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.


Say "enough's enough" to half-empty dining rooms, humdrum shifts, and wondering which half of your marketing budget was wasted.

73% of teenagers and adults are walking around with a smartphone (iPhone, Android, or Blackberry) in their back pocket. They use is for everything: Playing games, checking emails, texting their friends and ... googling your restaurant's website. If your website is not mobile ready, you're missing out on a lot of walk-ins. Download our Restaurant Commando's Mobile Readiness Checklist.

Watch this quick video about how to set up a Birthday Club that practically runs on an auto-pilot. This is going to be the easiest, fastest money you will ever create in you restaurant business.

About Chief Commando

Well, actually, Chief Commando is two people, Troy Authement and Alex Makarski. Troy and Alex combined their knowledge and experience to help independent restaurant owners and emerging chains create more growth and more profits in their businesses. Together, they provide a unique blend of expertise not available anywhere else in the industry.

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

  1. Chris February 10, 2009 at 9:27 PM #

    You are very right about this! Marketing is the lifeline to every growing business and when things start to get tough you have to be on your game to stay alive in business.

  2. David May 2, 2011 at 12:27 PM #

    I took over an existing Thai restaurant 3 months ago this week. The previous owner had the place completely run down and in bad shape. This is our first business and it seems that sales have been steady for these first 3 months we are breaking even. I hear this is good news for restaurants so I am not too worried about it. We are making about 1,400 a week gross sales and this is exactly enough to cover rent, wages for 2 cooks and 2 servers. My overhead is not much but I am wondering if in this business it is about time for the marketing to be effective. I am spending $333 for valpak coupons being sent out to 10k homes in my city but have only had a less than 1% response from it. We tried groupon and its helped us, although we were completely overwhelmed for the first month of it! Any advice? Our food is great, the restaurant is very well located, we have friendly customer service yet I am still worried. Any advice will be greatly appreciate it. Please email me at

  3. Melissa Miller August 2, 2011 at 4:20 PM #

    I’m an offline business consultant and one of my customers is a restaurant owner. He wasn’t utilizing his customer comment cards. He had so many of them that needed to be entered into a system and incorporated into an email marketing campaign. Once we started to do that, he was seeing more traffic into his restaurant.

    He had a great following on his Facebook page but it was his personal page. He had it changed into a business fan page (you can’t promote your business again and again on a personal page)and I added a coupon tab to the page. In addition, he has done a great job at taking pictures of his “creations” in the kitchen and posting them to Facebook. His followers love it!

    We also collect mobile phone numbers for a text marketing campaign by having customers scan a QR code posted on a table tent that takes customers directly to a form where they can enter their mobile number in exchange for future texts that include promotions and coupons.

    Things are looking up! If anyone wants to start a discussion on other things that can be done to increase sales and drive traffic to their restaurant, just contact me through this comment.

  4. George Drever August 17, 2011 at 10:06 AM #

    Interesting post, Melissa. I was briefly discussing text message marketing with another restaurant marketing consultant who is based in the US (we’re in the UK, Scotland to be precise). According to him, text message marketing still hasn’t fully taken off in the States yet. It’s probably a bit more common over here, but still not being used anywhere near to its full potential.

    It’s good to read about your real life example. We have a case study of a successful text campaign on our own website that might be of interest. It uses simple segmentation to target one very specific group of customers.

    Of course, the most important part is to first entice customers to opt-in to receiving the texts. That comes down to the strength and value of the incentive.

    After that, it’s about the ease and ubiquity of the invitation to sign up. I’ll definitely look into the use of QR codes as a sign-up. I still believe there’s a lot to be said for good old-fashioned tent cards and a pen too, though!

  5. Jean September 18, 2011 at 6:59 PM #

    I find your points to be very interesting…I’d like to add one more thing that would help local restaurants in the country during this slow economic time. Online marketing can help many of the local restaurants, they should find ways to add their restaurants to listing directories where people can find them and learn about their food. Company like Hometown Meal is a free place where restaurants owners and PR persons can add restaurant free of charge. It will help those searching for restaurants in your local area to find you. People never heard of you…and they allow you to post pictures and promotions.


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