January 27, 2014 |

Pushing Appetizers

By Nora Caley

When San Ramon, California-based Straw Hat Pizza wanted to increase appetizer sales, they turned on the TVs. The 61-unit company partnered with Coca-Cola and created a three-minute video showcasing the chain’s Snack-A-Tizers and Coca-Cola products. Store owners bought television sets that they placed on the order counters, and customers watched the Snack-A-Tizer loop –– which, thankfully for the cashiers, had no sound –– as they waited to place their order.

The chain tested the video in stores in Northern and Southern California. The results were encouraging. “We had a 23- to 30-percent increase in appetizer sales,” says Jonathan Fornaci, president of Straw Hat Pizza. “We had one store near Monterey where the store owner’s TV broke, and within a week his Snack-A-Tizer sales dropped.” He adds that the store owners’ investments paid off within the first month of buying the TVs and DVD players.

Fornaci says the test indicated that customers want to see more visual presentations of the foods, so the chain is installing digital menu boards in some locations. Digital menu boards show pictures, video, moving text and other features. “You want to make the customer feel more comfortable. The digital menu board shows the picture, and the customer says, ‘I want that,’ ” he says. Store managers can even change the text to Spanish to reflect the demographics of a store.

Other restaurants that want to upsell appetizers use a more low-tech approach. Usually that means training cashiers or servers to mention appetizers in a way that doesn’t seem pushy.

“We tell the cashiers we want to offer the missing item,” says Amir Sabetian, vice president of operations for the 96-unit zpizza, based in Irvine, California. “Say they come in and order a pizza, the beverage is the main missing item, so we offer a beverage. Then we go for salad, because salads create a bigger check average than starters. Then we offer starters.”

Sabetian says appetizers and desserts are impulse buys, especially with Internet orders. “We notice if people order online the check average is higher,” he says. “They see everything in photos, and they get to take their time. Sometimes customers ordering for two people end up with enough food for four.”

David Poth, senior vice president of marketing and research and development for Mazzio’s Italian Eatery, says the company trains call center staff to offer a Dippin’ Starter, or appetizer with a sauce, early in the ordering process. “They start with a pleasant greeting, ‘Would you like to start this evening’s order with an order of cheese dippers?’ It’s non threatening. We are asking a question.” The call center handles the delivery and carryout for about 75 of the chain’s 167 locations.

Two years ago the Tulsa, Oklahoma-based chain launched a promotion called Go 4 It. Call center staff and counter staff at the restaurants tell customers they can add a starter for $4, which is a discount of about $1 to $1.50. “Four dollars is a safe price point,” Poth says. “At four bucks that obstacle to purchase is pretty low, so we might get them to take a chance.”

Every two to three months, Mazzio’s changes which starter to offer at that price. Sometimes the chain uses table tents at the counter, to show photos of the appetizers. Poth says the table tents help future sales. “It doesn’t help us for that visit but it plants a seed. People say, ‘Oh I didn’t know they had toasted ravioli.’ ”

Call center staff can earn prizes for meeting certain appetizer sales goals. Poth says the prizes often include gas cards, iTunes, and gift cards. Call center managers get a budget, and they buy prizes they think will be valuable and motivating. “They are empowered because they’ve got input, and that seems to work,” Poth says.

At Giovanni’s Pizza, with one location in Huntington, West Virginia, owner Tony Mancini says customers tend to eat appetizers at the bar, while watching local Marshall University football games on TV. “When people spend four or five hours there, they don’t want to eat a big bowl of pasta and then throw down beers. Instead they get a spinach dip they can share with their buddies,” he says.

The trick is to get dining customers to order appetizers in addition to their meals. Mancini says Giovanni’s offers specials, and he incentivizes staff with prizes. He offers gift cards for a non-competing restaurant to the person who sells, for example, the most chicken tenders on a weeknight. “Most of my servers are college kids. You can motivate them with free food,” he says.

He instructs servers to ask customers not whether they want an appetizer, but which appetizer they want. “Make the decision for the customers,” he says. “Plant it in their head with, ‘Do you want to start with a spinach dip?’ ”

Sabetian says staffers don’t have to sell an appetizer to every customer. On busy Friday nights, for example, sometimes it’s better to wrap up orders quickly than to try to get a person to order an appetizer while others are waiting to place an order. “If there are ten people in line, I’d rather take another customer and another $25 check than a $4 starter,” he says. “When it’s slow, the cashier can offer more things and have a conversation with customers.”

Nora Caley is a freelance writer specializing in food and business topics. She lives in Denver, Colorado.


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