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Is Restaurant Marketing Technology Getting Scary?

Tom Cruise in The Minority Report

Don’t scan my eyes!

Mobile marketing is beginning to sound like the movie Minority Report, where pedestrians had their retinas scanned by computers as they walked by stores and voices addressed them by name and encouraged them to buy products tailored to their personal preferences.

That would be scary, but it’s never gonna happen to me, right?

Surely you’ve seen TV ads asking you to text such and such to a number and receive deals or promos.  The companies doing that kind of advertising get your number when you text, and use that to target you for future promos.

Seems like we’re getting warmer, Steven Spielberg.

Until recently, nobody in the food service industry was thinking about applying some of these new technologies to an old game: improving sales and customer retention.

That’s changing, and one of the agents of change is Fishbowl Inc., a technology-based marketing company for the food service industry.

The firm has built email and internet marketing campaigns for over 30,000 restaurants and is recommended by the National Restaurant Association.  They recently expanded into mobile technology marketing, where new marketing techniques have revolutionized how restaurants reach their customers.

Scotty’s Brewhouse in Indiana increased to-go orders placed on the internet by 500% with a two-for-one promo that went out via email and applied only to those internet orders.

Smoothie King chain restaurant locations offer a free smoothie in exchange for a text message from customers.  The cost of the smoothie is a fraction of the value of having that customer on an email and text list for future promos, and sales are up on promo days by 24%.

Jack-in-the-Box has even experimented with placing a small computer chip in special promo posters that communicates with mobile devices and alerts customers to local store locations and deals.

Maybe those retina scans aren’t that far off after all.

As marketing methodology improves using these new technologies, restaurants will be able to reach their customers in increasingly innovative ways.

Building email and text number databases of customers will help connect customers and businesses and allow restaurants to improve sales in slow periods and maximize customer retention.

Most importantly, restaurants can learn about their customers and cater more directly to their needs.  Knowing what customers want when they want it is half the battle in any service industry, and especially in the food service industry.

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4 Steps To Managing Your Reputation Online

Looking Through BinocularsEveryone’s got an opinion.  And in the internet age, everyone can and does voice their opinion online.  A short search online will bring back at least one person’s opinion about every kind of business under the sun, from eye doctors to painters.  Restaurants are particularly targeted by the masses of opinion makers out there, since the very nature of making and serving food is so subjective.

So do you have any idea what people are saying online about your restaurant?  I have talked about Yelp in previous posts, the restaurant review site that has had a tenuous relationship with restaurant owners at best since its inception.  But Yelp is only the tip of the opinion iceberg, and the restaurateur who ignores the behemoth that is social media is doomed to the same fate as the Titanic.

This is not to say that the opinion machine driven by social media is all bad.  It is, however, a decidedly double-edged sword.  On the one hand, positive reviews and feedback coming from your happy customers can bring new customers in droves.  On the other, one jerk who may or may not have actually had a bad experience can pick up the megaphone and start screaming nasty things about your restaurant.

84% of American consumers say online reviews affect their decisions on products and brands.  That’s a number you simply cannot ignore.  So what should you do?  4 steps to manage your restaurant’s reputation online:

Step 1: Listen to what people are saying.  You can’t manage something if you don’t know what you’re dealing with.  So tune in to the internet and start listening.  Some places to start: Yelp, OpenTable, and UrbanSpoon are just a few of the myriad websites that post restaurant reviews.  An even better option is to use Google Alerts, which will scour the entire internet for new content with your restaurant’s name in it and send you a report on what it finds.

Of course, don’t forget about the social media behemoths either: you should be on Twitter and Facebook anyway, talking about your restaurant, but if you’re not, go there today and get started!

Step 2: Respond to your critics and thank your fans.  The new internet (a.k.a. Web 2.0) is all about conversation.  You’ve listened.  Now it’s time to answer.  Yelp gives some helpful tips on how to respond to both positive and negative reviews.  No matter how you respond, do it with a healthy dose of common sense: e.g. don’t insult people, don’t act defensively, don’t act like a jerk, don’t pat yourself on the back, etc.  Basically, all the things that annoy you about people at a dinner party are the same things that are going to annoy your customers online.  So avoid them.Start a Conversation With Your Customers

The most important thing here is the creation of a dialogue.  When you interact with customers, you cement loyal fans in place and you blunt the negative effects of the critics.  You also appear open and engaged, which will earn you serious points with all your existing and potential online customers.

Step 3: Take the initiative.  Don’t let the naysayers define your restaurant’s reputation online.  If you’re not offering an alternate narrative, then people will start to think everything they read about you is true.  Here’s where Twitter and Facebook come in.  As I already said, if you’re not an active member of these two sites, then stop reading this blog post and go create an account with both.

The reasons for this are simple.  These services are free.  These services are popular.  These services are also considered culturally important.  Take the time to learn how to use them and then start talking about how great your restaurant is.  You’ll be amazed how many people want to listen.  All this costs you is your time, and the potential for new customer development is virtually unlimited.

Step 4: Gather intelligence.  This goes hand in hand with Step 1, but you can’t really gather effectively until you’ve started the conversation that follows from Steps 2 and 3.  Once you’ve established your own presence online, you can start to really learn exactly who your customer is and what they want.  This is the revered Holy Grail of marketing: knowing customers better than they know themselves.  You can achieve this through effective online reputation management.

That’s because when you converse with your customers in the realm of social media, you are going to start noticing trends and patterns.  If you are careful about tracking and analyzing this data, you’ll be able to learn the habits of your customer, which means you’ll be able to serve them better, which in turn means they’ll write nice reviews about you online….

You get the point.

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80/20 vs. 4: Restaurant Marketing By The Numbers

Money on PlateThe Pareto Principle has long been hailed as the Holy Grail of marketing, the one rule by which all marketing efforts succeed or fail.  The principle itself is pretty simple: 20% of your customers drive 80% of your sales.  There’s always a core group of loyal customers who not only spend money in your restaurant, they bring their friends, give glowing reviews at dinner parties, and otherwise provide a vital linchpin in your money making machine.

Figuring out who those 20% are can be a full time job, and the logic has long held that if you find them, and target them effectively, you’ll be well on your way.  But as the Information Age has matured, so has the wealth of tools available to marketers, and therefore the size of the groups you can target has gotten much smaller.  Some marketers have even begun to parse groups of customers down to what some are calling the 4% factor, or specific offers that have a high conversion rate among 4% of your customers.

So how does this apply to restaurants?  Well, for starters, restaurants are a business, just like any other.  And as a business, restaurants have products that need to be sold to the right customer.  Every day your restaurant has the opportunity to learn more about your customers: how often they come in, how much they spend, what they order, etc.

The more you know, the better you can target your promotions and marketing.  Too often restaurants take a shotgun approach to their marketing campaigns – blanket advertising in local media outlets and generalized coupons (20% off your order, etc.).  That strategy used to be enough.  But as more restaurants compete for the same customers, aging marketing approaches are simply not going to work anymore.

Here are some tips to bring your restaurant marketing strategy into the 21st century:

Know thy customer.  You’ve probably heard this one before, but it has never been more true.  The main difference is that you have many more ways to get to know your customer today that simply didn’t exist before.  For restaurants specifically, consider some strategies to learn more about your customers:

  • Hold a raffle/door prize event.  Customers who enter must fill out a card with their email address, favorite menu item, really anything you want to know about them
  • Use an email marketing campaign to engage customers and collect information about them
  • Conduct surveys, either electronically or on paper in your restaurant
  • Use coupons to learn more about your customers – if you can collect an email when a customer redeems a coupon for a specific menu item, then you can use that information to target them for specific types of future promotions

Leverage thy knowledge.  Now that you’ve put some effort into collecting information about your customers, you need to leverage that information to your advantage.  Use the 4% factor to separate customers into specific groups with particular tastes.  Then hit those groups with specially tailored promotions made just for them.  The goal is to get your response rate (i.e. conversion rate) through the roof.

Engage thy followers.  Targeting small groups of loyal customers should generate an enthusiastic response.  And when customers respond, you should be poised to engage them and solidify your rightful place as one of their favorite brands.  The tools you have available to you today make customer engagement even easier.  Experiment with different avenues until you find the social media that works for you.

Gauge and repeat.  The idea is that these small groups you find through your marketing campaign will respond at much higher rates than a traditional (and usually more expensive) marketing campaign.  You’ll only know for sure if you gauge response.  Use coupon codes and other ways to measure who’s biting on what, and then modify and improve your campaign until you have it honed down to a high performance machine.

The good news is that running a 4% campaign will probably be much cheaper than a traditional shotgun blitz.  The bad news is that it takes some significant time investments and more than a little trial and error.  For those willing to put the time in however, the gains can be huge.

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How To Beat Groupon With Core Value Marketing

Core Value MarketingFor years now restaurants have been instructed that marketing through social networks is the wave of the future.  A second boom has surfaced with companies promising closer ties to consumers for restaurant owners.  Social networking does provide a tremendous opportunity to restaurants that commit to successfully managing their online presence.

The reason why this works is that your potential guests are more likely to take the recommendation of friends or fellow customers over a much more expensive advertising campaign.  This is an important element of a restaurant’s marketing strategy, but I would contend that it leads too many restaurants to ignore a much greater marketing opportunity.

The highest form of bond you can create with a guest is not having them become your “friend” or “mayor.”  Instead, a greater bond is formed when a guest feels that a restaurant shares their values and believes in the things that they believe in.  I refer to this as “Core Value Marketing.”

The premise of this is simple.

People care far more about a number of issues than they do about where they eat.  If your restaurant can convey to these guests that it cares about their issues, loyalty is created with the guest.  In saturated markets where several similar restaurants serve similar products at similar prices, this is the best way for a restaurant to stand out.

The tremendous upside here is that there are many causes that people care deeply about.  People who care deeply about an issue will often be members of groups and online communities, or write blogs dedicated to these issues.  A mention in the PTA newsletter or on a popular community blog will create a far greater impression on a potential loyal guest than a simple advertisement.

It is more than just creating awareness of your restaurant; it is making a statement about what your restaurant believes in.  It is speaking to the core values held by your potential guests.  It gets the attention of your potential guests in a much more profound way than a special menu offering or discount ever could.

This has a number of benefits for the organization you choose to partner with as well.  They are able to generate funds without a great deal of extra work.  Instead, their supporters can contribute simply by choosing your restaurant instead of your competitor.  This means not having to send their kids out to sell something or hassle friends and family for a donation.

It does not require the organization to put forth much effort.  No upfront expenditures are required of them.  This means that the group does not have to spend a portion of what they raise to sponsor the event.  All you ask of them is to make their supporters aware of the promotion.  They do a little marketing and the restaurant does the rest.  This makes it a win/win for the organizations you are helping.

The long term benefits are also tremendous for the restaurants.  This type of promotion donates money to an organization, but does not devalue your menu.  Coupons, groupons, discount cards, etc. all reinforce the idea that your menu contains a great deal of markup.  While guests are always aware of this, these types of promotions place it in the forefront of their minds.

Making a donation from the guest’s total is seen as sacrifice rather than merely a discount.  This maintains the integrity of your pricing and creates the impression that you are charitable rather than momentarily less greedy.

The other long term benefit is creating a long term bond with your guests.  All other things being equal, a guest will still choose the restaurant that made a contribution to their favorite organization in the past over competing restaurants.  The exposure you gain from these types of promotions is far more likely to create long term guests.

Guests that come in for a deal will often only return for another deal.  Guests that are aware of your support of an organization that they care about will often return at full price as a sign of gratitude.

I have never seen a coupon create that kind of loyalty.

The best part of Core Value Marketing is that you can do well by doing good.  You can maintain most of your profit margin while creating a greater sense of community.

There are a number of creative ways to do this as well.  If you create a successful partnership, there are also many opportunities for free publicity.  In searching for stories for my Saturday column this week I came across examples of restaurant benefits for UNICEF, diabetes awareness, parent/teacher organizations, and many others.

As John Maxwell said, “You can get everything in life you want, if you just help enough other people get what they want.”

In my next post, I will outline some of the steps necessary to launch a Core Value Marketing effort.  This will highlight some of the best practices of successful efforts and how to avoid some of the potential pitfalls.  The restaurant industry is incredibly competitive.  You need a way to stand out from your competitors.  This is a way to market your restaurant while giving back to your community and the causes that you care about.  This is a rare opportunity to help improve your bottom line and the lives of your guests.

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25 Marketing Ideas Restaurant Owners Overlook

Most restaurant owners get the basics of restaurant marketing down pretty well: they get a Facebook page, buy a couple local media ad spots, and get some big signs for the front of their location.  But there are a lot of marketing ideas that are simple to implement that can really go a long way towards building a loyal customer base for any restaurant.  Many of these tactics are also really easy to overlook.

  1. Sponsor a local team – amateur softball, soccer, and baseball leagues are always looking for help when it comes to buying equipment.  Sponsoring a local team gets you involved with the community and is a much more affordable option than local radio or TV spots.  Just make sure the team you sponsor matches the type of people you want in your establishment.  Family restaurants are better off sponsoring little league teams while a pub would do better with the local adult soccer or softball team.
  2. Participate in food festivals – Every year more and more food festivals happen in cities large and small all over the U.S.  Setting up a booth and serving portions of your restaurant’s best menu items takes a lot of work and commitment but the personal connections you can create with people while showcasing your best stuff is priceless.  Bonus points if you give away a coupon with each meal you serve at the festival.
  3. Claim your Google places page – every business with an address has a Google Places page.  As the restaurant owner you can claim your Google places page and add photos and information about your restaurant.  This listing will show up in many Google searches for local restaurants so make sure your information is correct.  Bonus points to restaurants who provide incentives to their customers for submitting a review to their Places page.
  4. Put on a cooking class – if there’s one thing you know how to do well it’s cook, and with the rise of the foodie movement your customers want to know how to really cook well too.  Why not start a monthly cooking class, invite in your customers and put on a show of your best cooking secrets?  There’s a good chance the story will get picked up in the local press and an even better chance your students will either bring a friend or stay after class to eat or both.
  5. Hold an exclusive dining event – more and more fine dining restaurants have started putting on “underground” events – one-of-a-kind meals served in a unique location that’s kept secret until hours before dinner is served.  Customers love the adventure and exclusivity they get from getting tickets to these events and it can really make a media and word-of-mouth splash for your restaurant.
  6. Raffle for charity – Support a local charity by giving away some awesome prizes and some free meals.  That in itself is great press for your restaurant, but where this idea really makes things worth it is when you ask for an email address on all submitted raffle tickets.  Now you’ve got a list of people to contact with a well-built email campaign.
  7. Partner with other local businesses – you’re all struggling to make ends meet together, so why not pool your resources, especially with local businesses that are not direct competitors?  Partner with your neighbors to throw special events, refer customers to each other, and share expensive marketing costs like billboards or radio spots.
  8. Cater events – all it takes is some pretty simple catering equipment and you can take your menu on the road to corporate events, weddings, and more.  Being able to bring the experience and food your restaurant offers anywhere your customers need it is a great way get more business, and undoubtedly there will be new customers at each event you cater, giving you the perfect opportunity to introduce yourself.
  9. Join a delivery network – more and more entrepreneurs in cities all over the U.S. are offering delivery services to local restaurants.  Whether you choose to partner with one of these companies or build your own delivery service, make your food available to your customers even if they don’t feel like going out.  There’s nothing to lose and more business to gain.
  10. Start a green initiative – it’s been proven over and over again that customers appreciate businesses who attempt to make their operations more “green.” Better standing with your customers is great, but the local press you’ll get with a well-crafted green initiative is even better.
  11. Host live musichosting live music is a well-known way to get more people into your establishment.  What’s often overlooked, however, is how to involve your customers with the decision of who gets to play.  Use social media to get your fans talking and then voting on which acts should perform in order to get the most mileage out of the live music you host.
  12. Create a YouTube channel – now that there are tons of easy-to-use handheld devices like the Flip and many newer smartphones that can easily record HD video, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be shooting all kinds of cool clips about your restaurant.  From hopping Saturday nights to behind-the-scenes clips of your cooking line hard at work, it’s very easy to shoot and edit your own videos to post to YouTube.  Those videos will show up quickly in places like Google and help generate interest in your restaurant.  Just make sure that whatever you shoot is interesting and very original.
  13. Hold a special Foursquare event – surely by now you have heard about connecting with your customers on Foursquare. Over the last couple years Foursquare has continued to grow in size and it’s a must-do for restaurants at this point, especially those in large urban areas.  What’s often overlooked are Foursquare Events, which let you invite people who have checked in at your establishment to a special event, which you can leverage to create some awesome customer engagement.
  14. Create a VIP club – Everybody loves to be a VIP, and if you make your most loyal customers VIPs they will come back more often and spend more each time.  The key is to make your VIP club really cool – don’t just give member 10% off and call it a day.  Add as many perks as you can think of and watch your best customers delight in all their VIP benefits.
  15. Use receipts as advertising space – It would be easy to overdo it, but if you keep the advertising low key receipts can become much more than worthless strips of paper you give your customers.  Modmarket in Boulder, CO makes their receipt advertising useful by adding calorie counts to the menu items listed to reinforce their healthy brand.
  16. Track coupon codes – Giving a discount is nice but far too many restaurants have poor methods for tracking coupon uses.  Set up your POS system to recognize and track coupon codes as they are redeemed so that you can try different types of offers and see which ones perform the best and drive the most revenue.
  17. Clean up the menu – really simple changes to your menu can make a huge difference in average amount your customers order and how often they order the highest margin items.  Try dropping dollar signs, putting high margin best sellers in the upper left hand corner and placing a few really expensive items in strategic spots to make other items look like great deals.
  18. Use the power of email – if done right email can be a great way to get regular customers coming back through your doors more often.  Just be careful to not look like spam, make sure your customers knowingly sign up for your list, and offer some real value in every email in order.
  19. Make happy hour the best in town – think beyond the traditional $2 drafts and supercharge your happy hour in order to generate some real buzz around town.  Try making top shelf drinks the same price as well drinks and coming up with some really awesome appetizers for a great price.  After your happy hour starts bumping make sure you get a few patrons to stay for dinner by offering additional incentives.
  20. Let customers pay what they want – pick one day a week or one day a month and throw prices completely out the window.  Instead, let patrons pay whatever they think their meal was worth.  Restaurant have tried this in the past and those who overpay tend to balance out those who underpay.  The best value for you is all the local press you’ll get by running this promotion.  If all you do is break even on the promotion you’re still ahead because of the free advertising you got in local media.
  21. Try a speed lunch – most people are very busy throughout the workweek and many don’t have much time to eat lunch.  This can cause sit-down restaurants to lose out on lunchtime business.  Combat this by guaranteeing lunch served in 15 minutes or less or it’s free and get those busy workers streaming through your doors.
  22. Host free wi-fi all afternoon – you may not see huge crowds if you start offering free wi-fi but a steady stream of customers during the slow afternoon hours is better than nothing.  Wi-fi is easy and relatively cheap to set up and can really make your restaurant feel like a home-away-from-home.
  23. Give away an after shift drink – not all restaurateurs like this approach but I have seen it work well for Rock Bottom Brewery: give your servers a free after-shift drink to encourage them to hang around and start calling their friends to come over and hang out.  Pretty soon you can fill up the bar area and make the place look like it’s hopping on a normally slow weeknight.
  24. Give away special sauces – have some secret sauce that makes your most popular entree to die for?  The process can take some work, but if you get the necessary paperwork out of the way then bottling your own condiments, marinades, or sauces is a great way to plant a nice piece of advertising in every patron’s home right there on the label.  Bonus points if you give a bunch of it away for free in order to get customers coming through the door.
  25. Run specials for local sports teams – even if you don’t have a sports bar it’s really easy to connect with customers when it comes to sports.  Take a popular menu item and give it a twist that corresponds with a local team that’s doing really well or at the beginning of the season.  The easiest way to do this is to use food coloring to make something you serve a lot of match the team’s colors but there are many much more creative ways  to incorporate local fan mania into your menu.
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Why Is It So Difficult To Convert A Bad Experience Into A Great One?

Managing Customer ExperienceWhen a customer is displeased with the service you’ve promised to provide, whether it be in your restaurant or retail store or any other category that deals with people, why does one think that a simple “I’m sorry” is going to remedy things?

If you truly want to convert a bad experience into a memorable WOW experience that creates word of mouth, then you’ve got to take your “apologies” up a notch and do the unexpected.

For example, my Raleigh News & Observer wasn’t delivered to my door on Sunday morning. After numerous phone calls to their over-seas customer call center and promises that the paper would be delivered within an hour, it finally arrived more than 4 hours later! I met the delivery person who gave me the typical “I’m sorry’s”

So, did he convert this from a bad experience into a good one? Definitely not and thus missed a huge opportunity to turn a dissatisfied customer into a raving fan.

What could he have done to turn this around and make this experience truly wonderful? Simply this – “Mr. Cohen, I’m so sorry we didn’t deliver your paper as promised. I’m sure you wanted it to read with your Sunday breakfast, so here’s a bag of fresh Brueggar’s bagels and cream cheese and some hot coffee to go along with your paper.”

Another WOW opportunity gone down the drain because companies haven’t been trained properly in the process of WOWing their customers and still believe that average customer service is the norm. The best ever opportunity for any company to create a raving fan is when something has gone wrong for that customer.

I’d bet you my next Sunday newspaper that Nordstrom wouldn’t have allowed this to happen.

Joel Cohen regularly writes about his insights into restaurant marketing on his blog, “Restaurant Marketing Blog.” Through consulting and speaking, he focuses on specific principles of restaurant marketing, such as planning, differentiation and how to WOW guests to increase sales.
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Engineering Your Menu

The menu is often the first thing your customers see when they decide to eat at your restaurant, and sometimes might even be the thing that convinces them to come inside in the first place. But you’d be surprised how many restaurants spend little or no time on menu design, and as a result miss out on easy ways to help servers sell top menu items.

Some Menu Engineering Pointers

  • Drop the dollar signs. Anyone who has sat in a restaurant trying to decide what to order is a liar if they tell you they don’t look at the price for help in making a decision. So, if every customer is going to be looking at that number beside menu items, you might as well make it as appealing as possible. A recent study by the Culinary Institute of America (the other CIA) showed that menus without the symbol “$” or the word “dollars” saw an increase in sales of over 8% per person. That’s enough to make any restaurateur scrambling to get the white out!
  • In fact, deemphasize prices as much as you can. Another important tip is to place prices right next to the end of descriptions so that they blend in as opposed to setting them out all by themselves to the far right margin which just gets your customer thinking about how much it will cost rather than how good it will taste.
  • Strategically place best sellers and money makers. Customers scan lists of appetizers, entrees, and desserts in a predictable way. Naturally, they look at the top item first.  Maybe not so logically, they check out the very last item second.  Then a customer will usually go to the second item from the top, then second from bottom, until they get to the middle. Now that you know this, take the menu items of each category and split them up into groups:best sellers,high margin favorites, and then everything else. Place the items that fall into best seller and high margin groups in the prime locations at the top and bottom of your app, entrée and dessert lists. Place high margin items or categories in the top right of the menu and lower margin items in the lower left as well.  The customer’s eye will track to the upper right first, giving items placed there a much higher viewing percentage.
  • You can also promote new items and specials by highlighting them with a box or a “New!” graphic.  These simple visual tricks can increase sales of those items by as much as a third.
  • Train servers to back up your menu. You could have the best menu of all time and still go under in a hurry if your servers aren’t selling your menu. The trick is to get a good combination of menu engineering and servers who know what they’re doing.  Teach servers to helpfully suggest one of your top three most profitable items when customers ask. Have servers ask for upsells like side salads or a specific brand of alcohol instead of well.  Even a simple technique like using a pen to point to menu items the server is suggesting are proven to be very effective. The point is, give your servers a strategy, and strive to improve that strategy every day.
  • Get some help. For more menu engineering help, you might want to hire a consultant.  Many more factors should be taken into account when you are designing or redesigning your menu than those listed here. The most important of these is customer demographics.  A blue collar mom-and-pop diner probably shouldn’t print sleek menus with an art deco theme. Menu consultants specialize in taking the unique characteristics of your restaurant and using them to maximize sales through one of the primary tools at your disposal: your menu.

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How To Turn Coupons Into Restaurant Marketing Opportunities

Restaurant DiscountsDespite the fact that a majority of restaurateurs view discount sites like Groupon as the biggest threat to their business, and despite a lot of talk in the restaurant industry about how discounts devalue a restaurant’s brand, new market research reveals that coupons and deep discounts are probably here to stay.

The recession may be fading, but the price-based behavior consumers have become accustomed to over the past two years isn’t going anywhere.  This was the most interesting point made in a survey conducted by Radius Global Market Research last month.

According to Radius 86% of diners said they look for ways to cut costs every time they eat out.

The study went on to point out some areas consumers indicated would motivate them to dine out besides price, including:

  • More calorie and nutrition information
  • Social media promotions
  • More chicken, breakfast, and snack options
  • More premium burgers

Consumers also indicated that most of these factors are more effective for the quick service and fast casual dining segments, which leaves fine dining and independent restaurants with precious few ways to motivate increased visits from their regulars.  Besides, that is, coupons.

That’s depressing news for restaurateurs who had hoped to start moving away from discounting and towards a value-based approach – good food, great service, nice atmosphere.  All of those factors are still what make a successful restaurant, but if patrons aren’t coming in the door then there isn’t much chance to show off the things your restaurant does best.

If the hated coupon is indeed here to stay then there is only one way for independents to compete: jump on the coupon bandwagon.  That means if you’re taking a bath on a lot of discounts then you might as well find some creative ways to get as much as you can out of your penny-pinching customers.

Some ideas:

Get an email address. Don’t give coupons away for nothing!  While you would much rather get full price on check amounts, a discount doesn’t have to be a complete loss.  That email address can be worth a lot of extra visits to you if you plug it into an effective email marketing program.

Limit the coupon then work the upsell. Groupons aren’t going to allow you to give discounts on specific menu items or times of the week, and that’s why you should develop your own coupon program and cut out those margin-eating middlemen.

Send out your own coupons to regulars that gives a discount on your high-margin menu items then set your servers to work upselling on everything from appetizers and cocktails to desserts.  Alternatively, offer a blanket coupon, but only for the slowest night of the week.
Restaurant Marketing
Advertise to customers while you’re paying dearly for their presence. Those deep discounts hurt your margins but they do at least give you an opportunity to advertise yourself to a captive audience.  Menus, waiting areas, bathrooms, receipts, servers, and tabletops are all great areas to subtly but forcefully advertise how great your restaurant is and inform guests about upcoming events and deals.

Just because check averages dip every time you discount doesn’t mean you can’t get something of value out of all those deal-hunters.  Being creative with the ways you get compensated for providing a coupon can help you drive more visits in the future and help ease the pain of taking money off the bill.

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Improve Restaurant Sales And Brand Recognition At Food Festivals

The Taste Of Chicago Food FestivalSummer food festivals have been a fixture in American culture for years.  From the Taste of Chicago to the Alabama Crawfish Festival , food festivals large and small have kept growing and expanding, even through recent economic turbulence.

Tens of thousands of restaurants participate in these festivals across the country.  Participation often means closing down their establishment and spending a significant amount of money setting up and serving food at the festival.  But the general attitude is that the cost and loss of revenue is definitely worth it.

That’s because you simply cannot beat the exposure and customer engagement any restaurant gets at a food festival.  Potential customers are much more likely to experiment with new types of cuisine and new restaurant brand names in the festive atmosphere, making a local food festival an important avenue to gaining new customers for young establishments.  For the more experienced restaurants at a festival, reinforcing your brand in the community is a priceless commodity, and nothing communicates stability than customers seeing you year after year at the local food festival.

Restaurants in large metropolitan areas should choose the food festivals they attend more carefully than those in smaller communities.  Obviously, they’ll have more choices, and a big city restaurant should look for the festival that is most likely to cater to the type of person you want in your restaurant.  In small cities and rural areas, it’s much less about market segmentation and a lot more about making an appearance.  Just showing up at the local food festival communicates your involvement in the community.

In an age when it seems like all marketing gurus talk about is engaging customers through social media on the internet, food festivals provide a unique opportunity to engage customers face-to-face in a positive and friendly atmosphere.  Don’t expect to make any money at your local food festival.  But do expect to recognize the same smiling faces you see there in your restaurant in the months afterwards.

For a complete list of food festivals in your area, check out this food festival guide.

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How To Make Your Restaurant A “Third Place”

Restaurant Third PlaceThe concept of the “third place” was first developed by Starbucks, and anyone who has been in a Starbucks immediately understands the principle: make your business feel like a home-away-from-home. Unfortunately for Starbucks they made way too many homes just as the economy turned south – tripling the number of locations in just three years before closing 600 stores at the height of the recession.

Now other fast casual chains are cashing in on the third place concept, most notably Panera, which has weathered the economy with strong profits and steady growth.  Panera has a lot of things going for it – customers view the brand as healthy, comfortable, and welcoming – the perfect place to eat, socialize, and work when you’re not at the office or at home – the quintessential third place. These companies have proven that the concept of third place works.  No other approach has been as successful in the past decade in terms of creating customer loyalty and word-of-mouth marketing.

So how can your restaurant cash in on the third place concept? 

Set the mood. Booths and tables with four chairs around them is standard restaurant furniture – and that’s exactly why your customer doesn’t quite feel at home in your establishment.  Comfortable, spacious seating is the first thing that jumps out at customers who walk into a Starbucks or a Panera. Of course, that kind of seating is expensive to buy and expensive to house because it eats up so much space.  That doesn’t mean you can’t convert one section of your restaurant into a homey retreat and keep the rest of your restaurant an efficient table-turning machine.Restaurant Third Place

Provide entertainment. Interactive digital signage, high def TVs, and super fast WiFi are all great ways to make your customers feel right at home.  With all the technological amenities they need at their fingertips your guests will settle in and stay awhile.

Take the long view on table turnover. “Turning and burning” – getting customers in and out of your establishment as quickly as possible – has long been the way most restaurants make their money.  When you convert part or all of your restaurant into a third place concept, you have to take a much longer view on the table turnover question. When you let customers lounge around for hours on end you may not be turning over a lot of customers but the ones who do stay tend to invite their friends, and when those friends discover your comfortable, homey atmosphere they’ll come back with their friends… and so on.

Don’t drop everything to become a third place. For most restaurants the most effective way to leverage the third place concept is going to be a hybrid approach.  Take a cozy corner in your restaurant, convert it into a comfortable lounge, and watch your lunch/afternoon shift grow in business.  During the dinner rush, go back to doing what you do best and let customers waiting for a seat or happy hour spillovers fill up your little third place – to the envy of your customers in regular seating.

Creating a home within your restaurant will take some investment, to be sure.  That investment can also pay off in a big way by taking those long hours between lunch and dinner and turning them into a solid moneymaker.  More indirectly, customer loyalty and word-of-mouth buzz will almost certainly make your cozy little investment one of the most effective marketing tools in your arsenal.

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