From produce to patronage: managing the seasons

Tiffany Waldron, Secretary of Pink Boots Society Australia
March 27, 2018
On the Floor with Kate McGraw, Beverage and hospitality consultant, Waysouth Hospitality
May 2, 2018

From produce to patronage: managing the seasons

Hospitality is an industry at the mercy of the seasons – probably more than any other. And today, seasons go beyond summer, autumn, winter and spring. The diner’s growing awareness of and interest in regionality means business owners need to be well versed in provenance and well aware of what their local area has to offer at any particular time of the year.

To a hospitality operator, seasons are also synonymous with business ebbs and flows. In the 12 months of the year, trade varies incredibly and is influenced by everything from the weather, school holidays and sporting events to elections, road works and public transport.

Here, we cover discuss seasonality in regards to both produce and patronage, and three hospitality professionals share their insights into how restaurateurs can manage what the year serves up.

Produce

Brooke Adey, Restaurant Manager of Chiswick Woollahra

Brooke Adey, restaurant manager, Chiswick Woollahra

“Seasonality certainly goes beyond the four seasons. Some fruits and vegetables are not available for the full 3 months but merely weeks, and in other times there’s an overlap between seasons. I certainly think that as our climate changes, so must our idea of the seasons.

“The vast array of reality TV shows centring around cooking has broadened people’s exposure and therefore their awareness of all things food. This goes hand-in-hand with seasonality. People are shopping at local markets and becoming more and more aware of where their own food is coming from, so it makes sense that this would flow into their dining experiences too.

“As a result, there’s more expectation on front of house staff to know where their produce is coming from. Guests want to know more than just ‘is it local?’ They want to know what region it came from. Have we been there? Could they go there? Seasonality is now about provenance too. In today’s economy, you can have access to just about any product at any time of the year, if you are willing to source it from overseas. But I certainly think the message of seasonality should be tied to provenance. When I was at Chianti in Adelaide, our chefs would go to the farmer’s market every weekend and then we’d write on our menu which stalls we got our fruit and veg from. Now I’m at Chiswick and we’re lucky enough to have our own garden on-site, so we’re constantly thinking about seasonality as we plan ahead and plant accordingly.

“Seasonality is also a large part of the narrative of Chiswick and the story we tell our guests. We explain to them, both in our menu and when we talk through our menu at the table, what we currently have growing, as well as what we are planting for the next season.

“I think we can all agree that food tastes better when it’s fresh and ripe. That is seasonality: when produce is at its best. But it’s also about good business sense. Embracing seasonality can be cost effective. We’ve all seen the cost of produce spike dramatically when it’s in short supply, so tailoring your menu according to what’s in season is just better for the business’ bottom line.”

Peaks and troughs

Hayley Hardcastle, co-owner/restaurateur of Bombini and Fish Dining

Hayley Hardcastle, co-owner, bombini (Avoca Beach) and Fish Dining (Gosford)

“We’re in a coastal region with a tourism drive that’s predominately beach and national park focused, so we look forward to the holiday period – or any time when the sun is shining. Our business highs and lows are extreme – it comes with the territory.

“When you operate in an area which experiences extreme booms in trade, one of the hardest tasks is equipping your staff. Nothing will prepare a new staff member for the busiest week or weekend of the year. To be honest, even the core team can struggle with the intensity and the pace.

“We always try to reiterate to our team, whether it’s quiet or busy, to set the pace and keep it. Try to push yourself and trade throughout the week as you would during the peak so that when Saturday night approaches (and everyone turns up at 7pm) you’re prepared.

“Keeping staff motivated in quiet periods is another key challenge. Every year we aim to learn from the previous one. I guess a huge motivator is that staff are able to take their holidays during this time, and this year we’ve also introduced a staff incentive program: 50% off dining on certain days across our venues, as well as complimentary fitness sessions with a trainer on-site at bombini a few days per week.

Hayley at a Women in Hospitality event

“We also get them working in other areas of the business. At bombini, we are on two acres so the maintenance and cleaning is epic. Normally these jobs are outsourced 5 days per week, but from May to August we reduce our contractors to 3 days per week and distribute the rest of the work over the venues to share the costs and retain our casual staff for the quieter months.

“At the other end of the spectrum, during the busiest time of the years we need to pay attention to the signs of burnout, which we all show from time to time: short temper, feeling overwhelmed, not prioritising targets, being lazy, forgetful, or difficult to motivate.

“This is where breaks and staff meals are important. I know they’re often overlooked by management when it’s busy, and managers often sacrifice their own time to keep the staff motivated, but they’re the ones setting the benchmark and leading the team, so they need to set the example and take a break too.

“Workload and balance are tied in here too. Often I see our chefs in the kitchen well before they need to be there, and so we constantly remind them to provide a reason why they need to be at work early. Guys, go to the beach!

“Regardless of the time of year, I’m continually trying to work with my managers to keep their spirits and morale high. It’s hard – the full time staff are with each other every day of the week, and some would see their colleagues more regularly than family and friends. As much as their happiness and motivation comes from within, it also comes from the people around you and spending all that time with each other can easily put strain on relationships. It’s important to offer support to your staff outside of their normal day to day work, be willing to try something different, change the role structure and introduce new challenges to replace the old ones.

“Culture and morale is everything. Just one person can affect the whole team.”

5 ways to safeguard your business from the seasons

Kylie Ball, development program director, Appetite for Excellence and The Inspired Series

Kylie Ball, development program director, Appetite for Excellence and The Inspired Series

  1. Research when your peak periods will be

Reach out to other businesses in the area and ask them how business changes throughout the year. Spend a bit of time in the neighbourhood, and see how other venues are affected.

Talk to local residents to see when they dine out and when they don’t. This is a good opportunity to promote your business too.

If you’ve bought a pre-existing business, really analyse the P&L and the figures. Figures don’t lie – you’ll get a very good idea when the busy and quiet times are. Use these to your advantage to see when you need to try harder to get guests dining in your establishment. This will also help you create a more accurate budget for your business. 

  1. Master rostering

This is so tricky. Your end goal as a restaurateur or manager is to get consistency so you do the same numbers each service and your business actually doesn’t have any quiet/peak times. This is not always the case and is quite hard to achieve.

Keeping costs under control in quieter times means having flexibility in your workforce. This may mean employing staff casually so rosters can be adjusted according to the business needs.

A lot of staff are full-time so restaurants can use the quieter months to have full-time staff take annual leave. Time in lieu has also become a big thing, but more so in bigger restaurants. It’s so important to manage time in lieu and to have your head chef/manger overseeing it and approving it before it happens. It’s quite easily taken advantage of if it’s not diarised and reported on daily/weekly. It’s still a wage cost that’s going to appear on your P&L and weekly wage cost report because when that staff member is taking a day in lieu you are probably paying someone else to cover their shift while still paying them a day’s wage.

The best way to manage days in lieu is to try to get staff to use them in slower times where an additional budgeted staff member is not required.

  1. Adjust your operating hours

Consider adjusting the hours of your operation to reflect your business’ needs. Look at the option of closing for a set period during slower times. Staff who you want to retain then know that your business might close every year for 2 weeks, for example, in July and they can make holiday plans or other arrangements around that time.

I’ve sometimes wondered why small businesses close over the peak times of business, for example, in early January. The cities are normally booming with tourists, and locals are on leave and wanting to eat out. It may be better to close mid-year and take advantage of peak times.

  1. Hold onto key staff

Finding good staff is hard. Keeping them is the KEY. There are a lot of people who still use hospitality as their income earner while they’re at uni or studying. It’s good to have a network of people who you may have worked with in the past or perhaps you still do, and where you know you can pick up the phone and ask if they could help you out if you need staff last minute.

I’d also suggest having good relationships with recruitment agencies such as Benchmarque Recruitment, which focuses on hospitality, and working with people like Marlowe Bennet, who has a long history in the industry.

  1. Make the most of the quiet times

If you spoke to most restaurateurs, head chefs and managers, they’d probably say they are too time-poor to train their staff. But it’s so important to use quiet times to educate your team and get them cross-trained across your business. Get chefs trained up on other sections, get waiters trained up on the bar, coffee, reservations, back of house, hosting etc.

I’d also recommend arranging in-house training programs on food and wine, and service protocols, for example. Bring in producers to talk to your staff and educate them on the produce you use and products you sell in your restaurant.

Use your contacts through suppliers to go visit places like Vics Meats, Joto Fish, Brasserie Bread, wineries etc. Suppliers like these would love nothing more than to have visits from restaurant staff to show them their produce, production, the people behind the scenes and what they do. It’s also great for team bonding.

All in all, you want to utilise the quiet times to get your staff trained up on everything that’s relevant to your business, so when it peaks again they’re super motivated and much more knowledgeable, and can therefore provide an even better dining experience.