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25 Marketing Ideas Restaurant Owners Overlook

Woman whispering and woman listening

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.

About Greg McGuire

Greg has blogged about the food service industry for years and has been published in industry magazines, like Independent Restaurateur and industry blogs like Restaurant SmartBrief. He lives in Colorado with his wife and two sons and enjoys reading, live music, and the great outdoors.

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  1. Some great ideas here. I especially love the pay what you want and free wi-fi ideas. What about hosting TV nights? There are so many “Must-See” shows on, why not play them with dinner? Offer a special dessert or meal to complement the show.

    Maybe 1/2 off mixed drinks during “Mad Men”?

    Or discounted steak during “True Blood” or a discounted t-bones during “Bones”?

    I think the key to all of these ideas is to make it fun, whimsical, and intriguing for patrons. Making it worth talking about is also key.

    • Hey Nick,

      I love the idea of 1/2 price drinks during Mad Men! What a great way to connect with customers on a new level – and it doesn’t have to be sports either.

  2. Frederik Van Lierde

    I would add another Tip: GIFT VOUCHERS

    Wondering how Gift Vouchers could be of use to your restaurant? Did you know that restaurant gift cards are the third most popular type of online gift cards among consumers buying online?

    More and more restaurants are turning to selling gift vouchers through online platforms to grow their revenue.

    As a restaurant owner, the standard marketing options open to you are mostly print-based: local newspapers, specialised press, restaurant guides etc. Often it is hard to gauge the real return of your marketing investment.

    Alternatively, you can work with Groupon (or other local Groupon clones) and offer significant discounts to bring in more clients, which will give you more exposure but at a high cost.

    A new solution is to offer Gift Cards to generate more sales, profit and When people love your restaurant, they will talk about it and share their enthusiasm. This enthusiasm is the best type of publicity. This is where Facebook, Yelp, Foursquare etc. come in. However, it is still hard to translate online coverage into new customers actually engaging with your business.

    Now imagine if a customer who has enjoyed your restaurant decided to send EUR 20 to a best friend to try out your restaurant for her birthday. The friend will visit your restaurant, have a good time and likely spend more than the EUR 20 value of the gift card.

    Many people find Gift Vouchers a perfect alternative to buying a gift. By offering service, your clients will be happy and have less stress the next time they need a gift voucher for a Birthday, Mothers’ day, Christmas, Thanksgiving or even a wedding. At the same time, you benefit by having increased your sales.

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