The restaurant’s guide to surviving a slowdown

Restaurant interior with empty tables
Photo by Louis Hansel

Update: A new post is now available with more time-sensitive information and resources for restaurants impacted by the Coronavirus.

Business slumps are inevitable. From economic crises to seasonality to bad weather—there are many external (and sometimes unpredictable) factors that impact the frequency and patterns of people dining out. Eating out at a restaurant is among the first things that people cut out when looking to tighten budgets or when feeling anxious or uncertain about what’s ahead. 

But these times don’t have to mean all bad news for restaurants. There are many ways to capitalize on slow times and ensure that when business picks up, your restaurant is stronger than ever. This is an excellent time to reevaluate your operations, get ahead on social media and marketing campaigns, and get creative. Not sure where to start? Here are seven tips and tricks for using a slow period to optimize your business by making the most of your staff and your time.

Double down on great customer service

During slow periods, you’ll have more time to engage with your diners and go the extra mile to provide exceptional service. Treat the diners that come in like family; it’s a great time to turn a first-time guest into a repeat diner. 

Think about things you wouldn’t be able to do with a full house to make each dining experience incredible. Can you whip up something creative in the kitchen and send a complimentary bite out to your guests? After hunkering down for a while, diners are going to be excited about getting out again, and this is your chance to establish yourself as a top-of-mind favorite for the long term.  

This is also a great time to ask for customer feedback, really listen to their input and opinions, and then make a plan to address issues, incorporate new ideas, and share feedback with your staff.

Experiment with your menu

When business is slow and your restaurant isn’t as full as usual, it’s a great time to try new things and get creative with your menus.

Get more value out of your staff by getting their ideas for new menu items or innovative beverages. Ask your team for their wish list of items they’ve always thought you should have on the menu—or suggestions they’ve heard from customers. Encourage out-of-the-box thinking: What’s the wildest menu idea your staff has ever had?

“Take the time to really dig through your expenses from the past year and look for patterns, particularly in labor costs and ingredient sourcing.”

Chloe Sorvino

This is the perfect moment to innovate—and look for efficiencies—on specials and pricing. “Take the time to really dig through your expenses from the past year and look for patterns, particularly in labor costs and ingredient sourcing,” says Chloe Sorvino, food writer at Forbes. “What are some ways to cut down on variability? Can the menu be streamlined in a way that cuts back on the variety of ingredients you need to buy regularly? As you create or rethink menus, consider your own purchasing power. Sourcing a limited amount of ingredients in an artful way can lead to savings.”

Reinvest in your supplier relationships

As Sorvino points out, slow seasons are a great time to reflect on your business, do research, and make thoughtful decisions you normally wouldn’t have time for during your busy season. When were you last able to spend the time to re-evaluate operational flow at your restaurant or rethink your portfolio of suppliers? Ask yourself, “What investments could I make now to create operational efficiencies and a better diner experience in the future?” 

Integrating technology into your operation is a crucial way to stay relevant to today’s diners. Tools like Yelp Reservations and Yelp Waitlist connect your business to a massive diner network and streamline your front-of-house operations. “Diners expect a lot more than they did five, ten years ago,” says Devon Wright, general manager of Yelp restaurant marketplaces. “Before they even set foot in your restaurant, they want to know what to expect and when they’ll be seated. Their opinion of your restaurant starts way before they set foot in your space, from researching your Yelp page to securing a table. Successful restaurants are investing in front-of-house software to allow their serving staff to focus on what they do best: providing impeccable hospitality in the restaurant.” 

Tech solutions not only help your operations, but give you more insight into customer trends and dining behavior data so you can make smarter staffing decisions and identify the best areas for investment.

In addition to technology, take a look at other suppliers, service providers, and partners. As Sorvino recommends, this is a good time to evaluate all your providers to ensure you’re getting the best quality at the best price and to look for opportunities to consolidate. If you’ve been unhappy with any of your suppliers or service providers, take the time to research other options or to have that difficult conversation that you’ve been putting off with the supplier. 

Reinvigorate your marketing activities

In a downturn, it’s natural to think first about cutting costs. When taking a look at your marketing spend, remember that it’s important to maintain a certain level of marketing investment to avoid prolonging the slow period. Many restaurants make the mistake of cutting marketing activities during a slowdown when, in fact, lean times are exactly when your restaurant most benefits from marketing. As the U.S. Small Business Association points out, “Studies have shown that those maintaining or increasing ad outlays during slowdowns wind up outselling rivals who cut back.”

Refining your digital presence and social media strategy is another way to increase your relevance in the long run. Diners are always engaging digitally, and you want to be top of mind the next time they’re deciding where to eat. Here are a few digital marketing “housekeeping” tasks for you and your staff to tackle while it’s quiet.

  • Web and social updates
    Take a look at the copy and photos on your website and social profiles: When was the last time you switched out your cover photos or updated your business description
  • Yelp updates
    There are many free updates you can make to your Yelp Business Page that will help you stand out among your competition. 
  • Social post planning
    Take the opportunity to plan out the next few weeks or months of social media posts. Get all your photos and post writing knocked out while you have time; if you use a social media platform like Hootsuite, you can “set it and forget it” by scheduling posts to go out at specific dates and times in the future. You can even encourage your staff to flex their creative muscles by helping with writing and photography.
  • Food photography
    Slow times are perfect for getting updated glamour shots of your dishes and beverages. For inspiration, check out these food photography tips.
  • Email marketing
    If you have a list of customer email addresses that you rarely use, this would be a good time to send out an update, including any specials or promotions plus details about your catering, delivery, and/or take-out offerings. If you have a newsletter or are already emailing your customers regularly, take the time to plan out, write, and schedule the next few emails.

For more creative ideas for marketing your restaurant, get “The Essential Guide to Restaurant Marketing.”

Cater to special occasions

While it’s true that dining out may slow during challenging economic times, people will still find ways to celebrate a birthday, graduation, or other milestone, whether that’s out, at home, or in a rented or public place. Promote your ability to host and cater to large parties, and highlight how you can help make their event an occasion to remember.

Also consider targeting local offices and businesses with catering promotions for meetings and internal events, which can be a less expensive (and more productive) alternative to taking the team out for a meal.

Lean into delivery

People still have to eat, even if they’re not physically dining out. When in-restaurant dining slows, delivery remains an option for many people who want a professionally prepared meal in the comfort of their own home. Take your delivery experience up a notch by including a handwritten note, adding a low-cost freebie for orders of a certain size, or another personal touch. “Can you create a delivery-only secret item that draws buzz and becomes incremental to your business? Be creative,” says Sorvino. 

Get a head start on routine tasks

If you find yourself in an unanticipated slow time, think about tackling some of the tasks you were planning for the coming months sooner. Seize the opportunity to keep your staff busy and get ahead of schedule on things like cleaning out your walk-in, planning your next holiday menu, designing next season’s table tents, or doing inventory.

Unexpected—or even expected—slowdowns are undoubtedly a nerve-wracking time for restaurants, but they are also an important time to remember that change is inevitable and that it’s only a matter of time before things turn around. Use the time to your advantage: Step back and make strategic decisions that support your restaurant in the near-term while setting you up for success in the long run.

Want to contribute your own business tips?

Interested in another topic?  Let us know! Tweet us at @yelpforbusiness.


The information above is provided for educational and informational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice and may not be suitable for your circumstances. Unless stated otherwise, references to third-party links, services, or products do not constitute endorsement by Yelp.