How restaurants can get better returns on their daily specials
“Would you like to hear about our daily specials?”
Walking through the streets of the Sydney suburbs, chalkboards and signs with daily specials can be seen outside many cafes and restaurants. We even may catch the daily specials being written onto the chalkboard if we arrive at a local cafe early enough. “Would you like to hear about our daily specials?” has become a common question when dining out.
As the food scene has become more popular, restaurants and bakeries have started to offer more quality or “specialty” foods on their daily special menu to keep creative and competitive.
But what do customers think about “Specials”? We recently conducted some research which sought to understand a customer’s perception of daily specials and specials when dining out.
“Specials” in the eyes of a customer
“Specials are a little change from the regular dishes so that we don’t get bored with the regular menu.” — Ranesh
50% of customers ordered specials at least once in a restaurant. These people ordered “specials” because they understood a special to be something different or in season and the chef was doing something creative. So that was good.
Then 45% of customers that we interviewed expected “Specials” to be “Deals” (eg. buy one get one free, $1 chips on Monday, etc). Is there a chance that people get confused with “specials” unless they’re in the restaurant to get the extra context?
“I think specials means a special price for a set menu.” — Kris
There was a strong correlation of “specials” being something different or a discount on a regular dish. What should restaurants do to fill this gap and make sure that their specials are perceived in the intended way? Miscommunication on their “specials” could lead to a waste of effort and money.
Why customers ordered “Specials”
We interviewed dozens of customers to learn why they order a dish that is not on the main menu. The responses we received can be classified into 3 groups:
- 41% of them trust the restaurant’s recommendation. These people are open to trying recommendations from others. Some of these people are regular customers, so they are happy to try a special or two since they’ve already tried many of dishes on the main menu.
- 25% of them prefer a particular food. Customers order certain specials (eg. chicken) because they prefer that food more in general. It also may have been an attractive name (eg. “DAE BEFORE MONDAE”) or was made with super healthy ingredient which happens to be a current food trend.
- 20% of them want to try something different. The desire to try a new dish naturally encourages this group of people to order specials. They often crave the “damn this is good” moments but at the same time they dine out not only for food. Often they have chosen a restaurant also for its atmosphere, location and trendiness.
“Specials”, a secret weapon in restaurants
Restaurants have different reasons and goals for offering specials. Here are some key reasons:
- Appetising menu. To adapt to the continuously changing customer desires, a menu is updated an average of 3 times a year. Restaurants will not just update their menu based on a guess. But running experiments with offering specials is often a method they use to decide which dishes should be on the new menu. When it’s not clear why a dish isn’t selling well (eg. is it the taste or the price), extending the offer as a weekly special may reveal the answer.
- Maximising supplies. We know that reducing waste of food supplies is very important for any restaurant to make their money go further. If the chef finds some well-priced fresh ingredients at a local market or there were some extra vegetables that were “left over” in the fridge but not as fresh, specials can be a great way to bring in additional profits.
- Attracting customers. “Strawberries now in season!”. For strawberry lovers, it’s the best time to try some different strawberry dishes. A limited-time special gives the restaurant an opportunity to do something out of the ordinary and gives people something to talk about. 50% of Millennials and Gen Xers agreed that they enjoy being the first of their friends to try a limited-time offer menu item.
- Making customers spend more. Sometimes specials are used as a strategy for restaurants to make more money. Wait staff will introduce these carefully thought out daily specials when taking orders. Most customers are too shy to ask for the price of specials and often order it without knowing the price. Another strategy is to place more expensive dishes on the specials menu so that other dishes on the regular menu look like good value.
How do restaurants sell “Specials” today
Restaurants invest time and money to create their specials to capture the attention of new and existing customers. They promote these specials in different ways to continuously keep the customers engaged and coming back.
- Post daily specials on Instagram & Facebook. We all know social media is an important tool for brand awareness and customer acquisition. A popular restaurant has tens of thousands followers on Instagram and hopes all of them can see the photo of their daily special. But more often than not, only 30% of their posts will be seen and each follower will likely see a different set of posts from the restaurant. So is it worth 30 minutes to take a photo, make it prettier, write the post and post the daily special on different social media every day?
- Write / Print daily specials menu. It’s clear that restaurants want their customers to see their specials, yet they spend a lot of effort without knowing how many people actually see their daily specials menu. There is no way to confirm the “chalkboard views”, “number of people who saw your specials board or menu”, “percentage of customers noticed the specials” and “number of customers viewed the specials vs number of customers who ordered specials”. If the specials don’t sell as expected, how do you find out why? One can’t just say it’s because customers don’t like it or was it because 25% of your customers didn’t even notice the specials? This also doesn’t exclude the customers who prefer not to order from daily menu because they’re trying your restaurant for the first time. There is a way to measure and understand why a special was successful or not.
- Staff recommendation. Today, the most effective way to sell specials is to get your staff to make recommendations. But this requires your staff to learn and remember a new dish every day, including the name, the ingredients, gluten free or not, etc. Customers have many different dietary preferences today. So if your staff are not familiar with majority of your customers, is that worth spending 5 minutes at each table recommending a dish?
Get a better return on “Specials”
Based on the above, we believe there is a huge opportunity to sell more “specials” if we use a reliable technology to scale the trust and recommendations.
- Post your specials on a digital menu. Sharing specials with a digital menu is quicker than posting it several times to each social media accounts and fussing with getting it onto your website. Furthermore, managing your menu from one place and having it update automatically will help you keep your menu up-to-date across multiple websites. This gives you a more consistent online exposure and wider brand awareness. Get a true picture of how your customers engage with your menu. After all, it’s a big part of why they came in to spend money.
- Collect facts about your specials. A digital menu can give you a more accurate insights on which dishes performed well and which did not so you can change your menu accordingly. If “Special Pizza” was viewed by 100 customers and ordered by 12, while “Special Burger” was viewed by 15 customers and ordered by 10, we can say with more confidence that the burger sells better and we should position the burger in a more obvious spot on the menu to make it easier for customers to find.
- Learn what your customer love. To recommend the right “specials” to your customers, you need to know what your customers like to eat. If your customers used the digital menu in 50 restaurants and ordered “Beef” dishes 30 times, a digital menu can auto-recommend the “special” if it’s a beef dish to this customer. Delight your customers with an unexpected personal touch and make the life of your wait staff easier at the same time.
Offering specials is a great way to engage with your customers and keep your menu competitive. It also offers a chance for the chefs to get creative. However, the success of your specials is limited by the exposure it gets. A digital menu can help you change the way that customers look at specials and how they find out about your specials. The internet is powerful for spreading the word. Don’t wait too long to improve the way you spread the word about your good food to increase sales and finding which “specials” draw in the crowd.
We would love to hear what you think about “daily specials” or “specials” whether you’re a restaurant or diner. Why does a restaurant do daily specials and/or specials? Please share your thoughts below.