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Restaurant Marketing: The Future Is Now

Restaurant Marketing: The Future Is NowFoursquare is a location-based application for mobile devices that allows users to discover and rate local businesses and then share those discoveries with their social network.  Since I wrote about Foursquare last year, the company has really started to take off, landing promotional deals with Bravo, Warner Bros., and HBO.

The latest feather in Foursquare’s cap is a deal with Zagat, which was announced recently and caused quite a stir in the food service industry.  According to Zagat, so many Foursquare users were “checking in” from Zagat-rated restaurants that it only made sense for the two companies to start working together.

Foursquare allows users to check in from their favorite restaurants and earn “badges” based upon how often they check in.  Clever restaurateurs have started offering special promos to Foursquare members checking in from their establishment, which encourages buzz in the social media sphere.  With the new partnership, ratings and reviews will be pulled directly from Zagat and shared with a Foursquare user’s friends, adding a Yelp type feature to the application.  In fact, Yelp hasn’t been waiting idly by, and recently they released a mobile device app of their own.

For restaurants, a clear trend is building towards hip young people in urban centers driving buzz about eateries and bars through social networking applications like Foursquare.  That trend is going to change how you market your restaurant.

Another interesting side effect of the rise of social networking-based reviews of restaurants and bars is the slow death of the restaurant reviewer in your local paper.  Print media is on a long, slow decline in general anyway, but foodie reviews in particular are declining as the process of determining which places are good which are not has been democratized by companies like Zagat, Foursquare, and Yelp.  Gone are the days when a single bad review in the paper could make or break the success of a restaurant.

Of course, there’s also a dark side to opening up the review floodgates to the masses.  As many restaurateurs have already discovered, a couple malicious reviews on a site like Yelp can have a serious effect on your online reputation.  This isn’t helped any by the anonymous nature of the internet, which makes it easy for random people to leave scathing reviews.  Effectively spotting and responding to what people are saying about your restaurant online (“online reputation management”) is going to be crucial to keeping internet buzz about your establishment positive.

Adjusting to the new realities of how word-of-mouth gets around about your restaurant isn’t going to come easily.  It’s going to require spending a lot of time on sites like Yelp, Twitter, and Facebook.  It’s also going to require learning the new language of social media, one which your younger customers already speak fluently.  The upshot is that an effective social media marketing program can also generate an enormous amount of business, and some restaurants have started coming up with ingenious ways to harness the power of social media.

In general, restaurants have been slow to adopt this new form of marketing.  As we get further into this new decade however,  those that embrace social media are the ones that will find a clear advantage over the competition.  Like it or not, social media is the medium of the future, and restaurateurs can choose to get on that train today or in five years.  Either way, it’s leaving the station, with or without you.

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Want To Start An Independent Restaurant? Start With The Incubator

Want To Start An Independent Restaurant?  Start With The IncubatorEvery restaurateur has been through the baptism by fire known as Opening Night.  Those who have survived can testify to the nerve-racking experience of preparing menu items for the first time for a dining room full of people.  Many hopeful entrepreneurs have had their dreams realized or crushed on opening night, and anyone wanting to start a restaurant had better be prepared for the big night.

The problem many new restaurant owners have is that building out a new kitchen often runs right up until opening, and that leaves precious little time to test out batches and recipes before the Big Night.  Any new kitchen is inevitably going to run into some kinks, but surprisingly few new owners get the chance to practice their chops before they have to come up big on the first night.

Luckily for new restaurant owners in Pasadena, CA, a local non-profit has styled itself as a “restaurant incubator.”  Mama’s Small Business Kitchen Incubator provides a state-of-the-art kitchen for rent at an extremely reasonable rate for aspiring restaurateurs.  Anyone serious about opening a restaurant can have full access to Mama’s kitchen for a small hourly fee and after taking a safe food handling course.

The opportunity to try out recipes and batch sizes, as well as experiment with the latest restaurant equipment, means that a new restaurant owner can identify problems before they start well before the most important night of a restaurant’s life.  Mama’s is also available for other segments of the food service industry like caterers, concessions, and even institutions.

The best part about Mama’s is that affordable access to all that shiny new restaurant equipment isn’t even the best part.  Entrepreneurs who have been there rave about the people at the non-profit, all of whom are veteran restaurateurs who can provide a lot of golden advice to the newbies.  Those that survive the reality check that Mama’s provide will more than likely find their opening night a lot less daunting.

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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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Why Your Restaurant Should Start Catering… And 4 Simple Steps To Start

Why Your Restaurant Should Start Catering... And 4 Simple Steps To StartIn a recent study by Technomic, 36% of consumers said they are doing their socializing at home more often than a year ago.  In addition, 40% said they’d like to entertain at home more often in the next year.

For a restaurant owner, those are some sobering numbers.  The corresponding 4% decline in restaurants nationwide over the last year tells you just how serious the situation is.  If your restaurant has made it this far, then hopefully the worst of it is behind you.  And now might be the perfect time to turn the crisis into an opportunity.

That’s because although consumers are staying home, they’re not necessarily wanting to cook at home.  That means you can find willing customers if you’re willing to venture out from the restaurant.  In fact, 53% of consumers said they bought prepared foods for the 4th of July 2009.  That reveals a market that’s available for what you do best: prepare great food.

Catering for small and mid-sized parties (10 – 100 people) is on a steep rise, and some restaurants have already started offering their services as a way to drum up business, even if those customers aren’t seated in the dining area.  So how can your restaurant get in the game?  Some ideas:

Get equipped. Don’t try to translate what you do in the kitchen of your restaurant so well into a foreign venue without the proper tools.  Catering requires some specialized equipment that allows you to be mobile and quick on your feet.  Don’t get into the catering game without investing in some good equipment first.

Specialize your menu. Stick to the items on your menu that are high margin and require minimal prep work.  Whatever your bread and butter entrees are, the ones you can whip up in your sleep, slap them on a special menu for catered events.  This keeps things nice and simple, especially when you’re starting out.

Try to reach known customers. If you have an email list or other way to market to customers you know haven’t been in for awhile, use it to advertise directly to the people who are probably staying home but like your restaurant.

You probably will want to try a few dry runs before you hit the big time with your new catering operation.  Maybe try catering your own family function or a similar low-stress event so you can work out the kinks.  That will ensure you’re making the best impression possible when you start.

If you choose your menu items carefully and back up some effective marketing with a well prepared mobile operation, your restaurant can stand to make some pretty good money in catering, which gives you another stream of revenue and a little more stability in the uncertain world of food service.

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10 Restaurant Marketing Trends

10 Restaurant Marketing TrendsPromoting your restaurant is a never-ending task.  As a restaurateur, you understand just how important marketing is to your success.  You probably also don’t have the resources to carry out a massive campaign (like Coke or Budweiser), and every dollar you spend needs to come back as a paying customer.

Even in trying times like these, your restaurant cannot afford to cut back on marketing.  You absolutely do need to make sure you spend those limited dollars wisely.  The Back Burner has posted several articles that will help you maximize your marketing ROI.  Read on to learn more:

1. Is Restaurant Marketing Technology Getting Scary? – The cutting edge in restaurant marketing is bringing some technologies to bear that remind me of The Minority Report.  Check out this post for more.

2. A Restaurant Survival Guide, Parts I and II – This post was written during the darker economic days of February; however the marketing strategies here are just as relevant now as they were then.

3. Kogi Is Kool: The Twitter Revolution – No matter what you think about “microblogging” and Twitter, you can take advantage of it’s huge popularity to promote your restaurant.

4. Engineer Your Menu – One of the most important advertising pieces in your restaurant is the menu.  Learn how to make people want to buy and spend more in this post.

5. Can FaceBook Help Your Sales? – Anybody who has spent any time studying marketing of any kind these days has heard the mantra “Use social media, use social media.”  This post discusses how the food service industry has used this new medium.

6. Bring In Customers With A Speed Lunch Promo – A healthy, value-driven lunch menu guaranteed to be served in 30 minutes or less can go a long way towards bringing in customers looking for some good “fast food.”

7. What Should You Do About Yelp? – This website has stirred a lot of controversy lately due to it’s business practices.  Learn more about what restaurants are doing about it in this post.

8. Become A Hotspot! – Nothing will speed up your slow afternoon hours like becoming a WiFi hotspot.  Learn how in this post.

9. Does Your Restaurant Have A Leaky Bucket? – Learn about the latest trends in customer attitudes towards the food service industry and what to do about them in this post.

10. Online Ordering: A Blessing Or A Curse? – Some chains have started taking online orders.  Many in the food service industry view this as problematic at best.  Learn why it’s an inevitable wave of the future in this post.

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Restaurant Management Tips: Stay Safe With Alcohol Service Training

Restaurant Management Tips: Stay Safe With Alcohol Service TrainingThe level of liability restaurant managers and owners face in alcohol related incidents can be shockingly high.  Protecting yourself, your staff, and your customers from dangerous alcohol related situations should be a top priority for your business.  And the best way to protect yourself is to make sure your staff is properly trained for alcohol service.  Some tips on how to train your staff:

Be aware of local and state laws.  More than likely you learned the local and state laws that apply to alcohol when you applied for your liquor license.  However, your staff may not be aware of these laws and there may have been changes or amendments since you applied for a license.  Make sure you take the time to educate yourself and your staff on all liquor laws that apply to your establishment.

Create a standardized alcohol service policy.  Set a standard policy and train your staff to follow this policy strictly.  While you will probably need to include some unique clauses for your particular situation, here are some good ideas on what to include:

Train staff to observe patron behavior and identify those who are becoming intoxicated.  Many establishments use a color coded system: green for little or no intoxication, yellow for becoming intoxicated, and red for time to cut off.

Mandate communication between staff, customers, and management.  Staff should know how to communicate your establishment’s alcohol policy to customers.  They should also be encouraged to notify managers of potential problems before they become situations.

Train staff to count drinks and know the difference between alcohol types.  Counting drinks helps avoid problems with patrons who do not exhibit an obvious change in behavior as they become intoxicated.  However, your staff should also know the alcohol content of what they’re serving.  Four domestic beers is very different from four long island ice teas, so make sure your staff knows the difference.

Also train staff to factor in time and food consumption when evaluating the intoxication of a customer.  Four drinks consumed over the course of four hours is much different than four drink consumed in half an hour.  Food, especially fatty or high protein foods, help slow the rate of alcohol absorption into the bloodstream, which in turn affects the likely intoxication level of the customer.  Encourage “yellow” intoxicated customers to eat and make sure appetizers or quickly prepared menu items are readily available to drinking customers

Implement strategies to avoid alcohol related situations.  A well trained staff with a clear set of guidelines to follow is the first and most important line of defense in helping you mitigate alcohol liability.  The second line of defense is the implementation of some key strategies that will help you avoid alcohol related problems.  Some examples:

Encourage parties to identify a designated driver and incentivize DD’s by offering free non-alcoholic beverages and appetizers.

Form a good relationship with a reputable cab company and advertise their number for free in your establishment.

Include local police when setting your alcohol service standards and use them as a resource for avoiding and handling alcohol related incidents in your establishment.Restaurant Management Tips: Stay Safe With Alcohol Service Training

How to protect yourself if an incident does occur.  If an alcohol related incident does occur in your establishment, make sure you document as much as you can.  Record eyewitness accounts of what happened and what you and your staff did to control customer intoxication.  This documentation will prove to be worth its weight in gold if litigation arises as a result of an incident connected with your business.

Having clear strategies to control intoxication in your establishment is no longer an optional  policy.  Cases that have been settled in the past five years have shown that you are not only potentially liable for injury that occurs as a result of an alcohol related incident in your establishment but outside it as well, most notably in drunk driving cases.  Such litigation can ruin your business and your life, so taking precautions when serving alcohol is a vital part of operating in the food service industry.

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A Restaurant Survival Guide (continued)

The Back Burner’s Restaurant Survival Guide continues with some more tips on how to keep customers coming in the door in these tough economic times.

Take your product to the customer. You have already developed delicious entrees, trained your kitchen staff to cook them, and purchased all the equipment you need to produce on a large scale.

Yet your restaurant is seeing falling or stagnant visits every month.

You’re all dressed up with nowhere to go.  So go out.

Many large chains like Applebees, Chili’s, and O’Charley’s have developed very successful fast takeout operations to supplement sales of their core menu items.

Now some of these businesses are getting into full catering services as a way to boost sales in a gloomy economic environment.

Recent surveys of restaurant patrons have indicated they plan to stay home in record numbers in 2009, but that doesn’t mean they always want to fire up the home kitchen.

And small to medium sized get-togethers (of 10 – 50 people) still happen all the time, just not at your restaurant.  Customers see a great value in serving familiar foods from their favorite eatery right in their home, and you already have the staff and tools to service them there.

A little marketing, a slight adjustment in your menu offerings, and you’re on your way to finding your customers even if they aren’t coming to your restaurant as often as they used to.

Gift cards help. More and more chains are marketing gift cards, and smaller operations can do the same.  Not only are gift cards a quick and convenient gift for your customer, but they guarantee future sales that can help you through slow times.

They can also help bring in new clientele if they are offered as a promotion.  And best of all, customers who use gift cards tend to overspend the gift card amount, which means some added sales for you.

Meanwhile, the customer leaves full and happy, having spent less than he or she expected.

You can survive. The salient point here is that customers still want your product.  They haven’t forgotten how good it tasted two years ago.

They just don’t want to pay the same amount for it.

You have rising expenses to deal with, but that doesn’t mean a little repackaging and some clever marketing can’t help your customer realize exactly why they fell in love with your restaurant in the first place.

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A Restaurant Survival Guide

A Restaurant Survival GuideThe current economic downturn has affected every aspect of the American economy, including the food service industry.

The NRA has projected a 1% drop in all restaurant sales for 2009 (when adjusted for inflation), potentially making 2008 and 2009 the only two consecutive years where restaurant sales have fallen since the NRA started keeping track in 1971.

That’s sobering news for any restaurateur, and many restaurant managers can tell you after a quick glance over last quarter’s books that this NRA prediction isn’t coming as a huge surprise.

But there is silver all over the huge cloud bank of gloom that is our economy, and a smart business owner should be able to hang on until the ride is over.

For starters, the food service industry isn’t hurting as badly as other sectors of the economy (at least you’re not a UAW member, right?), and typically restaurants are the first to turn around after a slump.

The key lies in holding down costs while attracting new customers and retaining existing ones.  Sounds easy enough, right?  Right.

Here’s a few food service trends that can help you survive:

Comfort foods are rising in demand. Chicken, beans, and even spam all saw significant increases in sales in the last quarter of 2008.

These products can help your business manage costs while you portray them to the customer as a “value” menu item (well, maybe not spam), especially if you highlight them against perceived “luxury” items like beef.

Put together a value menu of comfort foods to bring customers in, then hope they decide on dessert.

Divide best sellers into smaller portions. Popular menu items are always going to be popular, no matter what the economy is like.  It’s just that when your customer takes his wife out this month, he doesn’t want to spend like he did in the freewheeling days of 2007.

Many restaurants are responding by taking popular menu items and offering an appetizer version of the same thing, or a two person value platter that can be shared.

Taking your core product offerings and making them affordable to your customer is a great way to retain your faithful base while enticing new customers who are searching for value.

Stay tuned for some more Restaurant Survival Tips from The Back Burner in the coming days.

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