Kathryn Rem: Tips for restaurant customers

Kathryn Rem

Frank Kalmar was talking to restaurateurs, but his advice can help diners have a good restaurant experience, too.

“It doesn’t matter if your food looks good. If you don’t make money at it, you won’t stay in business,” he told a roomful of food-service managers last week during a food show presented by Robert’s Sysco Food Services at the President Abraham Lincoln Hotel.

Kalmar is a San Francisco-area food-business consultant, restaurant owner and a partner in Tepper Kalmar Associates. His topic in these days of narrow profit margins was an ear-perker: “How to Lower Your Food Cost by 5% in 30 Days.”

“I can tell how long you’ve been in business by the size of your menu,” he told the food-service pros. He started one of his restaurants with 15 entrees and five years later had 30 on the menu, a situation he realizes was a mistake.

“We’re eager to please the customer, so we keep adding. But in our business, you sell it or smell it.”

His advice for restaurant managers: Streamline the menu by removing poor sellers. It’s better to prepare a few excellent entrees than many mediocre ones.

My advice for diners: Order a restaurant’s specialty. Go for sirloin at a steakhouse and tilapia at a seafood restaurant. Who knows how long that veggie quiche has been parked in the fridge at a barbecue joint?

Kalmar advised restaurateurs to figure out which menu items generate the highest profit, and promote them prominently on the menu. He noted that customers tend to order from the top of the menu.

His advice for restaurant managers: Move the item you want to sell to the No. 1 spot on the menu. Box it to give it better play.

My advice for diners: Don’t let your eye stop at the first menu item. Spend a few minutes reading the entire menu, and don’t be swayed by items that are boxed, in bold type or dolled up with appetizing photos.

Speaking of menus, Kalmar noted that it’s easy for customers to find the cheapest items if prices are listed in a column. 

His advice for restaurant managers: List prices at the end of item descriptions so they are staggered on the menu.

My advice for diners: Wear your glasses so you can find and compare prices.

Knowing how much food to order is a tough job in a restaurant. The owner doesn’t want to be left with unsold entree portions, yet running out of menu items can anger customers.

Kalmar said it’s better to have leftovers than fail to deliver what the menu promises, a move likely to drive diners to competitors down the street.

His advice for restaurant managers: Add 10 percent to the portion cost to adjust for food that doesn’t sell.

My advice for diners: If a restaurant runs out of an item once, order something else. If it happens regularly, voice your displeasure to the staff and find another place to eat.

“It’s not what you like that matters,” Kalmar told the food-service professionals. “It’s what the customer likes and they vote every time they come into your restaurant.”

We can both agree on that.

Kathryn Rem can be reached at (217) 788-1520