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<p>Staff retention remains the top challenge for restaurant operators, according to Andrew Freeman.</p>

2017 operations forecast: creative food, creative management

Hard-to-control costs may be offset by cool new ways to drive the top line next year

Under-the-radar Asian cuisines, Michelin-starred breakfast sandwiches, a bevy of grain bowls, veggie-inflected everything: The 2017 trend forecast from Andrew Freeman & Company unearths plenty of ingredients and dishes likely to generate buzz next year. 

But the hospitality consulting firm’s outlook offers another dimension: predictions about how operators will handle the labor woes and minimum wage issues making life difficult for so many restaurants right now.

AF&Co’s business trend of the year? Staff retention. The forecast sees two angles operators might take to achieve it.

“This year, more than ever before, restaurateurs are caring about the quality of life of their team members,” Freeman explains. “The cynic in us knows that it’s out of necessity — labor shortages have made the best people more valuable and that means those team members can demand better compensation and benefits. But the optimist sees a shift in the way we are treating each other. From Danny Meyer’s announcement of his groundbreaking parental leave program to Ryan Cole’s (from the Hi Neighbor hospitality group) ‘build your own benefits program,’ complete with commuter reimbursement checks and wines classes, this year we’ll see a lot more creative solutions to keeping people happy and healthy. “Creativity will be key,” Freeman adds, “as the failure of the no tipping/built in service charges have shown us that the guests won’t cover these costs directly.”

What kind of creativity? The report declares it’s time to think outside the box on ways to keep labor percentages manageable. That includes designing menus that require less labor in the first place.

Here’s what John Griffiths, a member of AF’s trend panel and chef at Bluestem Brasserie in San Francisco, says can be done.

“In operations, I think the single biggest issue in the San Francisco Bay Area is the challenging, ever-shrinking labor pool. Everyone is constantly evaluating their business to look at ways to recruit and retain staff, while also having to do more with fewer people in the kitchen due to the wage increases.

“I have seen and expect to see more restaurants moving to smaller, more thoroughly curated menus that really create a tight expression of their restaurant’s vision. These menus are also increasingly executed as ‘sharable’ or as ‘served as ready’ style. I don’t think I’ve eaten at a newish restaurant in SF in the last couple months that even had entrees on the menu....This helps reduce staffing, keeps menu prices down and allows flexibility in the way diners eat.”

The good news here is that customers now demand higher levels of flexibility. Freeman says that in his company’s role as a brand strategist, he usually advises clients that their concept can’t be everything to everybody. That may not be so much the case in 2017.

“Today’s guest wants to be in control of how and when they experience what your restaurant has to offer,” he says. “With increased competition, this means you have to cast a wide net to attract a wide audience. Restaurants are giving away a bit of control and saying ‘yes’ more often. Which gives guests the ability to come in for one drink at the bar, have a few dishes to share at the table or make time for an extravagant dinner. These concepts require careful staff training and a watchful eye on check average to maintain their profitability.”

Food halls give operators another way to cash in on this trend.

“In many ways, food halls are vehicles for allowing the guest to craft their own experience. You can do it all, all the time! But this trend is also great for the individual operators inside these halls, where low barriers to entry give operators the flexibility to experiment,” Freeman says.

Delivery is a third strategy that could help operators meet the “give them what they want when they want” mandate. But it’s not a slam dunk.

“Challenges are there in terms of vehicles and quality control, but more and more operators are seeing this as a revenue stream on its own as well as a marketing tool for getting and keeping the buzz. Caution: It’s still gotta be good and it’s still gotta be you —just mobile.”

There are dozens of insightful food and beverage trend predictions to be had in AF&Co’s 2017 report, a hefty 61-page document. Take a quick peek at page six before you dig in. It’s headlined “Trends We Saw Coming — 2016” and it follows up on how the firm’s last round of predictions worked out. No guarantee on 2017, of course, but with a track record like this one, Freeman’s latest list is worth a look.

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