By Robin Porter
High over the servery entrance, Lady Liberty's image is colorfullychalked on a large blackboard next to the words "Bring Me Your Hungry." It appears again in the form of a life-size, luminous icon next to servery's American Grill. Just to her right is a 10-foot Eiffel Tower positioned strategically next to a bakery where French pastries and decadent desserts are prominently displayed.
These are just two of some 200 props scattered throughout the servery, which is not some whimsical restaurant in Disney World, but the 4,000-sq.ft. Union Market in the University of Akron's new Student Union, one of our firm's recent projects. What Union Market shares with Mickey Mouse's kingdom is the power of planning and the magic of merchandising.
Given fierce competition from on-and off-campus venues, Foodservice Director Zia Ahmed wanted a place that would awe visitors and where locals would want to hang out. Strong visual merchandising helped achieve those goals. Here are some of the steps you can take to get similar results at your operation:
Ask customers for their opinions. Involving patrons in the process when the venue is just a twinkle in the campus planner's eye will help create goodwill and good PR about dining services. Start this process during the preliminary design phase and at least 6-12 months before opening.
Meet with as many constituents as possible. Use a third party to conduct focus groups and personal interviews that probe perceptions about preferred menu items, seating options, pricing, hours of operation and customer eating habits. Use the results to develop a program statement for the venue. At Akron, these sessions informed everything from the final paint colors in the servery to employee uniforms to bringing in a popular offcampus Chinese restaurant to operate a station in the Union Market.
Tour cutting-edge commercial restaurants with an eye on creating a venue that will hold its own against competitors. Take photographs and create a "most wanted" merchandising and props list. Show examples of what you like to an advisory committee you've selected from the earlier customer focus groups.
Use data gathered from your research to develop several theme art or logo ideas and a name that can be voted on by your advisory committee. Once the group selects its favorite logos, send out an organization-wide e-mail that showcases the choices and asks for votes.
Promote final decisions. Offer respondents the chance to win prizes that relate to the opening of the venue (a week of free lunch, an i-Pod Shuffle, etc).
When decisions are made, make a big deal out of them, using buttons worn by employees, posters, flags, flyers and your website. Provides updates and progress about the new venue on your website, including schematics, color schemes and menu items.
Try to involve your greater community by asking other departments, local stores, and vendors to donate props and wall hangings. Look for archival photos and memorabilia with a local connection.
Host a menu tasting for administrators about six months before the opening. Set up tables around the room that feature color renderings showing what's ahead and examples of the merchandising props that will be used in the cafè. Hand out mugs and another small takeaway that will promote the new venue before the rollout.
Make signage part of your merchandising plan. Signs that can be changed easily allow flexibility—more than 50 chalkboards were used in the Union Market to create a warm and homey feeling in an otherwise contemporary setting. Recruit arts students or talented employees to help maintain the boards. Some new electronic signage offers extensive graphic options and can be changed easily via a web-based software.
Anchor space carefully. Select two large, unique props to anchor every 1,000 square feet of floor space. Think about ways they can be used or decorated to add interest throughout the year.
Encourage employees to have fun with the props. Give them responsibility for keeping track of merchandise and moving it around to keep customers from getting bored. Before the opening, give employees guidance on how to reference props when they interact with customers. Place unexpected props in unexpected places.
Make smallwares part of the merchandising planby introducing kitchen tools, colorful serving dishes and unusual holders for condiments and supplies. Like other merchandise in your venue, keep track of these tempting items by having employees keep a daily inventory of them.
Finally, plan for rotations. Refresh and replace merchandise on a regular basis so that it never fades into the background. Move large props to new locations from time to time. Decorate them for holidays.
Use your merchandising to accentuate the variety you try to deliver to customers on a daily basisand to emphasize the idea that your servery is a constantly changing place that offers variety, imagination and fun.
Robin Porter is President of Porter Consulting Worldwide, Inc., a Crofton, Maryland-based foodservice consulting, strategic planning and design firm.