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2019 Restaurant Trends

2018 was another solid year for restaurants, continuing a trend of mild yet steady growth. Using data from the National Restaurant Association (NRA), we will review the past year’s trends and surprises as well as forecast trends for 2019. For further insight into craft beer-focused establishments, and the state of restaurants in general, The Beer Connoisseur spoke with Flying Saucer Draught Emporium co-founder Keith Schlabs. Before we hear from Schlabs, let’s dive into the numbers to see what defined the past year.

At year’s end, 2018 restaurant sales are expected to have hit $825 billion, according to the NRA. This marks growth of 1.4 percent. This positive trend represents nearly a decade of growth for the restaurant industry.

“2018 is the ninth consecutive year of sales growth for the restaurant industry,” said Hudson Riehle, Senior VP of Research and Knowledge at the NRA. “Not surprisingly, it’s another year characterized by moderate growth.”

There are many parallels that can be drawn between the restaurant industry and the craft beer landscape, including that of growth driven by the sheer volume of establishments open to the public.

While there are over 7,000 breweries open in the U.S., 2018 saw the number of restaurants rise to over 660,000, and first and foremost, that means a highly competitive environment where the difference between success and failure is razor thin.

In a survival of the fittest environment, the most surefire means of surviving is to have a robust, capable workforce. The hiring environment is incredibly competitive, with cost of training talent and retention being cited as two of the year’s biggest challenges for restaurateurs.

According to Riehle, “roughly one out of every two restaurant operators reports their top challenge is labor-related.”

Keith Schlabs, co-founder of the pioneering craft beer restaurant chain Flying Saucer Draught Emporium, echoed this sentiment:

“Hiring talent is the hardest thing in the restaurant business right now. Restaurants open every day, and the hiring climate is super-competitive. Even the price for a line cook has risen dramatically over the last five years. Hiring service staff and sending them through our week-long training program, then making them practice with a human being is difficult when they could go down the street and work at a shot bar and make money tomorrow.”

Whether a taproom or restaurant, an establishment is only as good as the people running it. So how can restaurateurs ensure employees convey the image of the brand and provide excellent service in such a competitive hiring environment?

“Hiring is key, especially when managers don’t have the luxury of hiring based on specific personality traits,” Schlabs said. “Does a prospective employee seemingly have good energy, integrity, solid work experience, and can we make them understand what we need and how to execute? The leadership we have at each location is a priority, because people are our most important element – good people give good guidance, recommending the right beer to the customer and keeping them excited and interested.”

In summation, successful restaurants, like breweries, will be the ones that build themselves up from the inside-out, ensuring quality is never sacrificed for the sake of growth.

As for restaurant-wide trends, 2018 was the year of locally sourced food and drink choices. These options lend immediate authenticity to an establishment and preserve the all-important human element that today’s consumers crave.

With the amount of artisanal food and drink being produced, it is now possible to create a menu that relies heavily on local products, even for regional and national chain establishments like Flying Saucer or California-based Yard House. This tailored experience can serve as a huge differentiating factor, but again, what it requires is a trustworthy, highly attuned staff that cares enough to execute.

“We let each establishment have autonomy,” said Schlabs. “There are parameters that must be adhered to within, but our Charlotte location, for example, is a different experience than San Antonio, and that’s fun to see.”

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