In the competitive restaurant world, being a great cook is only half the battle. To stay in business, you must get new diners in the door with a strategy to turn them into long-term regulars. Here are tips and ideas from Marketing 360®.
Today in a mid-sized town on the Colorado Front Range, a new restaurant is failing. I was there at 7 pm on a recent Saturaday night and the place was empty.
They have a good menu and the chef is experienced. At the bar, the bored bartender squeezed fresh limes and lemons for what looked like a killer scratch Marg mix. The taps had quality beers, the music over the sound system was upbeat.
But these guys are doing something wrong. Word has not gotten out. The locals aren’t giving them a try. They haven’t been around long, but I’m guessing they’re already on life-support.
This restaurant needs marketing – badly.
The chef, it seems, came in with more hubris than humility. He thought his great food would just carry them. But this restaurant has competition; there are tons of choices for diners in the area.
If you’re planning to open a restaurant, you want to avoid becoming the next feature on one of those “restaurant rescue” shows. Here are some ideas that will move you in the right direction.
The Third Visit Marketing Strategy
It’s important to keep in mind that restaurant marketing happens in two phases, each with their own strategy.
The second phase is having a place that markets itself because people consistently have an awesome experience. We’ll discuss this more later.
The first phase – and the one that has most of the advertising tactics – is getting new diners in the door as well as getting them to return. As a new and/or growing restaurant, you have to get new diners to try you out – more than once.
Industry pros recognize that getting a diner to come in for a third visit is key.
If a diner comes for the first time and has a flawless experience, the statistical liklihood that they’ll come back again is about 40%. If they come in for a second visit, the liklihood of a return visit is slightly higher.
But if they come in for a third visit and love it, the statistical liklihood that they’ll come back again jumps to 70%.
A key part of your strategy when trying to win new diners is to market to three visits – not just one.
As part of your marketing budget, you need to plan for loss leaders to entice people to come for those first several visits. Usually this involves some kind of freebie, like this Facebook Ad:
One suggestion is to offer a freebie instead of a discount because people get addicted to discounts. Start them on that path and they’ll always expect it, but nobody expects to always get something free.
So, let’s take that above restaurant Facebook ad and the empty restaurant in my area. They could target people in the area with this type of Facebook ad (and by using the send message call to action, get those people on a list for further communication).
Then a customer comes in to redeem their Facebook offer. As they eat, the manager comes over, makes sure everything was great and hand-writes a deal on a card for a free desert on their next visit.
Now, when they come in this card identifies them as a second visit. Make sure staff recognizes these are new customers you’re working.
Now, using Facebook chat, you can ask them how they liked their free dessert. Respond with a message saying they have to try the scratch Margs, here’s a two for one offer.
With minimal investment of three, sequenced deals, they’ve cycled the customer through those initial visits with a much higher probability of turning them into a regular.
There are a lot of tactics you might try to market to three visits. Do what works for you, but make sure you track how you’re moving people through this process (your point of sales system can track the purchases tied to the offers).
Traditional advertising can have $40-60 cost per acquisition cost, but what we outlined here will cost far less. You may take a loss or wash on a few visits, but when you delight your diners, you’ll get them back for many profitable visits.
If the local restaurant in my area executed this strategy early on, they’d have a full dining room that leads to buzz and word of mouth – which draws in more diners. You have to hit that critical point of momentum or you’ll sink, not because your food or service was poor, but because people never came in in the first place.
The loss leader is an essential marketing tactic for a restaurant targeting new diners. Your strategy involves long-term goals, with an understanding of the lifetime value of a customer.
Your Restaurant Is Your (Word of Mouth) Marketing
Instead of thinking about how to market your restaurant, remember that – for the most part – your restaurant is your marketing.
The experience you create in your restaurant is ultimately what defines it. The third-visit strategy only works if the experience diners have motivates them to come back.
Great food and service are just the start in today’s restaurant industry. Ambiance, music, art, decor, noise levels, patios, drink selections…the list goes on.
Don’t just think serving food, think about creating a memorable experience.
It’s a huge challenge because many restaurateurs/chefs want the focus to be on their food. But the restaurant industry is so competitive today you have to go beyond food service and think of yourself as a type of entertainment.
In fact, that’s why many people go out. It’s not just because they don’t want to cook at home. They want a break from their routine where they can see people and be part of an energetic vibe.
When your restaurant markets itself well, two things happen.
First is that a busy place creates buzz that makes it more busy. I can go to the local place I spoke of and get great food and fast service, but who wants to go out only to sit in an empty restaurant? If I just wanted to eat alone with my wife we could stay home.
This is also part of what we call social proof. Imagine you’re standing on a corner choosing between two restaurants. One is full of diners, the other is vitrually empty.
Which one would you choose?
Yes, you could get a table faster at the empty place, but you’d assume it’s empty for a reason, just as you’d assume the other is full for a reason. All those people can’t be wrong. That full place must be great. It’s the place to be.
Crowds draw bigger crowds.
The second reason is the most important one in restaurant marketing. When the experience you create is on-point, you’ll get word of mouth. This, of course, is everything for a local restaurant.
When you get a group of regulars moving beyond the third visit telling other they need to try your place, your restaurant will market itself.
This is how restaurants stay in business for years.
From the beginning, plan on how your service will be consistently on-point. If you’ve ever watched Gordon Ramsey’s Kitchen Nightmares, you know his cure-all for failing restaurants is to simplify over-sized, complicated menus. This allows for consistent preparation and dish quality.
Then he makes sure front-of-house is knowledgeable and upbeat. When they can get hot food on the tables fast, everything works better.
Last, he revamps dated, drab, or overdone decor. You could have have Michelin Star level food, but if paint is peeling off the walls and the bathroom is gross, it will cost you repeat customers.
Instead of waiting for Ramsey to come “save” your restaurant through a tirade of f-bombs, do it yourself from the start. A restaurant that doesn’t market itself will struggle no matter what else you’re doing.
The Online Review
Every restaurant owner knows the role online reviews now play in restaurant marketing. Many new, prospective diners will check online review sites, and the views expressed there can influence whether or not you’ll ever have the chance to serve them.
The first thing to note is that it’s unlikely you’ll develop a review profile that has no negative reviews. This is difficult for most businesses, but for restaurants – with the delicate nature of food preparation and service – it’s really impossible.
Somebody, some evening, won’t get what they expected. Something will go awry and service won’t be its best.
And some diners are just looking for a reason to complain.
So, when you monitor your online reviews, don’t get bent out of shape over a few poor reviews. By now, most consumers realize that online review profiles (particularly for restaurants) will have some negative comments, and this won’t dissuade them from trying you.
What will, however, is a review profile that’s consistently negative. A pattern of complaints online with few positive reviews to balance it can sink a restaurant.
Many restaurant owners make the mistake of focusing on reviews as if they happen in isolation. Instead, what you need to do is realize that every aspect of your service – with every diner – impacts your online reputation.
Every time you exceed expectations and delight diners, you improve your marketing. Every time you cut corners or make lazy mistakes, you’re hurting it.
Today, the saying “everyone’s a critic” is a reality. You have to treat each customer with the idea that they’ll share their experience online.
Do monitor your reviews on Google, Yelp, BBB and Top Rated Local. Respond to negative reviews with offers to rectify things. And if someone’s just plain unfair, move on. You’ll never please everybody.
Embrace the reality of online restaurant reviews and make your critics happy. Your power is in the experience you create for diners.
Also, remember that many restaurant review sites such as Google and Top Rated Local are almost like mini-websites that direct diners to come in or contact you. Make sure your profiles are complete with info like:
- Great photos of your best dishes, active dining area, and fun staff.
- All contact info including hours, location, and phone number.
- Your menu including happy hours and regular specials.
- Price range and type of dining.
- Other amenities like free wi-fi, entertainment, sports events, outdoor patio, parking, etc.
Your Online Image
Reviews create an image of restaurant’s reputation, but there is another type of image that’s more literal.
Consider that your plate presentation, ambiance, and even the feel of your service all start before most people walk through your doors.
Online restaurant marketing is largely driven by images. People can’t taste your food or walk through your dining area online, but they can see it. And as every restaurant pro knows, we eat (first) with our eyes.
As people search for dining options online and learn about you, many will check out your website, social media, and even YouTube (if you have a channel) before coming in.
You want all of this media to whet people’s appetites and show them what to expect at your restaurant.
Which brings us to a point. What’s wrong with this image?
It’s a picture of a chef…some nice food…why not use that on your homepage?
Well, the problem is this is obviously a stock photo. Too many restaurants take the stock photo shortcut with images instead of actually showing their dishes, location, and people.
This is a mistake. You want to give people an authentic look at who you are and what you serve with your online images. Sure, there are a million stock photos of steaks, burgers, and martinis out there. But when people can tell it’s a stock photo, it basically means you’re showing them nothing.
You want to use high quality images, particularly on your website. Your homepage can show a feature dish, and the best restaurant website menu pages have images of dishes with pricing.
At the same time, keep your images authentic, particularly for social media. You want food to look appetizing and your place to look inviting, but not every image has to be perfect.
This restaurant has their Instagram feed right into their homepage. Super images of food and people:
Authenticity plays well online. A good example of this is Daddy Jack’s, a restaurant in New London, Connecticut with a popular YouTube channel.
This doesn’t have Bobby Flay production values, which in many ways makes it better:
This is an effective marketing strategy; his videos have over 3 million views and no doubt bring foot traffic into the restaurant.
The Restaurant Website
It’s remarkable how many restaurant websites you can still visit where it’s almost impossible to view the menu.
There’s almost as many that don’t have easy to find contact information and a map to the restaurant location.
Instead there are stock photos of food the restaurant doesn’t serve or a story of how the chef rose through the ranks of dishwasher to the master of cuisine he is today.
When you design a website for your restaurant, you must center on the needs of the visitor. Fortunately, this is fairly easy for a restaurant, because most visitors are looking for two main things: the menu and a way to either make a reservation or come directly to the restaurant itself.
The focus of your website design should be your menu. It’s best when it’s complete with high quality photos of your signature dishes, brief descriptions of all of your menu items, and prices.
It should not be a PDF of your print, in-house menu. These are unreadable on mobile devices. Nor should it just be a list of offerings. You want this to start to sell your cuisine by wetting people’s appetites. Your online menu is your first step in your presentation.
Also, include clear info on specials and happy hours.
Next, make sure people will able to make a reservation or find you. This is a “conversion” on a restaurant website, i.e. the action you want people to take. Embed Google maps so people can sync in right to their phones and find you. Include an online form to make a reservation and a click-to-call phone number.
Beyond that, you want an elegant, clean design that’s appetizing to the eye. Like many dishes, more is less. Don’t clutter your website with unnecessary info. Give visitors what they need to decide if they want to dine with you, and then get them moving towards their table.
Here’s an example of a restaurant website mockup:
Your homepage is also a great place to use a video that introduces people to you and highlights your menu, like this example.
Optimize your video for search on YouTube, which is actually the second most used search engine online.
Pro Tip: Capture Emails
Email lists are really valuable for restaurants. Be sure to have a place on your website where people can sign up to receive special offers and updates. Also ask in house if they’d like to get your list.
Once you have a list, emailing is one of the more effective ways to reach and motivate diners. The best thing you can do is just make an offer. I get one from Toyko Joe’s every week:
Right on time for lunch.
Also, you can use your email list to create lookalike audiences for Facebook Ads, which targets your ads to people who are similar to people on your email list. A nifty tactic few restaurants take advantage of.
Restaurant Social Media Marketing
While social media marketing returns remain elusive for many types of business, it is something you can take advantage of profitably with restaurant marketing.
Note, this is mainly about reaching regulars. People who want to know what your specials are, what the new happy hour drink is, and what band is playing later. They like seeing images of your new dishes on Instagram.
And they’ll share what they love with their followers, letting you reach potential new diners as well.
To reach new potential diners (like we outlined above) use platforms like Facebook ads. These campaigns are all about getting new diners to try you out, and work well with paid targeting.
For restaurant social media marketing, don’t try to over-structure. Use your phone to take pictures and send out updates. You don’t need professional design for everything you post.
Furthermore, most of your social media marketing should be done in house. We are an agency that offers social media marketing service, and we can help develop a strategy and create some material for you. But for your regular posts, you need someone who’s there, on the floor and in the kitchen, updating your social media. It’s a reflection of what’s going on in your restaurant. You can’t outsource this work.
Also, customers will comment about your restaurant directly on Facebook. You need someone on-staff to respond to those comments.
The key here is consistency. Make frequent, quick updates about food specials, events, new dishes, and new staff. Wet your regular’s appetites. Don’t spend too much time on individual posts unless you have a big event taking place.
Also, remember that social media is a great place to expand your brand identity. Not every post needs to be about food. A local Colorado restaurant specializing in Chicago-style pizza was all over social when the Cubs won the World Series. A health food restaurant can post about yoga, biking, and locally sourced organic produce. Engage in what interests your audience and ties into your food philosophy.
Make sure there are a few people in your management who are on social media for your restaurant. Keep those phones busy. It’s cheap, and need not be time-consuming.
Remember that Facebook, in particular, is like a secondary website. Be sure your Facebook business page is has full contact information, images/videos, and messaging. It’s also a good place to collect reviews.
Should you take orders online? Should you use services like GrubHub? Here’s JB with an overview:
Make Your Restaurant Findable On Search
To connect with new diners in your area who are not aware of your restaurant, you need to optimize your presence for search results.
For example, if you have a new Thai food restaurant in Boulder, Colorado, you want to show up if some searches on Thai food Boulder, Thai restaurants near me, or even best Pad Thai Boulder. The more searches that connect to your dining experience you rank for, the better.
This happens in several ways. First, you can use pay per click advertising to show ads that rank at the top of all search results (including mobile search). This is the advertising you bid on, so (within your budget) it’s the one you have the most control of.
Second, you’ll want to optimize for Google My Business. Two things happen here. First, this ties into Google Maps, so it’s the way Google knows where your restaurant is, which is vital for geo-searches in your area. Second, this is an important review platform. Review snippets often show in the results, so it’s good to have some 5 stars at the top.
Next, you can rank your website itself for organic rankings. This displays below the maps section and is good for similar searches as the PPC, only these are clicks you don’t have to pay for. Also, make sure you are at the top of organic search for your restaurant name/brand (searches for reviews of your restaurant will also appear in organic results).
Search marketing can get complicated, so it may be worth it for you to hire an agency to handle it for you.
Community and Charity
One of the most effective ways to market a restaurant – both established and new – is to get involved with your community or support a charity.
This might be as simple as sponsoring a local sports team, but one thing we’ve seen that’s really effective is getting involved with a charitable organization.
For example, The Roost in Longmont, CO puts up 10% of their profits to help fund adoptions. A worthy cause they care about, but also a great story for their restaurant that shows they care about the community they serve.
This can also be an wonderful way to get your brand name out before you open. Get involved with a worthy cause, do some catering and start building up your social media presence. By the time you open, you can have a large list of people who love your food and your business model. They’ll be there on opening night.
Test Your Online Presence Often
Our last tip for online restaurant marketing is to test your searches, ads, social media, and website experience yourself on a regular basis. Be particularly diligent about doing this on mobile phones, as many searches for restaurants happen on mobile.
Search for your type of cuisine and make sure you come up. Keep an eye on competition that may be trying to edge you out. Have a staff member get on their phone and check your website to make sure the menu comes up. Do mock orders if you have an online ordering system.
Make sure staff members follow you and share social media updates. Get feedback on how your content comes across.
And as mentioned, keep a close eye on those reviews. Encourage your happy diners to leave reviews and comment on Facebook to bolster your positive image.
Many people’s first experience with your restaurant will be from your online presence. Keep as close an eye on it as you do your finest plate presentation or the best table in the house.