Operator Toolbox: Sales-Building

The Art of Menu Merchandising

Having a great product or a restaurant full of customers doesn’t mean you’re making money. As restaurateur “Diamond” Jim Brady is alleged to have said in 1901: “You can have the best product in the world but if you can’t sell it, you’ve still got it!

By Jim Sullivan

Having a great product or a restaurant full of customers doesn’t mean you’re making money. As restaurateur “Diamond” Jim Brady is alleged to have said in 1901: “You can have the best product in the world but if you can’t sell it, you’ve still got it!”

The fact is, people don’t “buy” things, they are “sold” things. Don’t be shy about “merchandising your menu.”

A long time ago, Grandpa Sullivan (a salesman so good that he could sell you a dead horse and when you came back to complain, sell you a saddle to go with it) pointed out to me that there are only Four Ways to Grow A Business:

  1. Acquire More Customers (of the kind you want to serve)
  2. Improve the process
  3. Increase the price
  4. Increase the average value of the transaction

Let’s take a closer look at # 4; increasing the average value of the transaction, which of course means raising incremental sales along with adding value. Here are some strategies and tactics to improve profitability via service-driven selling:

  • Goal: a buck per guest.

    Focus on raising your sales one buck per customer. Doesn’t sound like much, does it? Not until you do the math:

    1. Write down how many customers visit your operation in a year.
    2. Now, let’s assume that you can increase the average spend of those customers by one dollar per transaction.
    3. Add a dollar sign to the left of your annual customer traffic.
    4. Example: 150,000 guests per year equals a $150,000 in higher gross sales—without raising prices or spending one more penny in advertising. Plus, your fixed costs (labor, utilities, rent) don’t change, so your profitability rises the more you sell. Wow! That’s almost like “found” cash isn’t it? And since servers are tipped on gross, not net, sales, a dollar per person increase just added another $22,000 to the collective tip pool.

    And maybe the best news of all relative to encouraging your team to collectively raise your sales a dollar per person? What generates an extra loony in gross sales? A side of sour cream? A small soda? An iced tea? A slice of cheese? A $1.95 cup of soup shared by two people? An order of $4.95 appetizers split among five people? It’s a do-able goal!

  • Endorse the choice.

    Whenever a guest buys a product or orders a particular dish or drink, always respond “Good choice,” or “You’re gonna love that”. This reassures the guest and adds value to the transaction every time.

  • Shotgun Selling.

    This means fire at everything and something’s going to fall down. Suggest an appetizer, dessert or a sample of whatever you sell to every customer and the likelihood of more sales rises dramatically. I can assure you that every time you don’t ask they will say no. Every time you do ask there’s a 100% possibility they’ll say yes.

  • Use Colorful Imagery.

    Ad agencies have known for years that descriptive adjectives sell more products and if you run a restaurant you know that the same is true for servers when they’re suggesting food or beverage to your guests. Here’s some words that help sell:

    • “Very popular”
    • “One of our best sellers”
    • “My favorite”
    • “Fire-roasted”
    • “New”
    • “Good deal”
    • “Family recipe”
    • “Made fresh daily”
  • Show and Sell.

    Menus, table tents, reader boards, desert trays and buttons are powerful sales tools if used properly. My favorite sales “prop” is a button the server wears that says “If I Don’t Suggest An Appetizer It’s Free.”

  • Always “pre-market” point-of-sale items to your service staff.

    Whenever you get new table tents in from a vendor, don’t just put them on the bar or tables, be sure to post them in server stations, behind the line or by the time clock so servers see them every where they look. Explain, promote and “sell” the table tents at pre-shift meetings to increase the odds of servers understanding how to use them with their guests.

  • The less money you spend on training, the more you’ll spend on advertising.

    The key to merchandising any menu successfully is training, teaching, coaching and incentives. Don’t let turnover affect your commitment to training. “But what if we train our people to sell and then they leave?” you may ask. My response? “What if we don’t and they stay?”


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