As you consider various marketing vehicles, keep this in mind: Research conducted by the National Restaurant Association (NRA) reveals that word of mouth is still the best method of advertising. More than four out of five consumers are likely to choose a table-service restaurant they haven’t patronized before on the basis of a recommendation from a family member or a friend. So make the foundation of your marketing program an absolutely dazzling dining experience that customers will want to talk about and repeat. Freddy’s Frozen Custard owner Scott Redler says, “I truly believe people are going to try you, and if you take care of them when they come in the door, that’s your best marketing. It’s proven to be true for us.”
Ask every new customer how they found out about you, and make a note of this information so you know how well your various marketing efforts are working. You can then decide to increase certain programs and eliminate those that aren’t working.
A key component of successful restaurant marketing is being sure your message is consistent with what you’re really about. Certainly a fine-dining establishment isn’t going to put its menus in clear vinyl sleeves and illustrate them with photographs of children enjoying burgers and fries. But the same restaurateur who chuckles at the absurdity of that image may well be guilty of a variety of other, subtler marketing sins.
For example, if senior citizens are a key segment of your market, do your menus and signs consider the physical changes, such as declining vision, that come with age? If you’re trying to attract families, are your photographs and illustrations contemporary and relative to your market? Does each element of your marketing package -- from décor to menu selections to printed materials -- reflect a consistent marketing message? Have you taken societal changes into account when designing your marketing materials?
Look for marketing opportunities
Marketing opportunities are often where you least expect them, and it pays to pay attention. Maxine Turner saw her deli business decrease sharply when the road in front of her building was under construction one summer. “It was very hot, so we put out a flier to all of the businesses here in our own complex and all around us, targeting all the people who came into our deli but who were frustrated because the construction made it difficult for them to get here,” she recalls. “We did a ‘beat the heat, beat the construction, bring a friend and have lunch on us’ campaign. It was a two-for-one promotion -- just a reminder that we were there and serving the community. Our business increased by 30 percent immediately, and it was amazing to see how many people came in without the two-for-one card.”
Turner also pays close attention to what’s going on in the offices around her store. “If someone is moving in, we send them a little complimentary lunch to introduce ourselves and to welcome them to our business community,” she says. “We try to do anything we can to put our name in front of people.”
The modern-day business card is your website. It’s where people will find you and where you can present what you have to offer to the world. Not only can you post menu items, photos of what you sell and take reservations, but you can include testimonials from customers and reviews that have been printed or posted elsewhere. Videos can be part of your site, perhaps showing your cook making a house favorite. You can also include the history of your restaurant, nearby attractions that tourists might enjoy and even some trivia. You want visitors to be engaged and come back often, so you’ll want to keep the site updated. Make sure all of your marketing materials can lead people to your website. Remember, it is your calling card.
One of the most effective and affordable ways to promote a food-service business is through social media. “We entered the Facebook world early on and continue to be amazed at this extremely cost-effective method of communicating directly with guests,” say Scott Redler. “One person in our office is the ‘voice’ of Freddy’s on Facebook. She responds directly to friends who post messages to us. We launched a fan club that allows guests to sign up for email alerts and special offers.”
Don’t limit yourself to one social media platform; explore all of them and pay attention to trends and new opportunities. The social media landscape is evolving at a mind-boggling pace; get someone on your team -- either an employee or a consultant -- whose job it is to stay current on the latest trends and make them work for you.
Social-media networking is important. Redler says, “We’re constantly expanding our understanding of social media and the advantages of programs [that allow people to broadcast their location to their friends]. You can’t make up for poor food quality or bad operations with social media, but you can use it to enhance the loyalty of your guests.”
Know the different sites and interact accordingly. For example, Facebook is more known for making social connections, but businesses do very well by being friendly and accessible and interacting in a sociable manner. Twitter is famous for short, to-the-point comments. Provide quick updates and comments related to your business. Other sites like Pinterest and Tumblr are very visually oriented, so think visually with great food photos and people enjoying the dining experience, especially a local celebrity if possible.
Public relations and promotions
An easy way to promote your food-service business is to give away gift certificates, such as for dinner for two, coffee and bagels for ten or a free pizza. Post coupons, specials and upcoming special events on your website. Call local radio stations that reach the demographics of your target market and ask to speak to their promotions manager. Offer to provide gift certificates or coupons to use as prizes for on-air contests and promotions. Your company name and location will probably be announced several times on the air during the contest, providing you with valuable free exposure and it’s always possible that the winner will become a paying customer.
Other promotional methods to try include:
- Gift certificates. Gift certificates are convenient for gift giving, especially around holidays. Current customers may give gift certificates to friends or relatives who’ve never tried your restaurant. Employers may give gift certificates as employee incentives. Many people will gladly try a new eating establishment for a free meal. If you give them good food and service, they’ll happily return as paying customers. Be sure your gift certificates include your address, hours of operation and website.
- Sponsorships. By sponsoring a local event or sports team, you can put your restaurant’s name in front of a whole new group of customers. Your name will appear on ads promoting the event or on team members’ uniforms. This constant exposure will keep your name in customers’ minds. Because people are typically drawn to establishments they’re familiar with, you may attract customers who’ve never visited your restaurant but feel familiar with it due to the exposure from your sponsorship.
- Discount coupon books. Many communities have companies that produce coupon books for participating businesses that schools and nonprofit organizations sell as fundraisers. As with gift certificates, many people will try a new establishment if they know they’re getting a significant discount and they’ll return as full-paying customers if you give them good food and service.
- Frequent dining clubs. While this isn’t typically done at a fine-dining establishment, you can reward your regular customers with free food by issuing a card with 12 spaces so you can mark off each visit. When the customer has purchased 12 entrées, give that person a free entrée.
- Menu promotions. By offering regular lunch or dinner specials, you can appeal to those who are on a limited budget or who just like saving money. You can also offer early-bird specials (dinner at discounted prices, usually from 4 to 6 p.m.) or two-for-one specials during certain periods. These promotions not only attract customers but can also help you reduce your inventory of overstocked items.
Plan for community involvement
Your community-relations activities are an important part of your overall marketing campaign, and they should be carefully planned. In a recent National Restaurant Association survey, restaurant owners said they received an average of 75 requests for help each year from community groups or nonprofits and chose to donate time or money to about 35 projects. The respondents said the most important reason for participating in these activities was to give back to the community; about half cited boosting their restaurant’s image, and two out of five said aiding in the recruitment of new employees were “very important” reasons for being involved in civic efforts.
Related: Tips for a Successful Catering Event
Be sure the organization or event you agree to sponsor is compatible with your image and won’t offend prospective customers. Avoid political and controversial issues and events; you can support those privately, but it’s better to stay neutral when it comes to your business.
Include the amount of your cash, food or other donations in your annual financial forecasts, and don’t feel bad if you have to say no to a worthwhile cause because you’ve reached your budget limit.