Opening a restaurant is a dream many people share. There’s something quaint, yet also glamorous about owning a restaurant; who doesn’t like the idea of serving delicious food to the masses?
Of course, as any restaurant owner will tell you, there’s more to running a successful restaurant than just being able to cook amazing meals. This is one of those times where the saying “If you build it, they will come,” definitely does not apply.
The reality of restaurant operation is that only a few types of establishments can get away with no marketing: those in prime locations, and those whose idea is so unique that people just have to try it. Even in these cases, some types of promotion are usually necessary.
Why You Need Promotions. You probably know why you need promotions, but in case you aren’t sure, let’s talk about it for a minute. Think about the number of restaurants near where you live, or within your city. If you’re in a metropolitan area, there are plenty. Even if you are a frequent diner, there are probably still dozens of restaurants near you that don’t know exist. Restaurants are popular choices for businesses, and since dining out is one of America’s favorite pastimes, that’s not necessarily bad.
The problem is, with so many restaurants for diners to choose from, you have to give them something to get in the door. If you’ve got all the ingredients of a killer restaurant, you’ll keep them coming back, but the hardest part of marketing is getting a customer to try your business that first time.
Even if you’ve got the best menu in the world, if someone never tries it, it doesn’t matter. So let’s get started on finding the right kind of promotion for your restaurant!
Types of Promotions. There are as many types of promotions as there are types of restaurants, and there is not really a one size fits all approach that will cover every business. While putting coupons in local magazines may workout great for chicken wings, it may not go over as well for fine seafood. You have to match your promotion to your restaurant, as well as your type of customer.
Before you come up with an idea, you have to think about what a promotion is designed to do. First, you want it to make people want to come. What makes people walk into a restaurant? Yes, people are eating out more these days, but there are two main things that get people in the door: Free or heavily discounted food, and a good time. If you can combine the two, such as a happy hour with trivia or live music, even better.
If your restaurant is more casual, coupons are a good way to get people in the door, and people love exclusive offers such as those found on social media sites. A promotion should do more than get people in the door; it should make them excited to be there. Contests, trivia nights, and karaoke are promotions that do all these things, and it doesn’t have to cost you a fortune. Even if the winner gets only a free meal or t-shirt, if they have fun, they’ll be back.
If your restaurant is more upscale, these types of things might not work, so you’ll have to do more toned down promotions. Creating discounted wine tastings for a weeknight is an option, as is selling gift cards at a reduced rate to encourage them to come back. Remember, even in a fine dining restaurant, your guests still want to have a good time.
Set a Promotional Budget. Before you start giving stuff away, you have to decide how much you want to spend. Hopefully you’ve put this in your business plan. Food and drinks is obviously a great start; this is why your customers are coming in, and due to wholesale costs, it appears that you are giving them much more than you actually are. When choosing entertainment options, events that rely on customers providing the entertainment (karaoke or open-mic night) are going to be less expensive than something like live music in which you’ll have to pay the performer.
Deal sites like Groupon or Living Social are great ways to get people in the door, and require payment upfront, so you have an idea how they are working.
If you’re running coupons in local publications, there are costs associated with that, and while sites like Facebook can be free, you may find that paying is a better way to target your market.
While you can definitely try to do free advertising and low-cost promotions, it will probably be frustrating. There are all kinds of hidden costs in restaurant operation, and a promotional budget is one of them.
Letting Customers Know. Once you’ve decided on promotions, you’ve got to get the word out. The first place to start is in your restaurant. Put signs up, make flyers, have your staff mention it to everyone that comes in the door. Yes, the main idea is to get new customers, but sometimes the way to do that is with existing customers. You never know if a business luncher could bring his group of friends back for a happy hour or wine tasting.
If you’re using social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, make sure to use these services to your advantage. Yes, you have to pay for targeted marketing, but you don’t have to pay to let your existing followers know what’s going on.
If you’re in an area with surrounding businesses, you could arrange a marketing swap. For example, if your neighbor hands out flyers to his customers, you could talk him up as well. Be careful with this method, as you don’t want to bother your customers too much by trying to sell them other services.
If you have a website (and you should!) put your promotional items on it, and keep it up to date.
Experiment. Unfortunately, no matter what business you’re in marketing and advertising are tricky. It will take a while to get it right, and with technology always changing, even once you find yourself a home run, social media will change or people will starting getting information in a new way, which is why newspapers are no longer the best places to run ads. These things don’t always happen overnight, but sometimes it does. Sites like Facebook are always changing their algorithms and ad services, but usually it’s to fit their needs better, and everyone else just has to adapt.
Pay Someone if You Can. Marketing is hard work, and requires a lot of time and energy to do it right. It also has to be done on a regular basis, and can require tech skills that have a bit of a learning curve. If you don’t have the inclination or skills to do it yourself, it may be best to see if you can fit it in your budget to pay someone. Before you balk at the idea of paying yet another person, keep in mind that paying for ad campaigns that do nothing for your business will literally get you nowhere. The right person should be able to skip past all the stuff that doesn’t work and get you straight to what will.
If your restaurant manager can do it, great, but remember, restaurant managers have a lot on their plate.
In a day and age where restaurants are everywhere, you have to give your customers a reason to try you over your competition. Promotions like happy hour are a necessity if you want to get diners in the door, and keep them coming back.
What are your favorite or most successful ways to promote your restaurant?