FSD spoke to Cavin Sullivan, general manager for Metz & Associates
at 1,100-employee The J.M. Smucker Company in Orrville, Ohio, about the
importance of building participation. Sullivan says flexibility is key
in attracting customers to his café.
What are some of the best ways to increase participation at your operation?
Participation here is great. We serve between 600 and 800 meals per day, and our participation percentage is between 50% and 60%. I think it’s so high because we are a subsidized account and our prices are very low. We sell a $2 cheeseburger at our grill and it’s an 8-ounce Angus burger at our grill with toppings and chips. Obviously, pricing is a key component for participation because everyone wants value.
What are some of the most common reasons participation might drop at your operation?
Weather has something to do with our drops in participation. I think a lot of times if the weather is nice they’ll be more inclined to go somewhere, so they’ll walk to their cars and across town, whereas if it’s rainy or cold, they’d rather just walk across the street to our facility. The bad weather captures them more than the good weather. We do have other facilities within walking distance of campus, so if folks choose to walk a block to Subway, they will, but they won’t do that if the weather’s bad. It seems some folks tend to want to get out more when the weather is good if time allows.
After a significant drop in participation, what are some ways you’ve been able to bounce back?
A way to combat the weather is to do cookouts or promotions that can get people outside to eat. We are doing a picnic in June just for that reason. In the summer, Smucker’s is real big on doing stuff to show employee appreciation like going to a local park. So we’ll cater those events and they give employees the opportunity to enjoy the summer as a work reward.
What kinds of promotions have you found to be most effective in increasing participation?
As for promotions, we do free popcorn on several Fridays out of the month. I don’t know if that would bring any other people in than just to hang out and eat popcorn, but that’s an inexpensive item and we can give it away and get folks to come in here. I know the plant folks especially take advantage of that.
What advice would you give operators who are trying to increase participation?
The best advice I can give anyone dealing with participation issues is to look at pricing. Run promotions at a lower price point. Maybe be willing to lower your profit margin on some items to get customers through the door and focus more on volume. For example, when we first opened our new facility, our salad bar was 32 cents per ounce because produce prices had escalated. We realized that there was a local grocery store that had a salad bar and a dining area, and its salad bar was 30 cents an ounce. So my client said to lower ours to 28 cents an ounce. He said, “you’ll make less money, but people will eat here and they won’t be able to say they can go there and eat cheaper.” So we realized we’d rather take less of a profit and keep them here than just lose them entirely.