The first step to understanding how to deal with your own off-season is trying to determine what people want when they don’t want what you are selling.
I bet you veteran business owners can recognize the last day of your busy season. Or more accurately, you can probably pinpoint the first day of your slow season. Whether it’s a change in the weather or just the changing of the date, one day you open your doors and just know that the magic is (temporarily) gone. So what should you do – go into hibernation until next year? Think again; there are plenty of ways to remain viable (and keep the bills paid) while your customers have other things on their minds.
Luckily for those in the dessert business, people always love sweets all year-round. Sure, their tastes change from month to month, but delicious treats are always in demand. While candymakers can’t seem to give away a box of chocolates in July, creameries and gelato shops are killing it; then when it’s holiday gift-giving season, anything that can have a bow slapped on the front of it seems to just walk out the door. The first step to understanding how to deal with your own off-season is trying to determine what people want when they don’t want what you are selling.
For frozen dessert purveyors, the most obvious signals have to do with the weather. As soon as the sweaters and boots come out, customers are looking more for comfort in the form of warmth rather than the refreshment of something cool. To capitalize on this, you can add a few relatively simple menu items that will extend your viability during the colder months, even if you choose to still produce your core offerings. One natural combination is an affogato, a shot of espresso or coffee with a scoop of gelato or ice cream on top – it’s the perfect combination of hot and cold (and it satisfies the need for a little jolt of caffeine). Another go-to winter treat is hot chocolate or apple cider; these can be presented in a plain, fancy or upscale way, depending on your clientele. Fresh baked goods like molten chocolate cake or brownies and warm puddings are an excellent seasonal complement to year-round pastries.
Depending on what type of equipment you have on hand (or the budget to purchase), adding a warm savory item like soup or chili is another tactic. The good news is that kids will eat frozen desserts all year-round, so they may help drive business to your shop in the off-season. Your best bet is to continue to market the fun aspect of frozen treats to your younger customers and also have something on the menu for the adults who will be inevitably in tow.
Although you can continue to offer frozen desserts all year-round, some businesses choose to be completely seasonal to stay relevant. The website www.Chicagoist.com reported on one of the Windy City’s local businesses called Miko’s that does a complete transformation when the weather turns. In the summer, they are Miko’s Italian Ice; but come fall, they have a “season re-opening” and turn into Miko’s Flipside Café serving soups, sandwiches, mac & cheese, baked goods and coffee. The concept of “pop up” restaurants is hot right now. Marketing your seasonal change via conventional and social media will give people a reason to give you a second look; your shop’s off-season identity could be a subtle change or as drastic as Clark Kent and Superman!
For those who do offer frozen desserts all year- round, another way to capitalize on the seasonal change is to add seasonal flavors. This sounds like a no-brainer, but you would be surprised how many businesses are simply not taking advantage of this opportunity. Consider Starbucks; they have a near-cult following surrounding their Pumpkin Spice menu items. Fueled by their own marketing efforts, there is a big to-do around the launch of the Pumpkin Spice flavor every year, creating an opportunity for customers to crave the product and share that buzz of excitement with their friends. If you are curious, just check out the social media interaction surrounding the Starbucks Pumpkin Spice launch. You can harness this same power with your own seasonal menu items in your community, but it may take some trial and error. Not every seasonal flavor is a big hit; sometimes you just have to experiment to see what resonates with your locals. There are several imitations to Starbucks Pumpkin Spice flavor (imitation is the sincerest form of flattery), but differentiating your product from the sea of copycats can be a good thing. For example, some other fall standards are sweet potato, apple, caramel, cinnamon, nutmeg and butternut squash; there’s no reason pumpkin should always steal the spotlight with all the delicious alternatives available. In the winter, mint is always popular and can be presented in many different contexts: candy cane, peppermint patty, frosty or icy mint, green mint and chocolate, grasshopper (or crème de menthe), etc. Flavors that inspire a sensation of warmth are also popular; it’s a cool juxtaposition to have a frozen dessert that gives you a warm feeling like spicy cinnamon, gingerbread, cayenne pepper and “baked” flavors such as pie or cinnamon bun. The trick to getting a baked flavor in a frozen dessert is to add an element of caramelization (think brown butter or burnt sugar) or an “eggy” or custard-like flavor (think cake batter).
When considering changing your product mix, there’s one thing you absolutely cannot ignore: good marketing. Let your customers know that you’re making a change so that they can anticipate it, expect it and help you advertise it via word of mouth. Marketing can be as simple as adding new posters to your front window, updating your website and engaging in social media. If you are in a position to invest a little money in your marketing efforts, you could also try running a promotion. A special of the day or week can bring in customers, or advertise a coupon in a local publication or social couponing website. Either way, your marketing efforts are important to let the world know that “yes, we’re still OPEN” so potential customers don’t just assume that you’re dormant for the off-season. During the holidays, people are out and about shopping, so entice them into your shop with “busy shopper” specials. Then, when they come in, make sure you have grab & go items and/or gift cards/certificates to offer. After the holidays, there’s inevitably a bit of a slump for everyone as New Year’s resolution diets kick in, credit cards are holstered and people are just burnt out on consuming. One way to inspire them again is to jump start your marketing efforts with wishful thinking; spring fever is always contagious, and there’s beach weather somewhere!
To give your marketing fire more fuel, consider holding events to draw people into your shop in the off-season. Especially when the weather is cold, people get cooped up in their own homes and want to get out, but not outside; they’re looking for something to do to beat cabin fever without spending a lot of money. The events you plan should appeal to the type of people who frequent your shop. If you are located by a college or high school, reach out to the students with offers to do a “study group special” (maybe a discount for study groups of two or more people). If there are lots of families with kids, you could hold a board game championship and award little prizes and coupons to the winners. If your clientele tends to be more sophisticated, you can try partnering with a local vineyard or wine distributor to hold a tasting. Some other ideas include having an acoustic guitar player (or some other musician who’s not too obtrusive) play live music, offering crafts or other hands-on workshops, or regularly host a www.Meetup.com group. Holding events gives you something newsworthy to advertise and can attract new customers that will continue to come back in the busy season as well. Make the best of your events by taking pictures, posting updates and recaps on social media, and harvesting suggestions for future events from attendees.
If keeping your doors open during the off-season means finding a way to keep your production levels up, daily street business may not provide sufficient volume. Therefore, this is a good time to explore resale and wholesale opportunities, if you haven’t already. Consider the restaurants in your area: What kind of desserts do they currently sell? By targeting other local small businesses, you may be able to strike a deal to provide your finished products to them. Both sides benefit if you already have the investment in the machines, ingredients and know-how and they already have a complementary product mix like dinner or lunch. If you form a good relationship with these business customers, you can even help to cross-promote each other. For this to work, you do have to put on your selling shoes and perhaps make a few cold calls to people you don’t know, but what’s the worst that could happen? It’s another opportunity to network in your community.
If you’re looking for higher volume resale opportunities, another alternative is to explore retailing your products. Now, this option is not viable for every business as it does require the additional investment of packaging materials, time and space to repack your product. Also, some cities and states have ordinances about how items sold in retail (especially containing dairy) must be produced, and you may need to apply for a permit. But if you have an opportunity at a local retailer (like a grocery store, specialty foods shop or farmer’s market), the potential returns of appealing to a larger market could outweigh the initial costs to entry. Considering the amount of planning that instituting a retail line would entail, this may be a good project to work on in the off-season when you’re not overly busy taking care of your core customers.
One thing the off-season is good for is having extra time on your hands, so take advantage of it. Preparing for next year’s busy season is always a safe bet and there are many housekeeping items that probably need attending to such as equipment, property maintenance, finances/taxes and staff training. The staff that you retain during the off-season are typically your go-to men and women, people you trust and depend on to make sure the shop runs when you can’t. Investing in your employees not only showcases your appreciation but also allows them to grow and feel like a vested part of the company. An employee who feels valued and is given a chance to expand his or her knowledge in the industry will be more likely to be productive and take on responsibility during crunch time. One way to provide this opportunity is by utilizing the PreGel Professional Training Center; there are many classes at the facility in Concord, NC, over the course of the year that offer valuable training and recipe development resources. You can get more information at www.pregelamerica.com/training.
Finally, another option for the off-season is simply taking a break! Shutting your doors temporarily is not necessarily a bad thing. For every day your business is closed, you are saving on hard costs like electricity, water, staff and raw ingredients. Although you are still paying rent, closing your doors temporarily might save your business money if you wouldn’t be able to sell enough product during those times to cover the daily cost of “keeping the lights on.” This also gives you a chance to recharge your batteries and spend some time enjoying other aspects of your life like family. Never underestimate the power of a little vacation away from the daily grind. There are plenty of trade shows and industry events around the country that can provide lots of inspiration and new product ideas (to see a list of some of these events, go to www.pregelamerica.com/events). Or you could do some concepting by checking out other people’s businesses along your travels, you never know what they might be doing in another city (or country!) that might be a hit where you live.
At the end of the day, the off-season only lasts for so long; before you know it your doors will open and customers will come flooding back in. In the meantime, enjoy the break in activity and put your newfound time to good use. It hopefully, will pay off!
Durham, M. (2011, October 3). Miko’s Flipside Cafe Pops Up for the Season. Retrieved October 2011, from Chicagoist.com: http://chicagoist.com/2011/10/03/mikos_flipside_cafe_pops_up_for_sea.php#photo-1
Jonaustin. (2011, January 13). How an Ice Cream Parlor Heats Up Its Cold-weather Sales. Retrieved October 2011, from FoodChef.net: http://foodchef.net/trending-topics/how-an-ice-cream-parlor-heats-up-its-cold-weather-sales