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Stay on the cutting edge with technology and marketing news and trends hot off the presses right here.

Why Secrets Make For Good Restaurant Marketing

Houlihan'sKansas City based casual dining concept Houlihan’s has been around for almost 40 years.  In that time they’ve seen the rise of the casual trend and a lot of ups and downs.  In the early 2000’s Houlihan’s was seeing more down than up, and a new management team was brought in to shake things up.

After a comprehensive self-reinvention, Houlihan’s has enjoyed better times, even during the economic turmoil of the last couple years.  A revamped menu, design, and new approach certainly helped revitalize the restaurant.

Whenever a concept reinvents itself, new ideas emerge.  For Houlihan’s one marketing idea in particular has proven to be extremely effective.  They call it the Secret Envelope promo, and its beauty lies in its simplicity.

It all started as an attempt to perk up January sales.  If you’re in the restaurant business, you know how quiet January is.  To combat that trend Houlihan’s decided to play Secret Santa during the holiday season by giving customers a “secret envelope.”

In every envelope was a prize – and some envelopes had sweepstakes-worthy prizes, like a Caribbean vacation.  Others contained Houlihan’s gift cards for different amounts.  The catch was that to redeem the prize, the customer had to return for a meal in January.

The response caught everyone at Houlihan’s by surprise.  The secret envelope promo added an element of adventure for the customer that really drove excitement.  Sales soared, a lot of buzz was generated, and soon Houlihan’s decided to make the secret envelope promo a regular twice-a-year event.

There are some complications for independent restaurants.  Every state has rules for sweepstakes promotions, and it’s probably not very cost effective to give away a Caribbean vacation.  Additionally it can get complicated deciding how to value different prize levels and how to distribute them evenly.

That doesn’t mean your restaurant can’t implement a secret envelope type campaign, especially if you make it a raffle.  Instead of a sweepstakes, hand out raffle numbers to customers and then collect their numbers when they come back a second time.  Drop those numbers into a hat and hold a drawing on a set day.  There’s a good chance you’ll collect a lot of numbers the day you hold drawing.

No matter how you decide to implement a secret envelope campaign, make sure it gets picked up on the internet and the local media.  The best part about a campaign that has an air of mystery to it is its potential to go viral.  Make sure you take advantage of this tendency to the fullest.

Also make sure you have some prizes with real value to them.  Naturally you can’t afford to give away a Caribbean vacation, but you should focus on variety and include some big prizes with a lot of value.  Nobody will care if all you give away are $10 gift cards to eat at your restaurant.

Houlihan’s saw a huge increase in sales and repeat customers as a result of their secret envelope promotion, and in the age of Groupon mass discount coupons, a promotion that ensures a double visit seems more and more appealing.  Spend the money and get some great prizes, and take the time to get the word out.  If you play your cards right, your secret envelope promotion will bring much more business than a traditional marketing campaign.

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How Tech Companies Are Competing To Help You Market Your Restaurant Locally

Marketing your restaurant online is a concept that’s relatively new to the food service industry as a whole, and is still a foreign concept to many restaurateurs.  This is not helped by the speed with which marketing channels online are moving.  By the time you set up a Facebook page, everyone’s raving about Twitter, and by the time you finally start tweeting, everyone’s already moved on to Foursquare.

To make things worse, Google’s new feature, Google Places, is a new directory that allows local businesses to submit their business for listing in local searches.  In exchange for a $25 monthly fee, Google Places will post your restaurant’s listing for certain “tags” in search results, for example, “Italian restaurant” in a search in your area would bring up any restaurants that pay the fee.

Keeping up with all the different ways you can market your restaurant can feel time consuming and frustrating – but in reality this is a great time to be marketing your restaurant online.

That’s because these different tech companies are competing for your business, and using their services to market your restaurant is very inexpensive and often free.  The learning curve might be a little steep at first, but if you take the time to get the hang of how to use all of the different avenues available, it can have a real impact on revenue.

This is especially true among customers 30 years old and younger.  This demographic should be especially important to restaurant owners, because converting a young person into a loyal customer means steady income for years down the road.  Eventually, almost all your restaurant marketing will happen online as the younger generation takes over the majority of the market and baby boomers retire.  That means restaurants who get ahead of the curve today stand to reap rewards in both the short and long term.

Google Places is a clear move by the search giant to compete with upstarts like Foursquare when it comes to helping local businesses find local customers.  While these tech giants duke it out in Silicone Valley, you can be enjoying the tools they develop to help you meet your customer.  All it takes is a little research and a lot of time.

If you’re interested in learning more about local marketing, the Local Marketing Source blog is a good place to start.

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Could The iPad Change Food Service?

iPad could change food serviceThe unveiling of the iPad earlier this month left a lot of people wondering what all the hype was all about.  For many, the mini-notebook looks and feels like an oversized iPhone without the ringtones.  But as the iPad hits the market and continues to sell well, more and more people have started to consider how to use the iPad in new ways.

Some tech savvy restaurateurs were among the first to see the potential effect of the iPad on their business.  Already some restaurants have explored the possibilities of replacing menus with iPads, turning a laundry list of entrees into an interactive experience for guests.

These iPad menus could feature entire albums of pictures spotlighting each entrée from many angles, the ingredients before they go in, and even video of the dish being prepared.  And after a guest has explored all of this digital eye candy to their heart’s content, they could even order directly from their iPad menu with a simple touch of the screen.

For now the cost of the iPad makes it a pretty expensive menu, but the time is not very far off where a handheld device similar to today’s iPad could be affordable enough to make it a very compelling option for restaurants.  Like most technology, high-end establishments will probably be the first adopters, followed by the rest of the industry as price points fall.

An interactive digital menu has many intriguing effects on the operation of a restaurant, effectively digitizing the marketing of entrees and automating the ordering process.  This could free servers to focus on achieving top-notch customer service for every guest – and make their experience in your restaurant truly unique.

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How Black Board Eats Helps You Control The Foodie Crowd

Black Board EatsAh, yes, the capricious foodie: that enigmatic character who can turn 100 people into loyal patrons with a glowing mention of your restaurant at every dinner party – or become the bane of your existence with nasty reviews on sites like Yelp or a sarcastic blog post.

Especially in competitive urban markets like L.A. or New York, courting the foodie crowd is an essential part of becoming a successful restaurant.  As any veteran restaurateur knows, that courtship can be difficult.

Pleasing the foodie once they’re in the door is one thing. That’s up to the countless hours you’ve already spent developing a menu and a kitchen that can produce your culinary vision.

Getting those foodies through your doors is an entirely different matter. I’m sure you’ve heard it all – create buzz about your restaurant online, through social media, with smart marketing, etc. etc.  For every 10 strategies out there designed to help restaurants get the opinion makers of the local foodie population in your door there are 25 restaurants that have gone under having failed to do so.

Black Board Eats, founded by the former food editor at Yahoo, is a concept so simple in design and application that it Black Board Eatsmakes one wonder why it took so long for anyone to think of it.  It works like this: Black Board signs up as many foodies as it can to its email newsletter.  Then they go out and get good restaurants like yours to offer an exclusive promo deal.  Some common examples include 40% off lunch or a free flight of wine tasters.

Black Board sends these deals out to its network of foodies, who respond to the promos they like and get a coupon that’s good for 30 days.  Soon you’ve got a rush of young, connected customers buzzing about your establishment.

Restaurateurs who have used the service report a surge in customer traffic after sending out a promotional deal through Black Board.  And while repeat customer business after the promo fades (those Black Board foodies are chasing the next deal), the buzz and word-of-mouth referrals you gain during your time in the Black Board sun can be priceless.

A service like Black Board seems to work best for new restaurants and for established businesses looking to promote a new service or feature.  Being able to tap into an existing network like the one Black Board has put together is priceless; and while you might not do it to gain a slew of lifelong customers, you can definitely benefit from having the place bursting at the seams when its important – during opening week, after adding a new dining area, or after revamping your lunch menu.

Being successful can be a lot like a popularity contest, and Black Board gives you an easy way to win the competition, if only for a day.

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A Review Of Klick Kitchen By Chef Forfeng

The following is a great review of Klick Kitchen by an industry insider with a lot more personal experience in the food service industry than I have.

I came across Klick Kitchen last year and while the concept was intriguing, the price at the time was not. Since then they have apparently changed it to a free basic service to the consumer/back of the house end and also apparently a basic intro on the vendor end as well.A Review Of Klick Kitchen By Chef Forfeng

Greg from Tundra asked me what my take on KK was. As someone always on the lookout for things that can help my clients I wanted to find out a bit more about the system myself. I was going to write a comment on his recent blog post about it and it started to turn into a full fledged post. TMI.

I called Klick Kitchen and Laurie, one of their account managers, was extremely helpful and gave me a demo of both the chefs ordering end and the vendor end.

The system is interesting, from a vendors perspective it offers quite a bit that’s appealing about it, from a chef’s perspective, it has some things to consider.

For vendors, particularly small ones that don’t have a web presence and as well for some that do, but do not have online ordering as an option, this system is a great offering. It does not have any broadliners on it and most broadliners already have online ordering, so offering it would be duplicating already in existence systems.

From a Chef’s perspective, the system seems like it would be good if you were ordering from a broad variety of small vendors, i.e. more 4-5, any less then that then the convenience factor would become a bit less.

While you can request quotes for items and vendors can set up specific pricing for specific accounts, it does take out some of the “beat up the price” factor.  As a former chef I liked to hassle vendors when pricing was too high on orders and threaten to order elsewhere. Not everyone does this, but for chefs that like a haggle factor this takes out some of the fun (and potentially the bottom line on your food cost as well, if you are a good negotiator.)

It might take a bit of a steep learning curve to navigate around in the system at first. While I know many chefs are much more computer literate then they were 10 years ago, the time to do this and the availability of computers in the workplace may be an issue, as well as taking the time to learn how to get around in the program.. Many chefs (myself included) do some of their ordering from home, so if one has a home computer with fast net access this is great. Laurie says they are working on a video tutorial walk through, which I think would be extremely helpful.

Laurie had mentioned she thought the system would be convenient for many chefs, who while they may not have access to computers at work, they do have web friendly mobile devices. At the time of this post I had inquired after the fact by email, if there was a mobile friendly version of the site, and had not yet heard back. The current web version is navigable by iPhones and Blackberries but could be more user friendly, as there is a lot of touch drag on the page. If there is a mobile friendly version of the site, I will add an addendum to this.

I do think the system has a lot of potential, especially with many of the things it sounds like they are still working on and being implemented, the one major thing that I would be concerned about starting out using the system is out of stocks.

Currently its up to participating vendors to update their out of stocks. There is no date available as to when the last time a price/inventory list has been updated online as of yet (Laurie assured me that is something they will be implementing soon) As someone who orders and likes to know instantly whether something is out of stock, by phone or by live up to date access, until I knew which particular vendors I dealt with kept up to date on their online inventories, I would be reluctant to rely on the system especially for important items. Once you do know your vendor habits, I tend to think you would rely on the ones you knew kept the system up to date. Mis-picks and returns still need to be handled the old fashioned way by phone and fax.

When I was cooking the only thing I might order late night, when the odds of getting a live person on the phone were slim, was some dairy and the occasional odd case of produce. The majority of my ordering was done during regular business hours. I know some chefs do all, or most of their ordering last minute and late night and leave voicemails for vendors. My personal feeling about this is if you don’t know what your pars are supposed to be and can’t somewhat predict your restaurant’s traffic for the coming time period, then you have bigger things to worry about then having a case of pecans out of stock. For chefs that do have a good idea of their inventories and a good handle on internal trend tracking, the system would be a good time saver to use.

I think overall Klick Kitchen has a lot of potential, Laurie and I briefly touched on, but did not go into the preferred system for chefs and vendors (for which they do charge for) that has additional options available and apparently custom reports can be run. This is something I would suggest individuals investigating the system look into, for smaller restaurants that do not have POS systems, I suspect that many of the run reports would be advantageous for them to have access to.

I will be recommending it to clients in the NY metro area as something for their chefs to investigate. I look forward to seeing what future developments bring to the system.

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How To Rock Your Restaurant Marketing Efforts

Restaurant Marketing Live MusicA common misconception in the food service business is that booking live music takes more time and effort than it’s worth.  The process of finding bands, paying them, and providing enough space for them to perform can be a distraction at best and a downright money loser at worst, or so the theory goes.

Yet many establishments have proven time and again over the years that bringing in local bands is a great way to connect with local customers, and if done right, live music can become a lucrative marketing technique for any restaurant.

Denver based Smashburger, an emerging fast casual chain, has shown just how effective tapping into the local music scene can be for a new restaurant.  The company’s Rock Your City program encourages local bands to submit their videos via YouTube prior to the grand opening of a new location.  Smashburger then selects the best applicants and posts their videos to the company website so that fans can vote on the best one.  The winners get to play at the new location on opening day in exchange for free burgers, plus a local radio broadcast.

Free burgers may not draw the next U2, but Rock Your City events definitely do draw crowds of young people coming out to see their favorite bands.  And because Smashburger engages this audience beforehand by encouraging votes for the winning gig, they ensure a dedicated and reliable local audience on opening day.

Boosting engagement among younger customers is a goal any restaurant would like to accomplish.  If you’ve got the space and an inclination for live music, keep these tips in mind before you rock out your own establishment:

Take advantage of the band’s existing marketing efforts.
A good band plays good music, obviously.  But in an age of social media and the internet, any band even remotely serious about their prospects will have at least a preliminary marketing effort online.  And since both you and the band want people to show up for their gig in your restaurant, this is a great opportunity for you to advertise to the band’s fans through their existing marketing infrastructure.

Have the band post a link to your website on their site, their Facebook, and their Twitter account, and get them to email their fan list about the gig with some more information about your business.

Let your customers tell you who they want to hear. Smashburger’s strategy of taking submissions then allowing fans to vote for the winning gig is the perfect way to get the most mileage out of a live music gig before the band ever steps foot on the stage.  Besides, you don’t want to trust your personal music tastes, which may or may not jibe with those of your customers.

Incorporate live music into your own marketing efforts. Include links to YouTube clips of the bands that are going to perform in your establishment on your website.  Post live music schedules throughout your restaurant and email your customers when their favorite bands have a gig.  If you’ve got a newer band playing, promote drink specials to get people in the door, where (hopefully) they’ll turn into new fans.

Live music is a great way to connect with your customers and turn them into regulars.  It doesn’t take nearly as much work as you might think, and the payoff in new business can make it more than a worthwhile endeavor.

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Instructables: The World’s First Open Source Restaurant is an “open source” website that allows people to post and view instructional videos on just about any topic you can think of.  The website is completely free and part of a larger phenomenon on the internet based around Creative Commons licensing – the liberalization of copyrights in order to enable the free flow of information on the web.

Now an enterprising restaurateur in Amsterdam, Holland, has taken the spirit of and embodied it in a restaurant.  Everything in the place is built from instructional videos on the site, from the chairs to the decorations and tables.

Most interestingly, all of the recipes served in the Instructables Restaurant are also available on, meaning you can get the recipe for your favorite dish right in the restaurant or download it later at home.  And now there is a set of instructions on for building your own Instructables restaurant – complThe Instructables Restauranteting the circle of truly free flowing information.

Not only can you leave the Instructables restaurant armed with recipes for every dish served and instructions for building every piece of furniture, you can also post your own recipes and instructions to the website and then see your instructions in action at the restaurant.

The restaurant claims to allow patrons to “digest the web,” and as a celebration of free internet culture, it is definitely a pioneer.  What remains to be seen is how effective this experiment will be when it comes to being profitable.

Profits may not be the point, however.  The most interesting thing about this project is how the internet has changed the way knowledge is disseminated throughout the world.  The Instructables Restaurant is a reflection of that cultural shift, and a rare time when the abstract nature of the internet is recreated in a physical location.

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Need To Reach Your Customers? How About Communal Delivery?

Food Dudes DeliveryIf you’re a regular reader of The Back Burner, then you know how I feel about diversifying your revenue stream so that when diner’s spending habits change, you have multiple sources of income for your business.  As dining room visits declined last year, more and more restaurants started looking for different ways to reach their customers even though they weren’t coming into the restaurant anymore.

Restaurants in St. Cloud, Minnesota learned just how effective a proactive approach to serving food can be last year.  A local entrepreneur started a company called Food Dudes, whose mission is to deliver food from any local restaurant willing to participate.

Delivery times average about 45 minutes, and drivers use insulated carriers to ensure freshness.  Customers can place their orders via phone or internet, and so far, more than a dozen restaurants have signed on.  The results have been overwhelmingly positive.  Food Dudes takes a percentage of every sale they generate, plus a $2.99 delivery fee.  But the found business for local restaurants more than compensates for the cut Food Dudes takes.

Not many restaurants are lucky enough to have an enterprising local like the founder of Food Dudes to start delivering their food for them.  And few restaurants can justify the expense and time that would be involved in creating their own delivery service.

But what if your local restaurant association created a communal delivery service that benefited everyone?  The business model can obviously work, as Food Dudes has proven, and with a little organization, any group of restaurants can pool their resources and add a service your customers are certainly looking for: convenience in their own homes.

Some suggestions for starting a communal delivery program for a group of restaurants in your area:

Hire an independent manager. Wherever money is involved the potential for conflict is high, especially among businesses who normally compete against each other.  That’s why you need someone to run the show who isn’t actively involved with any of the restaurants in the group.  That way you have a dispassionate third party who can resolve any issues and be trusted by everyone to handle the money side of the operation fairly.

Pool resources. Restaurants that are serious about getting involved in a communal delivery service should have to buy in to help cover operating and marketing expenses.  Whatever you decide that dollar amount should be, make sure the budget is gets general approval and is handled by your independent manager.

Hire independent contractors as drivers. In the end, you don’t want to have to manage a whole separate operation just to deliver your food to customers.  A single manager should be enough to handle the money and the marketing.  After that, any help you need, like delivery drivers, should be independent contractors.  That makes handling payroll extremely easy.

It may take some initial investment of time and money to get a group of restaurants in your community on board with a communal delivery program, but in the end, it’s a program that can be extremely beneficial for everyone involved.  It can also direct a lot more of the revenue you generate back to your restaurant over a concept like Food Dudes.  That’s because your communal delivery service isn’t looking to turn a profit like a business, which is ultimately what Food Dudes is looking to do.

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A.I.S.: The Ultimate Social Media ROI tool for Independent Restaurants

Restaurant Social Media MarketingHere we are once again, the cacophony roared up after the SuperBowl over the legitimacy of ROI in social media whether it’s measurable, valid, does anything or whether it’s just a bunch of numbers the next “expert” throws up to validate his job/salary/cost.

The roar seems to be mainly coming from marketers, advertisers and mediums which like to stir up the noise level about how wonderful social media is and yet fail to explore it’s limitations.

For the independent restaurant A.I.S. is the only tool out there that even remotely qualifies as a specific measurement of whether their forays into online, print or social media advertising is effective.


Of course, like all solid measurement tools, there is some research; strategizing and work that go into this tool’s reliability and accuracy. Before utilizing A.I.S. we have:

1. developed a clear and defined vision of our business and goals;
2. specifically identified why we are in business and what our strengths and weaknesses are
3. formulated how those strengths and weaknesses play out to our marketing and, more pertinently, how we can wield them to our own and our guests’ advantage
4. defined where our guests are in relation to various advertising mediums and constructed a strategy for each of them

The specific advantage of utilizing A.I.S. is that it not only assumes but grants that your media strategy changes and develops as your organization matures. Working in real time, it can immediately gauge how your guests change; in both their perception of your company and their interaction with it.


One of the most pertinent variables of A.I.S. is that it also takes into consideration a few things that (it seems) many of the newly established SM “experts” overlook: specifically, to borrow from the music industry, RQ (recognition quotient) which means that my “engagement” is another form of getting my restaurant name out there for people to consider when they do make a choice of where to dine.

Random Tweets and Facebook postings about local events, charitable organizations and weather anomalies do in fact have a measurable impact within the A.I.S. system; as do the restaurant’s media in print, on video, on-line, in an email or in the local paper. The A.I.S. system looks at each of these individually and as a congruent whole.

A “branded company” within the A.I.S. system is one that is synonymous with outstanding quality and a solid perception of value for dollar, regardless of actual cost of your menu items. And, in an economy where necessity has outgrown desire or “bling,” this is a required advantage for the independent restaurant.

Take a moment here to review Oliver Blanchard’s excellent presentation about social media ROI. We’ll wait…

So here you go, you’ve read, you’ve pondered, and now you want to know the big secret behind The Ultimate Social Media ROI Tool for independent restaurants. Just what the hell is A.I.S. ? What tool helps me measure social media, standard marketing, email marketing, mobile marketing, online marketing, off line marketing, couponing, discounting, branding, advertisng, promotions, cause marketing, outbound marketing, inbound marketing….ARGGGGGH!

A.I.S. = Asses in Seats.

If what you do is not putting them there then something is amiss; and it is up top you to find out if that is internal, external or in delivery and execution. All the planning, strategy,marketing , analysis, or engagement on the planet is not going to mean a hill of chickpeas if, for all your efforts, there’s no one in the dining room.

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Community Based Restaurant Marketing: Get Some Real Bang For Your Buck

restaurant weekFine dining restaurants in Denver, CO are pooling their resources this weekend to kick off Denver Restaurant Week, an annual event that allows diners to sample the city’s fine cuisine over the course of a week for an incredible price: $52.80 for two.  Tons of restaurants are participating in the promotion in an effort to draw new customers.

This year’s restaurant week has been extended to two weeks, and the Denver Conventions & Visitors Bureau has also worked with city hotels, museums, and theaters to provide weekend getaway packages for really good deals.

As many of you know, The Back Burner is based in Boulder, CO, which is just outside Denver, and we’ve been hearing about this year’s Restaurant Week for a couple months now, and it got me thinking.  Any town, city, or burg could really benefit from holding an event like Restaurant Week, and more importantly, any restaurant that can get a restaurant week going would stand to benefit.

Feeling skeptical?  I understand. Who wants to offer a cut rate to diners, much less the same cut rate your competition is offering at the same time?

Well, consider some of the benefits of pooling your marketing resources:

Get diners to try something new. Every restaurant worth its salt has a loyal cadre of customers.  The problem is, most diners, especially when they are going out for a nice meal and expect to spend some cash, tend to stick to what they know.  That makes it hard for you to attract new customers.  Restaurant Week is the perfect incentive to get new people in your seats to try out your cuisine.  The prix fixe arrangement means they don’t have to worry about being disappointed, and you’ll have a chance to impress.

Get the community involved. When you’re trying to advertise by yourself you’re on your own.  Organizing a community-wide event like a restaurant week means you can get help in your marketing efforts from all kinds of places.  Denver’s restaurant week set up a dedicated website, Twitter account, and Facebook page for this year’s event.  They also advertised in local media and got the word out on the internet via press releases.

All of that might sound expensive, but it’s really not, and even the smallest community should be able to put together a similar program.  The only difference is scale.  Additionally, smart local governance should be willing to provide incentives or marketing dollars to help attract customers to the area.  After all, a boost in sales taxes helps them out as well.

You should also consider coordinating community events with your restaurant week that will encourage people to show up downtown and dine out.  The prospect of boosting local business should be enough to get any mayor energized and working to organize.

Brand appreciation. Finally, the positive reinforcement your restaurant’s brand will get out of being associated with a community wide event is incalculable.  Weaving your restaurant into the community fabric doesn’t have to be a shameless marketing ploy.  For many restaurateurs, it helps define who they are and brings great satisfaction to both their business and personal lives.

Marketing your restaurant doesn’t always have to be about competition.  A community-wide approach that benefits everyone can help you stretch your marketing budget and really get some bang for your buck.

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