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Restaurant operators are likely feeling some whiplash — an abrupt shutdown in March 2020 led to quick pivots and reimagining of their services. Then they spent the rest of 2020 and early 2021 adapting to regulations that varied from week to week and location to location. Spring brought a renewed sense of optimism — with a successful vaccine rollout — but just when they thought they could return to business as usual, several challenges erupted this summer that brought uncertainty back to the menu.
Yet if any industry deserves to be heralded with the term “resilience,” it’s restaurants, and fortunately there are ways to address the top three challenges they face.
Three Restaurant Recovery Challenges
Restaurant Recovery Challenge 1: Staffing shortages
While staffing has often been a struggle in the restaurant industry, the problem has never been as acute as today, with an overwhelming 75% of operators citing employee recruitment and retention as their top challenge in the “2021 State of the Restaurant Industry Mid-Year Update” from the National Restaurant Association.1
One oft-embraced solution is implementing technology, including self-serve kiosks and payment digitization, which allows consumers to complete time-consuming processes themselves, freeing up staff to focus on more labor-intensive tasks such as ensuring optimal food quality, safety and freshness.
Streamlining the menu and food prep is another way restaurants can cope, according to Dan Finkelstein, senior business development manager for Mars Foodservice. He highlights rice bowls and wraps as versatile offerings for today’s food service operators who are short on labor. “Ingredients can be bulk prepped ahead of time for quick assembly, and then diners can customize them to their liking with almost limitless flavor options,” he said.
Restaurant Recovery Challenge 2: Continued adaptation to new ways of service
As dining rooms closed, restaurants relied on delivery, takeout and drive-thru to bolster their bottom line, and their relevance prevails. However, using these as the predominant format presents challenges for any kitchen, let alone one that is short-staffed, pointed out Mike Buononato, chef and senior vice president for Creative Food Solutions. He suggested menu solutions as a key asset. “One great example would be utilizing a rice bowl or wrap, as they are an all-in-one item that requires less labor and packaging.”
In addition, these portable products deliver unmatched hold time. “Food that travels doesn’t always travel well,” Buononato noted. “While a bowl or wrap can be assembled faster at the operator level, it also is less susceptible than most menu offerings to flavor and texture degradation over time, which delivers better quality to the consumer.”
While these menu items check all the boxes for today’s service needs, they’re also trend-right with Gen Z and millennials; in fact, menuing database Datassentials SNAP! predicts that rice bowls will outperform 92% of food and beverages over the next four years.2
Restaurant Recovery Challenge 3: Profitability
As operators grapple with profits squeezed by inflation, higher labor costs and fluctuating demand, they are seeking menu items that please diners’ palates (and wallets) while allowing them to retain margin. The NRA midyear update reported that wholesale food costs are rising at their fastest rate in seven years, while hourly earnings are increasing at a pace more than double that of the overall private sector.1 In addition, restaurants are coping with ingredient shortages spurred by ongoing supply chain constraints, a situation that often forces them to replace menu items.3
That’s leading restaurant operators to depend on affordable staples such as rice, which provides a hearty base and allows them to potentially pare back on other costly ingredients. It also is incredibly adaptable as restaurants scale their menus up and down to accommodate necessary substitutions and contend with unknown demand.
“Superstar ingredients are those that can be customized with different flavors to meet a wider variety of customer taste preferences, and from global-forward to plant-forward, rice and grains hit the mark,” Finkelstein said. “They require no special storage or handling, yet can make a significant impact across the menu from today’s hottest offerings like bowls and wraps to salads, soups, veggie burgers, parfaits and even pancakes.” In addition, excess rice and grains can be frozen and reconstituted the next day, leading to less food waste.
Mars’ Finkelstein said he believed some of the best menu innovation in the industry was based on necessity. One solid approach he recommended for overcoming supply chain issues is a rotating menu that leverages what’s available to keep costs down, which also keeps your menu fresh and exciting for loyal customers.
For greater profit potential, he recommends adding nutritional callouts on the menu where applicable, as customers will pay a premium for many, including whole grain offerings.
A Menu Staple That Delivers
With all these benefits, it’s easy to see why rice bowls and wraps appeal to restaurant operators, but above all, they deliver what diners crave in terms of satisfying, healthful options. In fact, operators who offer grain bowls have seen a 58% increase in sales, according to a March 2018 Plant Based Eating Keynote from Datassential. 4
Buononato said he depends on BEN’S ORIGINAL™ as a versatile, blank canvas that can be paired with a never-ending array of ingredients and flavors, which allows him to create menu offerings that address labor, convenience and supply chain issues without sacrificing the integrity of the dish.
“Continuing to keep customer needs first is the hallmark of great restaurants, and given the popularity of bowls and wraps, it makes good business sense to have them on your menu,” he said. “Have fun experimenting within these formats, and trust that BEN’S ORIGINAL™ will help you deliver the eating experience that will keep them coming back for more.”
1. National Restaurant Association, 2021 State of the Restaurant Industry Mid-Year Update, August, 2021
2. Datassential, SNAP™, Sept. 2021