We’re in a tough business. The fast-casual industry is exciting, but it’s hard work and more competitive than ever. It’s a constant battle for a share of customer traffic that can be fickle. It’s common knowledge that more that 25 percent of restaurants close the doors within a year. To help you avoid being one of the casualties, here are some suggestions for fast-casual survival.

Maintain faith, focus, and passion

Be 200 percent passionate about your operation. Know it backward and forward. Our industry is known for turnover, so you must be available to jump in whenever needed, which often means long hours.

Keep your customers engaged

Monitor social media to see what your customers are saying about your food, service, and brand. Yelp and TripAdvisor are both very important. In this day and age, everyone is a restaurant critic—and it’s instant. Many customers follow the reviews to guide them on their dining choices. If you’re doing all the right things, hopefully customers will be your ambassadors. If you get negative comments, try to resolve the issues as quickly as possible, even if the feedback is incorrect. The customer thinks they are always right.

Meet/exceed guest expectations

Offer loyalty programs. Promote customer engagement through in-store “four walls marketing, your website, and social media sites such as Facebook. Build email lists and “talk” to your customers with offers on a regular basis. I guarantee your competitors are doing so. Participate in charity and food events in your location neighborhood.

Follow best hiring practices

Train your employees well. Instill in them that we have jobs because of our guests. When it makes sense, engage them in suggestions for improving the operation. They are the ones on the front line with customers. A happy employee can be your best brand ambassador. A disgruntled employee can be your worst enemy.

Stay focused on the bottom line

Keep your rent costs to around 5—8 percent of sales. Watch food waste. If you are throwing away food, you’re ordering too much. Food and labor costs should be in the 60 percent of sales range. Aggressive negotiating tools are major keys to financial survival. Labor costs will always be an issue in our industry. Keep them as low as you possibly can.

Have a succession plan

Never forget we are all mortal. Last year I became very ill. That’s when I realized the importance of a succession plan. I suddenly thought, “What if I get hit by a bus tomorrow? What would happen to the operation?” It’s better to be safe than sorry. My lesson learned—plan for the worst. You never know what’s around the corner.

Consider a franchise operation as a safer launch Into the industry

According to FRANdata, a national leader in franchise performance and intelligence, consulting, the largest number of franchisees is in the restaurant sector. If you are just getting into the restaurant industry, franchise might be the way to go. Franchise companies offer resources, such as training, location counsel and best practices. Once you learn the fast-casual business, many of these systems can be turn-key

Nick Vojnovic is president of Tampa-based Little Greek Fresh Grill, a fast-casual Greek-themed multi-unit with an American influence. Little Greek currently has 31 locations in five states: Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, and Texas. Plans call for Little Greek to open its first location in Ohio this summer.div>
Outside Insights, Story, Little Greek