give restaurants the opportunity to increase or maximize profitability. They're wonderful when done correctly."

But done sloppily or with little thought, specials can actually hurt profits and drag down your operation. "Sometimes people get off track in how they think of their specials; sometimes they don't have all the pieces in place to do specials as well as they can," says Paul. "It can get very involved. Whether offered once a week, daily, breakfast, lunch or dinner, every restaurant has to work out their specials based on such factors as who their guest is, what their capabilities are, the size of their operation, the style they offer, etc."

For example, offering a daily special might not necessarily be the most cost-effective, profitable way to go. "One needs to match up specials with the determined frequency of guest visits," says Paul. "Say your typical guest comes in twice a month. It might be feasible to change out a special every two weeks; the benefit of not having to change every day could have a potentially great impact on the success of those specials because, for one thing, you're not under the gun to create something new every day. You have time to come up with things that are better thought out as far as presentation and costs. Plus, it increases the item's familiarity for your staff."

Maximizing Profit Potential
Profitability is obviously a key issue. "There's still a tendency in the restaurant industry to think in terms of food cost percentage when developing a product, and that's not always the most advantageous way of looking at it," Paul explains. "Maintaining the lowest food cost percentage will maximize profitability in less than half the cases. So half the time food costs will maximize profitability; the other half they will not. The key is finding products that have both good food costs and good profit margins."

"It's all about your goals," says Gregg Rapp, a menu engineer based in Palm Springs, CA. "What are you trying to do? Pull in people? Add variety? If the goal is to pull in more people, then do a price special." But you have to be careful, he cautions. One of the biggest mistakes operators make is to promote based on price and then direct their waitstaff to push that special as soon as the diner is seated. Yes, the low-price special brings them in, but let them have a chance to see other menu options; ideally they will opt for a more profitable dish. Rapp suggests burying the special in the menu with a note along the lines of "ask your server for today's special."

On the other hand, if specials are profitable for your operation, say in a fine dining establishment, Rapp says go ahead and sell, sell, sell.

Certain products are better suited for specials than others. The type of special you offer in a casual restaurant will differ from what's offered in a fine dining establishment. For example, higher-ticket restaurants might have more success selling lamb as a special than as an everyday item, because lamb matches the upscale image they want to convey. Fans of lamb expect that if they buy it in a finer establishment, it will be better than lamb sold elsewhere. "If it's sold as a special, it communicates that it's fresher, it's better, it's more unique and it encourages those people to really consider it," says Paul. "And, as lamb's not inexpensive to begin with, you can price it higher."

Offering a low-cost item during a slower daypart can create a boom in business.

Sometimes taking items that sell well in a restaurant and simply changing their preparation or saucing, say, is enough to make the product "special." For example, take a universal favorite like salmon and spruce it up with a special sauce or crab cake on the side.

For casual dining operations, offering a low-cost item during a slower day or daypart can create a boom in business. For example, Rapp points out, not so long ago chicken wings were a waste product and dirt cheap, and savvy restaurateurs started promoting wing specials; now that everyone wants them, the price has gone through the roof. And Quaker Steak and Lube out of Sharon, PA, found great success with its all-you-can-eat rock shrimp special. The owner, says Rapp, found a deal on rock shrimp at a trade show and created a huge seller and a subsequent signature item. "The lesson here is to look for the cheap items and make specials out of them."

Selling Staff on Specials
Do your servers rush through presenting specials, stumbling over pronunciations and come off as ill-informed about their components and preparation? You could be losing precious profits.

"Getting people to sell products at the table is one of the most difficult challenges restaurateurs have in any environment," says Paul. "It's so important to train them properly to sell."

Paul and Rapp both recommend tasting sessions for employees to familiarize them with profitable specials. If they like them and are familiar with them, they're more likely to promote them. Managers must also be clear to servers about prioritizing what they want sold.

And what's better: Verbal or written descriptions? Both, Paul contends. "I think it's always good to do a verbal presentation first. If you take time to develop the descriptions so they sound appealing, to maximize the sale of specials you ideally do your suggestive selling presentation before the guest reads the menu, while they're open-minded. Once guests open the menu and read it for five minutes they've pretty much made up their mind what they want and then you'll have a harder time selling. Then support the verbal presentation with a printed sheet that you either leave with the menu or have on the menu."

Adds Rapp: "You can list specials on a blackboard, table tent, fresh sheet. It's like a grocery store shelf—put your most profitable items within easy eye reach."

An End to "Ordering Rut"
McAlister's Deli is a quick-casual chain of more than 200 company-owned and franchised restaurants. It features efficient counter ordering, with an emphasis on high-quality sandwiches, spuds and salads. McAlister's Deli has a specials board that changes every four weeks. The board highlights a menu item; however, the item is not discounted. Specials tend to be seasonal items or new introductions. "We have a 100-item menu and a lot of our specials are items that we already offer but we want to highlight," says Philip Friedman, chairman, president and CEO. "We'll usually double sales of a particular item when we put it on the board. At McAlister's, because we have so many items, featuring an item is like introducing a new product. We tend to look to boosting our profitability by taking a combination of popular, better-margin items and featuring them on the center board. It's also a vehicle for introducing new items, like last year's Greek wrap. Putting items on a center board also encourages people to break out a bit from their ordering rut. It's worked very well for us."

Seeing Seafood Sell
Country Kitchen,
with locations in 28 states, creates its specials from closely watching trends and looking at new ideas that vendors offer, says Eric Girard, vice president of marketing. When management found a void in the critical breakfast daypart, the product development team tested and developed the new Alaskan Salmon Benedict (above), made with a wild Alaska salmon patty. It teamed up with the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute to promote the product. The company commonly runs a seafood promotion between Ash Wednesday and Easter and last year renamed it Catch Alaska. Simply calling attention to the fact that the cod and salmon were from Alaska (they always had been) helped double the amount of seafood product sold from the previous year.

Country Kitchen presents waitstaff an extra incentive to upsell new menu items by offering them a chance to win a $5,000 trip to Alaska. The contest measures the guest trial percentage of Catch Alaska menu items at each location and allows one star server from each top location to enter the random drawing for the grand prize.

Anticipation: A chalkboard lays out what's in store for the week ahead.

Home-Cooked Sundays
Dominick's, in West Hollywood, CA is a small Italian restaurant that focuses on fresh and simple updated fare. Chef Brandon Boudet started a special menu on Sundays called Sunday Supper, which consists of three courses (changing weekly) for

$15 and $10 bottles of wine and $2 bottles of Moretti beer. The rationale was to create a special menu to emphasize the concept of Sunday dinners at home, as well as increase business on a slower night of the week. The supper has sparked a jump in business.

Everyday Specials
At Nacional 27,
Chicago, Randy Zweiban, chef/partner of the modern Latin restaurant, ceviche bar and salsa club, says specials once were offered only on Friday and Saturday nights, "but recently we have added a market menu of four to five items that we run every Thursday through Wednesday. At certain times of the year it's an opportunity to run more opulent items such as lamb racks, lobster, caviar, etc. and since we print them weekly, the guest knows what the prices of the specials are. It's also an opportunity for us to run items that fit with the times such as Carnivale or Easter or our Cuban Christmas celebration.

"Whether the items are opulent or rustic, it's a great opportunity to offer guests items not on the menu and for us in the kitchen to try new items and new techniques. At Valentine's, for example, we do a Latino-inspired Surf and Turf with lobster and New York strip that we sell for $36.95, way above our average entrèe price. But it's a dish that sells out during Valentine's weekend and the day of. Items like prawns, lobster, prime steak and tuna always are popular in the specials column and tend to be our best sellers. Overall, our check average on specials is about 10-15 percent higher than our menu prices. That doesn't always mean our cost is better, though, considering some of the ingredients we use. And yes, Friday and Saturday nights always are the nights we sell the most specials."

Source: Restaurant Hospitality's 2005 Full-Service Restaurant Study