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Archive | January, 2010

How To Take Restaurant Marketing Underground

How To Take Restaurant Marketing UndergroundSince last August, when I first posted about the blossoming underground fine dining scene in San Francisco, the phenomenon has grown exponentially and started spreading up and down the west coast.  From Vancouver to L.A., chefs are ditching the kitchens of established restaurants and setting off on their own, and using shrouds of secrecy, weird locations, and social media to create an entirely new scene in the struggling fine dining segment.

What is underground dining? It can take many forms, from sumptuous seven course meals served in an abandoned warehouse to super-secret, invite-only seats in a chef’s home kitchen.  The common threads binding this movement together is five star cuisine served in a novel environment, prix fixe, and usually to a limited number of lucky invitees.

Underground dining even has a website, called The Ghet, which allows those searching for a coveted invite to an underground event a way to connect with those in the know.  Social media has also played a huge role in the success of the movement, with many underground chefs posting coded messages on Twitter, Facebook, and even Craigslist informing members where the next event will take place.

The combination of superb food and a sense of exclusivity and adventure has fueled the success of underground dining.  For traditional restaurants, the phenomenon has perhaps raised the bar of diner expectations.
So what can the fine dining establishment take away from the success of the underground movement?  The most important lesson here has got to be variety.  As baby boomers retire and a new generation enters its peak earning years, the rules of the game in fine dining are changing.

Many restaurants are ditching old dress codes and revamping menus to draw this new crowd of younger affluent diners.  But the time has come to take things further and start infusing the spirit of adventure and unique experience into the traditional sit-down restaurant.

Some ideas for taking your restaurant underground:
How To Take Restaurant Marketing Underground
Theme nights. No, don’t put up a couple plastic palm trees and call it Gilligan’s Island.  Transform your restaurant into something completely different.  Dress your staff differently.  Serve some unique specials and really take things to the next level.  Make your regulars feel like they’ve never been in your restaurant before.

Seasonal menus. You probably already have seasonal dishes that you sprinkle into your menu’s repertoire over the course of a year.  What if you took a week out of each season and completely changed your menu and promoted it to all your customers?  That underground feeling of a once-in-a-lifetime experience would start to sink in for sure.

The ultimate take-out. Abandoned warehouses?  Defunct wine cellars?  Just because those underground chefs have started making weird places cool places for eating doesn’t mean you have to be stuck in your restaurant for all time.
Take what you do, sign up 50 or 100 of your best customers, and put on a prix fixe meal extravaganza in some cool, quirky place outside your restaurant.  If it can work for a rebel chef it can work for you, and your customers will love the unique experience.

The underground dining movement is surging in popularity, and like any new trend, there’s some gems of innovation behind the success.  Taking an “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” attitude may just give you some ideas that can make your restaurant really appealing as more and more customers get on the underground bandwagon.

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If It Makes Sense For McDonald’s, It Probably Makes Sense For You

If It Makes Sense For McDonalds, It Probably Makes Sense For YouMcDonald’s has been an increasingly lone bright spot in the dark world of food service during a recession.  Sales are up, new restaurant layouts appeal to a wide range of customers, and Starbucks has a serious competitor on their hands.  McDonald’s success can be attributed to a lot of things, including their bargain basement pricing, but one factor stands out above all others: McDonald’s ability to rebrand themselves as an upscale, hip gathering place rather than a junk food distributor.

Giving customers a sense of place is a great way to add value to your restaurant’s brand.  Making your restaurant a place where people enjoy gathering is the strategy McDonald’s has pursued, and it seems to be paying big dividends.   McDonald’s corporate offices announced recently they will be offering free Wi-Fi internet access in 11,500 U.S. locations.  Clearly this move is another part of their strategy to create “stickiness,” or ways to get customers to come in and stay for awhile, which drives more sales and reinforces that sense of place in customers’ minds.

More than likely your restaurant has different priorities and customers than McDonald’s.  That doesn’t change the fact that their restaurant marketing model is working, and there’s a lesson in their success for everyone.

With that in mind, I’d like to point out an article I wrote last year for The Back Burner called Become A Hotspot! which gives you the how and the why on setting up a Wi-Fi network in your restaurant.

Hey, if it’s working for McDonald’s it will probably work for you.

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What To Watch For In 2010

What To Watch For In 2010About this time every year the food service industry starts buzzing about the trends that will shape consumer preferences and affect business in the next 12 months.  We are lucky enough (or unlucky, depending on how you view it) to be in the midst of a transition period for many restaurants, and that makes the trends for 2010 even more compelling.

These trends have already been covered extensively, but if you need a refresher course, here’s the synopsis:

  1. Familiar, simple foods sell well. Unique spins on burgers and other classic foods save restaurants R & D and are popular with customers looking for value.
  2. The ethnic twist. Korean BBQ tacos and other ethnic flavors are making their way into the mainstream more and more.  Combine those flavors with comfort foods and you’ve got a sure winner.
  3. Ingredient sourcing is more and more important. Restaurants growing their own produce and sourcing from local organic farms retain a particular appeal to customers and allow you to attach a unique value to your brand.
  4. All day breakfast. Everybody loves breakfast, and since these menu items are usually hearty and affordable, consumers have grown to love them even more.  Many chains are starting to make their breakfast menus available all day, and other segments in the food service industry will probably follow suit soon.

So what do these trends say about where food service is headed?  Overall it looks like restaurants are responding to the consumer watchword of 2009: value.  Your customers aren’t looking for something flashy and never-before-seen.  They just want the same things they’ve always enjoyed, with maybe a little Korean BBQ sauce on the side.

Many trend watchers are also focused on the menu side of the equation rather than the business side, but if large national chains are any indication of what’s to come in 2010, then it seems apparent that heavy discounting and health consciousness are the watchwords of the day.

Several chains have redoubled their efforts at attracting new business with continued discounts.  Meanwhile, even Taco Bell is getting into the healthy food game, with new ads claiming that items of their new healthy menu will make you a whole new kind of Subway Jared.

Again, it looks like everything comes back to value: discounted food that’s familiar, tastes good, and is even healthy to eat.  For restaurants walking that edge between survival and profitability, positioning yourself in the sweet spot where customers find value in what you serve while you gain revenue is paramount.

The recipe that works is going to be unique for every restaurant.  Many failed in 2009 while searching for it, and unfortunately more are going to fail in 2010.  But for those that survive, the lessons learned in providing value to every customer will be essential to their success for years to come.

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