American Restaurants Struggle to Stay Alive

Back in the late 1980s, the Turnaround Management Association was birthed out of a research project conducted at the Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. As the lead researcher, I had the opportunity to personally pull together a bibliography of articles about businesses whose travails were significant enough to hit the national headlines in various business publications. From the research, we published a monograph and wrote articles about best practices that appeared in 46 national business periodicals in our first 18 months of existence as a trade association. As I and other involved with the Association moved on to other pursuits, TMA moved off campus, starting gaining momentum in chapter development, and now enjoys international members as well as domestic. One of the publications of TMA is the Journal of Corporate Renewal. The Journal‘s lead article for May discusses the struggle of restaurants in the United States to remain profitable.

Some interesting facts from the National Restaurant Association are cited:

  • Restaurants account for 4% of GDP
  • 10% of the U.S. workforce is employed in the restaurant industry
  • 50% of adults have worked in a restaurant
  • one-third of all workers had their first job in a restaurant
  • 48% of the average household’s food budget goes to restaurants (vs. 25% fifty years ago)

The bankruptcy filings of a number of restaurant chains since the recession began in 2008 is but one indicator of a model that is teetering on the brink of survival. The photo above is taken from a Food Network show entitled Restaurant Impossible, wherein Robert Irvine turns a restaurant around in 48 hours. The menu is revised, customer service issues are addressed, $10,000 of strategic remodeling is performed, the revenue and costs are examined for opportunity, and the restaurant owner is challenged to run the business at a profit going forward.

Macro trends in the recent few years towards buying more groceries or becoming value-conscious have definitely affected the top and bottom lines of many restaurant owners. Franchises, which account for about half of the restaurant revenues produced nationwide, have really taken it on the chin. Franchisees who own one or only a few stores have inadequate access to capital these days. Another big factor is the conflict of interest in most franchise agreements that are based on sales volume. The franchisor can implement discounting programs to increase traffic and sales volume, but the franchisee has less and less profit as a result of the agreements.

What can be done? Turnaround experts recommend a process of performing store-level profitability analysis, followed by benchmarking against peer stores. These analyses can highlight purchasing/inventory issues, training issues that are evidenced by waste, and theft/shrinkage that depletes the operator’s assets needed to produce a return.

There are many good consultants who can help a restaurant owner sort through the challenges and create a plan for growth and renewal.

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