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    Seasoned Professionals

  • How limited-service restaurant operations address the swings of a seasonal business.

    Hillbilly Hot Dog / Sean M. Udy
    The original Hillbilly Hot Dogs unit in Lesage, West Virginia, sees a double-digit revenue decline in the winter months due to its off-the-beaten-path location.

    To fill the gap, Jones and his McAlister’s team find catering opportunities for groups coming to town, such as softball tournaments or aquatic events. The franchise also leverages its relationships with the chamber of commerce, local parks department, sports camps, and student orientations at the university to propel sales.

    “Because of the student migration, we need to have our eyes on subsidizing what we’re losing and be proactive about making up the difference,” Jones says.

    At weather’s mercy

    In all six of Mike Geiger’s Pittsburgh-area Moe’s Southwest Grill locations, traffic slows after January 1.

    “Mark it on the calendar,” the Moe’s franchisee says.

    Last winter, the lull intensified as the headline-grabbing Polar Vortex brought sub-zero temperatures to Pittsburgh. Roads emptied, offices closed, and the city went on lockdown, further complicating Geiger’s traditional winter slog.

    Rather than accept that bitter pill, Geiger and his team flexed their marketing muscles. Amid -9 F temperatures on January 7, Geiger’s shops unveiled a Brrrrrito promotion, offering $2 burritos to customers via social media and text message. Lines formed out the door at Moe’s, and Geiger’s registers rang all day. “We were going to make people leave their houses,” Geiger says.

    The Brrrrrito promotion aside, Geiger makes a concerted effort in the opening 10 weeks of each calendar year—easily his stores’ slowest period—to protect the bottom line. To offset the winter season’s in-store traffic declines, Geiger’s dedicated sales force pushes catering opportunities, and his stores host team nights for local schools.

    “I understand things drop off, so we learn and we augment, and we offer strategic and pointed promotional opportunities,” Geiger says.

    He also leans on a historical log tracking nine years’ worth of sales trends at his Moe’s locations. “Seeing the peaks and valleys helps us plan for the future,” he says.

    Geiger’s concentrated wintertime efforts have delivered results. Rather then the 20–25 percent revenue drop in January and February his stores endured in their earliest years, winter sales now vary less than 10 percent from his stores’ annual highs.

    “That’s a falloff much easier to digest,” Geiger says.

    Hillbilly Hot Dogs also prepares for its inevitable winter slowdown with a mix of clever marketing and strategic management. The restaurant introduces winter-only, belly-warming menu items, such as chili, goulash, and homemade soups, while the Knights focus on what they can control to maximize their prime season: repairing the “weenie stand”—the original location, which is made up of a shack, old school bus, and other spare parts—ordering souvenirs, and readying marketing plans.

    Fortunately, the Knights also stumbled upon another way to counter the winter decline that annually rattles their Lesage unit: They opened a second store in Huntington, West Virginia, adjacent to 14,000-student Marshall University. When the Lesage store slows, the Huntington spot teems with students and university staff; when winter weather makes driving to the Lesage store difficult, the Huntington spot corrals pedestrian traffic. When students head home for the summer, Hillbilly Hot Dogs’ weenie stand in Lesage is at its peak with hot dog–loving tourists and locals. The strengths of one unit balance the weaknesses of the other.

    “These two play off each other extremely well,” Knight says.

    Sporting news

    During the New Orleans Pelicans basketball season, Smoothie King’s unit inside the aptly named Smoothie King Center is open for 10–20 events each month. Many of those events attract more than 14,000 attendees, and Smoothie King sells an average of 500 smoothies per event, says Chris Webb, Smoothie King’s director of company store operations.

    But when the NBA season ends, traffic in the Smoothie King Center falls. The arena might only host two to four events in the NBA offseason, with the arena’s Smoothie King unit averaging about 175 smoothie sales per event.

    The discrepancy between the highs and lows makes handling labor an immense challenge, Webb says, echoing the concerns of many seasonal quick serves. During each basketball game, for instance, Webb needs eight to 10 staff members willing to commit to shorter three-to-five-hour workdays, a difficult task that he addresses by pulling assistance from Smoothie King’s local corporate and franchise community.

    The inconsistent sports schedule also makes product logistics and rotation a challenge, one that has since been multiplied with the addition of a Smoothie King unit inside the adjacent Mercedes-Benz Superdome, home of the NFL’s Saints. Week to week and month to month, Webb’s team has to project and anticipate product needs on a per-event basis.

    “This is different from our traditional locations that have definite product needs and rotation,” Webb says.

    So much of the battle is preparation, Bloomington Bagel’s Keough says. On football game days at Indiana University, it’s “all hands on deck” at the Bloomington Bagel Company, she says. The stores begin ramping up production on Wednesday, filling their walk-ins with ready-to-bake bagels.

    “It’s a roller coaster and, come early Saturday morning, we’re baking all day,” Keough says.

    For some, the impact of a sports season can be felt well beyond game day. While football Saturdays at the University of Alabama are slow at McAlister’s Tuscaloosa location, that’s not the case on the Fridays and Sundays that bookend home games at the 101,821-seat Bryant-Denny Stadium.

    “Our numbers on those two days will jump 25 percent,” Jones says, though he admits the opponent can significantly sway that figure. For a cupcake opponent, the jump might be minimal; for the annual Iron Bowl against rival Auburn, it’s “no holds barred,” Jones says.

    The key, Jones says, is careful documentation that includes key details, such as the opponent and game time. If Jones anticipates a spike, the store will increase its labor, including kitchen prep staff on Thursday.

    “These detailed records give us a knowledge base we can refer to,” Jones says. “We can’t just look at the first Saturday in October from one year to the next. If we do that during football season, we’re asking for trouble.”