The US restaurant scene, which is one of the most competitive and dynamic markets in the world, is giving itself a facelift to respond to changing consumer behaviour. With the UK just several steps behind, restaurateurs here could gain valuable insight by taking a peak at the market across the Atlantic, writes Lorraine Heller. According to Darren Tristano, senior vice president at the market analyst firm Technomic, US restaurants are inventing new ways to add value and drive off-peak traffic in order to survive in an environment of growing consumer cut-backs. He was speaking at last week’s M&C Report Restaurant Conference. He said: “Today in the US, we’re seeing how much value we can get when we eat out. People don’t order what they really want to order, they go for the extra value.” Almost 80% of consumers say they are using restaurant coupons, while set-price full-meal offerings are also becoming more popular. Full-service restaurants are moving into snacking, as the lower-priced options appeal to people who want to ‘graze’ rather than eat a full meal in order to save money. The latest research shows that one in five American consumers want more snacks to be available in restaurants. Tristano also noted that more and more people are eating at home. “Our research shows that 83% of people are eating out less, and one of the main reasons is the need to save money. Another reason is health. “We’re seeing more companies using health as the focus of their operations – not just for some items on their menu, but for everything. But the focus is on calorie count, not on healthier options, because calorie disclosure is coming through. Around 36% of consumers say that calorie count will impact their restaurant choices.” But the key to approaching health in restaurants in the United States is to avoid the term ‘healthy,’ cautioned Tristano. “Consumers are sceptical about the word ‘healthy’. They think it means ‘bland’. You’ve got to be careful how you market it because it’s the touch of death in the US if you say something is healthy. “You want to talk about ‘value’ and ‘better for you’, or ‘premium’ and ‘freshly prepared’. That’s what resonates well.” Restaurants are also broadening their approach to appeal to more people and capture off-peak traffic. For example, convenience is key for US consumers, so many restaurants have introduced a separate door for take-outs, with dedicated parking. Some restaurants also have food trucks, which is growing as a trend. These go to events to capture business from people who’d be willing to pay that little bit more to get better quality. Many companies have also introduced new ways to get more business out of the day. For example, introducing breakfast sales, Sunday brunch, late-night hours or ‘happy hours’. Speaking to an audience of UK-based restaurateurs at the M&C Restaurant Conference last week, Tristano recommended a check-list of action steps to help UK operators benefit from US learning: • Minimise discounting – the more you discount, the harder it will be to get back up • Develop smaller, grazing menus • Broaden your options • Offer both health and indulgence • Review your take-out programme and logistics • Add happy hour or late-night menu to drive off-peak traffic • Review your space utilisation