The early bird

Co-owners Lela Radojkovic (left) and Matt Kemp (right) of Restaurant Balzac believe that, if you have the staff on anyway, you may as well use them.

Co-owners Lela Radojkovic (left) and Matt Kemp (right) of Restaurant Balzac believe that, if you have the staff on anyway, you may as well use them.

Early dinner deals are attracting diners into restaurants earlier than regular times. But John Burfitt asks if dinner at a discount price is really good for business?

The adage claims it takes three weeks to break a habit, but many restaurateurs insist one habit that is almost impossible to break is the Australian dinner tradition of eating between 7 and 10 pm.

That nightly three-hour rush through the doors can be the only window of opportunity for a restaurant to bring in the diners and the dollars. Evening dining before 7 pm or after 10 pm has just not caught on to become a regular part of the Australian way.

There is, however, a changing of the dining times—and the almighty dollar is playing a major role. The offer of good value, particularly in these tougher economic times, is proving to be a strong force for breaking the established habit. As many restaurateurs are discovering, there is a significant slice of the dining market that is indeed keen to dine early, particularly if the price is right.

Some restaurants are reporting good results by offering a fixed-priced menu for a fixed time in the early evening.

For some, it is on offer every night of the week, while others make it part of the weekend line-up. There are other businesses that do not offer deals, but have discovered opening at 5.30 pm makes good business sense, with the punters strolling in, ready to eat.

Early diners allow restaurants to squeeze in an extra sitting, allowing the tables to be, in principle, turned over three times a night.

For restaurants like Adelaide’s The Snake Charmer, an early dining deal has been a seven-days-a-week part of trading since it opened in 1979. Restaurant Balzac in Sydney has been offering an early deal five days a week for nine years, while Melbourne’s Number 8 and the brasserie by Philippe Mouchel at the Crown Towers have both had weekday early deals for almost five years. Sydney’s Danks Street Depot introduced a 5.30 pm Friday and Saturday dinner deal before Christmas last year; this proved so successful, it has remained on the restaurant’s schedule.

Offering something new in customer service has delivered good business results for these restaurants. But opening the doors early is not without its hazards.

For every 30 extra patrons a night it might deliver, early dining can place additional demands on staff. There is also the risk that adopting such a deal could steal full-paying customers from later in the evening. And location is also essential to whether such a strategy will suit the trade habits of certain businesses.

Lela Radojkovic, owner of Restaurant Balzac, will not, however, be drawn on the negatives about an early deal. She says it works as well for her business today as it did when Balzac first opened.

“This has always worked for us—it’s a way to use all your resources wisely,” Radjokovic says. “If you are opening your doors anyway at
6 pm, what would you rather—be serving people wanting to eat, or having your staff waiting around for something to do?

“The kitchen is already in work mode prepping for the night ahead, so putting through meals at that time is no big deal. If we can have the house 20 per cent full between 5.30 and 7 pm, then that is good. And we always have diners in at that time.”

Munjula Watts of Adelaide’s The Snake Charmer is another who says the early dining deal has always meant good business for the restaurant she runs with her chef husband, Andrew.

In these tough economic times, Watts says it is such dining deals that can help a restaurant maintain a stream
of diners through the door—just as it did for the Adelaide eatery in the recession of the early 1990s. She claims The Snake Charmer can be 50 per cent full during the 5.30–7.15 pm period of the early deal. “The customer knows exactly what the dinner will involve, so there are no fears about costs—it is all very up-front, and that works for people during times like these,” she says.

“People know if they are in by 5.30 and out by 7.15 pm, they can have an entrée for $5.90 and a main for $11.90, with rice and salad included. It is a complete meal and it won’t break the bank—and we are happy to put through an extra sitting.”

It is not only the budget-conscious diner attracted by a good deal; it also proves to have strong appeal to families with young children.

“The number of young families in our area (Unley) in Adelaide was one of the reasons why we offered this deal in the first place,” Watts says. “We decided on a way they could get in and out, have dinner and for it to be a lot more affordable than if they came by later on.

“The kids could have a good time when here, but they would be gone by the time our next dinner sitting arrived.”

While Lido Russo’s Venturo Restaurant, with its harbourside location in Sydney, is more suited to pre-theatre diners than to family groups, he tells of a friend’s suburban pizzeria located on a park that offered a pizza deal from 5 pm—and reaped the rewards as a result.

“Families would flock there every night. The parents could have a pizza and the kids could run around the oval,” he says. “The location meant everything, and a child friendly environment is a huge market for families that could not be bothered cooking, but wanted to take the kids somewhere for dinner at a reasonable price.

“It is a matter of knowing your location and your market, so that if you do open early and offer a deal, you know there will be the customers to support you. While Venturo doesn’t have an early deal, we open early for the pre-theatre crowd, as we are across from the Sydney Theatre Company. They want to be in and out well before 8 pm so they can get to the show, and that then leaves us ready for the non-theatre crowd for the next sitting. It is a matter of understanding all of your market.”

Appealing to the pre-theatre/pre-cinema crowds was behind Melbourne’s Crown Towers’s move five years ago to offer a $39.50 early deal in Number 8 restaurant. With the Arts Centre, Exhibition Centre and a cinema multiplex all within a few minutes’ walk, there were numerous early diners in the vicinity.

The reaction was so positive, with the restaurant regularly operating at 20 per cent capacity in the earlier hours, that the adjacent the brasserie by Philippe Mouchel followed suit the following year. The weekday deal in both offers two courses for $39.50, with orders having to be placed by 7 pm.

“In order to get people in, we realised we had to provide incentive,” says Kym Barter, Crown’s General Manager of Premium Restaurant Operations. “We are asking people to dine at 6 pm, but there’s a large number who want to do that, and this is also offering good value for money.

“We do have an objective to have them out by a certain time, but these diners usually have an objective too—they want to be fed and on their way.

“We feel like we are catering to the market. If a person has something they want to do at 7.30 pm, they should still be able to go to a good restaurant and have the same kind of dining experience they would have at 9 pm. We want to showcase what we do—and if that guest has a good time, they may well come back later for supper or at another time for a full meal.”

Opening a restaurant earlier than regular hours does place, however, significant demands on operations. Kitchens have to be prepped and ready to serve up meals at least an hour earlier than normal, while front-of-house staff need to have the room ready and presentable at the same time other restaurants are still placing table settings and counting the float.

For both the Crown restaurants, Barter admits these costs were closely examined before proceeding with the early deals. “All our fixed costs are already there—the electricity is on, the kitchen staff are already working and the waiting staff have begun—so it didn’t add anything,” he says. “It just means there is no standing around waiting—everyone is working from the moment they arrive.”

It is an opinion echoed by Balzac’s Radojkovic, who says opening doors earlier has made the operation more efficient.

“Once staff arrive, they want to be doing something, and, if they know the doors are open at 6 pm, we can easily have the room ready by then,” she says. “Everyone likes to be busy, and they get it all done without any disruption to the service.”

The Snake Charmer’s Watts says that offering her staff slightly longer shifts than other restaurants has always made filling her roster an easy process.

“Staff prefer to come in for shifts of six hours rather than four or five, and what we are turning over covers that additional time,” she says. “It is worth it to us to do this—and to our staff as well.” But Venturo’s Russo says, while it is essential to anticipate customer trends when planning for staff numbers, caution must be applied when opening early, particularly if bookings are not taken for the early opening hours.

“If you are opening up early and you have no customers coming through, then you can have staff standing around without turning over tables—and that is the best way to throw away your profit. That’s why opening early is not for everyone. You have to know what your market wants. What we do is keep the kitchen open through the afternoon with some bar menu items on offer while the team are prepping for the night. So, if someone does come in early, they can still be easily fed as the prepping for the night ahead continues smoothly.”

Industry consultant Ken Burgin of Profitable Hospitality says that, in tougher economic times, more initiative in terms of marketing and special deals need to be implemented to stimulate customer activity.

While Burgin says he supports the early dinner deal concept, he warns restaurateurs looking to introduce such strategies to be cautious in two specific areas.

Firstly, he says, a restaurant should never appear to be desperate in the offering of a new deal; and, more importantly, it should not alienate customers with myriad conditions.

“A business should always be careful about how they describe a discount—that D-word can be scary to customers,” he says. “The offer has to be subtle and it has to be all about value, otherwise customers will question what the real motives are.

“This must look like it is a celebration of your services, not a desperate move to bring customers in. Once people get a whiff of panic, the place is a lot less attractive.”

Burgin also warns that a deal has the potential to get some customers off-side if they begin to compare prices on the menu. “You run the risk that people might say, ‘if I can get it for X until 7, why are you charging Y for it an hour later?’,” he says. “If the customer feels they are getting a great deal early, you don’t want them to feel they are being ripped off later on as well.

“And keep the fine print out of it as much as possible—make it something fantastic rather than being all about terms and conditions. If you need to throw in a glass of wine, do it—and make sure it comes out of a bottle, too!”

In the nine years Balzac has been offering the early dining deal, Radojkovic says she’s never had a customer complain about discrepancies in prices. She says the modern customer understands the reality that a deal is a deal—and all the better if it is a good one.

“With all the customers we have had over the years, no one has ever commented on why the early deal is so well-priced. They just know that if they get here and order at 6 pm, they have struck a good deal.

“It really isn’t that different to early bird parking. If you get in early, you pay X. If not, you pay full rate. This is a time to be smart with what you are offering—and if people are walking in early to eat because there is a deal on, then you are doing something right.”

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