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Stupid Restaurant Marketing: Shift Happens

Unless you’ve spent the last year or so in a cave, you know there are some major economic changes underway that are making restaurant business — or almost any business for that matter — a lot harder. Shift happens, you know.

One way where this shift is apparent is TV. Did you notice how many infomercial-type ads have now replaced the old stupid commercials with dancing pop cans and talking dogs? And we are not even talking Shopping Channel or QVC anymore. This is “normal” TV, like CNN or Fox.

Apparently, very few restaurants are catching on. Here’s just one example that is oh-so-typical.

Last weekend, my son played in a hockey tournament in London, Ontario. The management of the sports complex hosting the tournament has figured out a way to generate some revenue by offering sponsoring opportunities to local businesses.

Great idea.

Bad execution. On the part of advertisers.

This is a picture of the banner for a local pizzeria.

Tony's Pizza

I bet Tony (or whoever owns that pizza business nowadays) spent a pretty penny to get that rink named after them and to put a beautiful banner up. Here’s the issue: I fail to see how they can even hope to get any restaurant marketing results this investment.

Let’s imagine I’m at the rink, I notice the banner and I decide to get a pizza. This is not an inconceivable thing to happen if I’m a parent who has just spent the last 3 hours after a long workday at a cold hockey rink watching a bunch of young Wayne Gretzkys skate around and try to get that puck with a little stick. Cooking is the last thing I’d want to do tonight and pizza would be a Godsend.

Well, there are at least several problems that I wouldn’t be able to overcome as a potential Tony’s customer:

  • Since there is no phone number mentioned on the banner, how am I to call them and place an order?
  • There is no indication of where this place is located either. An address would be very helpful, or better yet, a small map to tell me if that pizzeria is on my way home. None of that is present.
  • How about the business hours? Some hockey practices extend into a very late evening. I wouldn’t want to veer away far from my route and come to the place only to see the “Closed” sign on the door.
  • And, oh, wouldn’t it be nice to know about the delivery option? After all, what can be better than calling the pizza while your kid is changing up and pulling into your drive way just as your pizza has arrived?
  • And last (which should probably be first), why should I order from Tony and not some other national and heavily-advertised pizza brand whose jingle and the phone number are engraved on every kid’s brain? (Nope, sorry, being in business since 1961 — or even 438 B.C. is not it. Nor is the claim of being “famous”.)

If you spend any money on restaurant marketing, make sure you give this marketing a chance to pay you back in new and repeat business.

Restaurant owners like to complain about all the things that they have tried and that didn’t work. If you listen to that chorus, nothing ever works. Advertising doesn’t work. Rink sponsorships don’t work. Newspaper ads don’t, and radio doesn’t either, to say nothing of the Yellow Pages. This doesn’t work, that doesn’t work.

And almost invariably, when you take a closer look, you see a poorly executed ad that is a variation of Tony’s Pizza banner, committing all the same restaurant marketing mistakes.

I’m sure Tony (or his successors) are totally convinced by now that local sports sponsorships don’t work. Yet this problem is of their own making. Their business is going to suffer. They will probably withdraw their backing next season. And everyone is going to lose:

  1. Tony’s because they’ll have fewer customers.
  2. The rink because they will lose a sponsor.
  3. Parents who will have to cook now on a night when it’s the last thing they’d rather do.
  4. The kids who’d rather have a pizza.

It’s time to get serious about your restaurant marketing. Almost any advertising media can be made to work. Just like any advertising media can lose you a lot of money if used recklessly.

Review your restaurant advertising and put yourself into your customers’ shoes. Are you making it too hard for them to give you their money?

Recession-Proof Restaurant Marketing Plan (Musings On How To Drive Restaurant Sales When Food Is A Little Hard To Sell)

restaurant-ownerWhenever you talk to a restaurant owner these days, it’s almost invariably a story of how hard it is to be in the restaurant business. And after a while, it may seem like restaurateurs have been dealt the worst possible deal.

Yet I’m here to say (and this may offend some restaurant owners reading this) that us the foodservice folks had it relatively easy when it comes to restaurant marketing, in comparison to many other industries.

(Please read on before you get all pissy with me; I promise to give you something very profound today, a restaurant marketing approach nobody ever shared with you.)

Let’s do a little experiment. (You can do it in your head. Or you’re welcome to try it out in real life.)

Imagine: You’re at a party and someone is asking what you do. You have to scream the answer to be heard over the loud music. And as you open your mouth, the band suddenly stops playing and everybody gets to hear it as you yell out:


Whoops… You probably have never seen the room clear so fast.

A very similar reaction could be expected if you decided to pose as a used car salesperson, realtor, mortgage broker, or lawyer.

Now, what if your answer was, “I run a restaurant”?

People would react to this a lot more favorably. Some would actually approach you to introduce themselves and ask about the type of cuisine you offer, the hours of operation, and the location of your restaurant.

What does this all have to do with restaurant marketing?

See, many professionals had a very hard time selling their services even in a good economy. Your food has suddenly become harder to sell. Well, wouldn’t it make sense to:

Learn from the best who know how to sell what’s hard to sell!

If you observe the most successful insurance agents, used car salespeople, realtors, mortgage brokers and lawyers, you’ll notice that all of them do the following three things:

  1. They hustle to get new business;
  2. They invest in the relationships with their clients and prospects;
  3. They implement formal and deliberate referral systems.

New times require new approaches. And the biggest breakthroughs are going to come from “stealing” successful marketing methods from outside the restaurant business.

You could be saying now, “But most restaurants don’t do this type of marketing!”

Heck, yeah!

That’s the point.

Little Johnny, Restaurant Marketing, and Fed Bailout Package

Little Johnny, Restaurant Marketing, and Fed BailoutOur educational system does a poor job of preparing Little Johnny to become a successful restaurant owner.

Little Johnny gets a good mark every time he gives a memorized answer (the only possible “correct” answer) to the teacher’s question.

Little Johnny doesn’t get a good mark for asking the right question in the first place. The kind of question that may have more than one correct answer. Or the kind that cannot be answered today (but it’s essential that you keep asking it because if you do, the answer will one day find you — and that will be the day of a major breakthrough in your business).

Henry from Nova Scotia is asking,

“How am I going to compete in this economy?”

This is a very good question.

Because the question that most other restaurant owners are asking right now is, “How is my restaurant going to survive in this economy?”

And it is my utter hope that the question Henry is really asking is, “What can I do today to win in this economy?”

You see, much as a sports team that plays “not to lose” has absolutely no chance of winning, a restaurant that is just trying to survive is certain to go under.

You gotta play to win!

The restaurants that are going to win are the ones that demonstrate the following traits:

  • They work on the basics every day and, no matter how slightly, they consistently outdo their competition.
  • They treat their regular customers as kings and queens, create good reasons for them to come back, and have a process in place of turning first-time guests into regulars.
  • They have created several reliable and measurable ways of attracting new restaurant customers.

And since we’re talking economy here, it’s important to understand what this whole Fed Bailout deal really means to you as a restaurant owner.

Here’s the skinny:

There are issues in the economy that have not been created overnight and it’s going to take time to get them undone. Most likely, we are yet to see the worst of it. What the Bailout Package did was prevented the really bad things from happening to us really fast. It gave us more time to fix our businesses so as we could come out on top, no matter what the future holds for us.

Here’s what Napoleon Hill wrote in the 1930’s:

THE “depression” was a blessing in disguise. It reduced the whole world to a new starting point that gives every one a new opportunity.

And this could be your new opportunity.

Little Johnny asks straight questions that everyone else finds awkward or is afraid to ask. Maybe it’s time you did a Little Johnny on your restaurant business:

  • “How can this crisis be an opportunity for me and my restaurant business?”
  • “What can I do right now to insulate my restaurant business and customers from the competition?”
  • “How can I make my restaurant truly unique and special?”

See how this works?

Next time, I am going to explain why you don’t have to be 54 times better than the next restaurant to make 54 times the money they do.

Marketing A Restaurant In A Slow Economy (part deux)

kid-thinkingThis is the second article in the series on how to market a restaurant during the economic slow-down and what a successful concept like Olive Garden does to grow when almost everybody else is shrinking. Loosely based on the information revealed in their Q1 2009 conference call.

4. Expand into new markets.

Olive Garden has seen a lot of response from their Hispanic ads targeted at the new, fast-growing, and dynamic market. This endeavor also includes Hispanic menus, and (since there was no mentioning of that in the conference call, I’m extrapolating) Hispanic staff, effectively positioning Olive Garden to Hispanic clientele as “their” place to eat out.

There could be at least two possible takeaways for you, related to restaurant marketing:

a) The Hispanic market is less saturated by other advertisers but is as hungry as any other. You may get a better bang for your marketing dollars by expanding into it.

b) Too many businesses in general, and restaurants in particular, are too stubborn to try to find a new market. The correct approach is to tackle one market at a time. Once you have won over one market, regroup and stage a crusade on another one. Examples of markets include particular occupations, age groups, hobbyists and enthusiasts. For instance, if you’ve built a successful VIP Club for golfers, you can create an additional VIP Club for children who take up golf.

5. When consumers tighten their purse strings, they go to fewer restaurants but frequent their favorite place almost as often as before.

This is a very important pattern to observe and is a direct result of the “winner takes it all” rule in action. In other words, you don’t have to win by a mile — you just have to win.

A restaurant that provides a slightly better food, a slightly better service, and does a slightly better job of staying in touch with their customers will do disproportionately better than their competition. And given that most restaurants don’t bother to revamp their boring food, never get around to properly train their staff, and have no concept of investing into a relationship with their customers, you just need to do a few things right (not perfect, just a teeny weenie bit better than the next guy) to do well while your competition is crashing and burning.

6. (I know I promised 5 “secrets”. This one is a bonus lesson in restaurant marketing, so stop complaining.) Here it is: Be ready to capture more customers when your competition throws in the towel and turns off the lights.

Well, this particular observation didn’t come from the conference call per se. Clarence Otis (Darden’s CEO) appeared on Jim Cramer’s “Mad Money” the night before the conference call and referenced the shutdowns of Bennigan’s.

Turns out, several of the Olive Garden stores are located next to the now-defunct Bennigan’s and saw a “pick up” of consumer traffic.

When a restaurant closes in your locale, be ready to meet new customers. By “be ready,” I mean “have the tools and processes in place to turn these first-timers into regulars, and regulars into raving fans.” Otherwise your euphoria will be extremely short-lived.

Marketing A Restaurant During The Economic Slow-Down: 5 Surprising Restaurant Marketing Lessons From Olive Garden (Darden Restaurants)

Restaurant Marketing Bootcamp

A quick story today with a critical take-away for your restaurant business, and an important announcement at the end.

Onwards to a story…

Last week I decided to pop in on the Darden Restaurants shareholder conference call. When a company like this is sharing what they do and why, and what they see going on in the market place, I sit up and listen. Nobody gets to be a 170,000-employee company by sheer luck. There is always a reason and a method.

Apparently, I wasn’t the only one listening to that call (manufactured laughter goes here). The next morning food-service & restaurant publications were super-prompt to announce that Darden was “finally” experiencing a slowdown because of the state of the economy (big deal).

And they entirely missed the point that I found the most important.

Yes, pretty much all of Darden’s concepts were down by about 3.7%, which is on par with the overall foodservice industry index. But… Olive Garden (one of Darden’s concepts) was doing extremely well.

Olive Garden grew 5% compared to the same quarter last year!

Not a single analyst noted this very remarkable fact — Olive Garden is doing well. In fact, so well compared to the rest of the industry, it deserves a look to understand what specifically they do and how they get to be so successful.

So here’s a list of 5 things that you should do in your restaurant to replicate the success they are experiencing (loosely based on the information of that conference call, with my interpretation):

1. When the economy is slow, step up your marketing.

When the cold winds of the economic slowdown come to the city, most businesses respond by canceling their advertising. They crawl into the shell and try to wait it out, hoping for a miracle.

Smart restaurant owners do the reverse. They ramp up their marketing: It’s so much easier to get heard in the market when everybody else is hiding. Smart restaurant owners also know better than to equate marketing to advertising: There are marketing methods that are more effective and less costly than advertising.

2. Stay on their minds.

Olive Garden uses creative advertising to remind their customers they are still here. They manage to stay at the forefront of their customers’ minds via TV ads.

As much as this approach could be good for a large company like Darden, however, such a stunt could be suicidal for a small restaurant: Running image ads on TV is a costly and arguably the least effective way to advertise. It is called “branding,” or more specifically, “macro-branding.”

The other, less expensive, and more targeted way to stay on your customers’ minds is called “micro-branding.” This includes a variety of ways to “touch” them, via email newsletters, event announcements, greeting cards, phone messages, and printed newsletters. Many of these tools are either free or inexpensive. And they are relatively easy to track. There is no excuse not to use them.

3. Create reasons for them to come in again and again.

Olive Garden keeps coming up with new items and specials, and they synchronize promotions with the release of the new menu item. You can do the same. And it’s easy to inform your list about new menu items. That is, if you have a list (see strategy #2 above).

Also, you can create many more reasons for your customers to come back — many of which may have nothing to do with the food (e.g. special events and “happenings”).

I’ll cover two more lessons in a separate post, tomorrow.

Now, the announcement.

We are running a 2-day intensive Restaurant Profit Bootcamp in Austin, Texas, on October 6 & 7 — see We can only accommodate 28 people (that’s 30, as allowed by the fire code, minus the two instructors), and 6 seats are gone as I’m writing this.

If you’re serious about becoming a true Restaurant Commando and receive a complete arsenal of tools to deal with any hostile market situation, you can’t afford to miss The Bootcamp.

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Grand Opening? Soft Opening?


Lori, a reader from Florida, says she’s opening a restaurant (congratulations!) and asks this:

“What is the best to open this restaurant? Grand opening or soft? Have heard arguments for both…”

Well, let’s see…

The arguments for either one are missing the point. It’s not one versus the other.

Doing just the soft opening is silly. It like saying, “Well, let’s see if this whole restaurant thing is for me. If enough people find out about me, I guess we’ll keep on cooking.” You quit before you’d started. And when you did start, you did it with a severe handicap to your competition.

On the other hand, starting out with a bang and succeeding in attracting a lot of people fast could be as bad. Your kitchen may implode on the very first night. The logistics get intricate and the sparks fly when you have 50 four-tops sitting there for 2 hours waiting for their plates to come out. Ugly.

The correct answer is, you need a soft opening followed by a grand opening 3 or 4 weeks later. The soft opening gives you a chance to work out all the logistical kinks, train the staff, tweak the menu, and really understand who you want to attract as a customer. This way you are in a position to hit a home run on the night of the grand opening.

That’s why soft opening first, then grand.

Also, the idea that there can only be one Grand Opening for a restaurant ever is totally, utterly, absolutely false. You can — and should — have as many grand openings as you want and need. Once it gets too repetitive, you can call them “special events”.

And this is when the calendar becomes your biggest friend.

Which is what we cover in depth in the Instant VIP Clubs course.

Higher Menu Prices and Congruency

Menu Prices and IncogruencyA fresh restaurant marketing story for you with a wee bit of a moral in the end.

In order to be able to set and maintain higher menu prices than those of your competition, you need to carefully “choreograph” all elements of your customer’s experience. And in that, no detail is too small.

Onwards to a story.

We just had a nice dinner in San Simeon, California. A tiny village halfway between LA and San Francisco with a population of 400, it consists of a gift shop and maybe a dozen of hotels and restaurants on both sides of Hwy 1.

Given the geographic location (middle of nowhere), we didn’t expect much from the seafood restaurant attached to the hotel where we stayed for the night. Least of all did we expect their menu to demand a more-than-respectable $21+ average per entree.

Yet that’s exactly what it did.

A family with 2 kids at the table next to us, not able to cope with the sticker shock, got up noisily and hurried out the door in search of a more affordable option. (Kudos to the Maitre D’ who was prompt, vocal, and sincere in thanking them for coming and making it appear to the other guests as if he was parting with his best friends.)

We stayed. Part too lazy to move our buns, part curious to see how the kitchen would live up to a relatively high bar they’d set for themselves.

The restaurant was about half-full. The day being Monday, and many of the kids being back at school, that looked like a good night.

The waiter did his part well all the way, from offering the drinks to suggesting the specials, to becoming invisible when we didn’t need him, to re-appearing when we did. The food was worth every dollar the menu demanded for it, and possibly more.

Looks like we had a winner.

Except for one small but nagging detail.

Which was the busgirl (the person making the least money of all the people at the store that night) who answered every “thank you” with a dewy-eyed “uhuh”.

Now, since when does “uhuh” mean “you’re welcome”?

I found myself thinking about how well everything that night was orchestrated to make my experience congruent with the menu and to make me happy to part with the money.

And also thinking about how every lumpish “uhuh” thrown at me negated everything good that had happened to that point, and reminded of how far away from the city we were.

That is called incongruency and it is your biggest obstacle to your ability to increase and maintain higher check averages.

When it comes to restaurant marketing, little things aren’t little anymore. They are everything.

Three questions for you to ponder (your restaurant business will soar once you find answers to these):

  • How should you “choreograph” your customers’ experience?
  • How do you train your waitstaff now and how should you really train them?
  • How can you ensure they don’t bring their hapless social habits into your restaurant?

D.I.Y. Restaurant Marketing Research

We took them to the water.

We wanted to see if they would drink.

The first “beta tester” group of restaurant owners and managers had completed Week 1 of our Instant V.I.P. Clubs program and we were keeping out fingers crossed hoping the aha‘s, the revelations, and the excitement that had come out during the conference call would still be there, a few days later.

Will they actually take all the great information and the tools we’ve given them, and the ideas they have come up by following the process — and implement them in their businesses?

You never know what’s going to happen.

It’s a moment of truth in this game.

Our information is worth exactly as much as they will apply it in their business. Full stop. End of story.

Motivation is transient. Entertainment is worthless. The ooh‘s and the ahh‘s don’t count for anything. Only results do.

The first workbook is all about defining the restaurant marketing target.  Who are your customers? What do they want? What else do they spend money on? What are they passionate about in their lives?

Toni, one of our students, did an outstanding job in the virtual “classroom.” Yet she had some questions left. The kind of questions that nobody can answer for her, except… her.

And she did. Check out this note from her:

This morning there was a scheduling mishap and instead of trying to cover the cashier’s shift I took it as an opportunity to do some research. I found out as much as I possibly could about every customer that walked through the door. I recorded answers to the questions I would ask and observations that I made in my notebook that I kept under the register. I wrote down details like ages, how they looked, what they ordered, where they worked, if they used a coupon, marital status, whether they had families, what kind of hot sauces they like (if any), whether they were first timers or not, how they heard about us, who they were with, whether they were in a hurry, if they ordered to go, if they tipped (server thing), rated their enthusiasm and basically made a judgement weather or not they would be good candidates for our V.I.P. club. I encourage everyone to do something like this and keep a daily log of current customer traits. It was very informative and exact.

Amen, sister. You rock!

Now, is there something that Toni did and that you can’t? Nah, don’t think so. If you are too lazy, or too stubborn, or too “above it” to do what Toni just did, you have no right to be mopey about the state of your restaurant business.

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