A restaurant owner’s closet of hats is growing daily. There’s the operations hat, the accounting hat, the HR-management hat, the community-relations hat and the traditional marketing hat, a jaunty number with stylish embellishments to spare. And now, on the bottom shelf, there’s the web-marketing hat.
Marketing a restaurant today is dramatically different than it was a mere decade ago. The digital revolution has reinvented the scene, and its weighty presence has prompted foodservice operators to rewrite their marketing programs — almost daily. The result is a mixed wardrobe of promotional tools, the scope of which increases and decreases the challenge of marketing a business. Old and new techniques share close quarters, and quick-service, full-service and independent restaurateurs must make thoughtful, strategic choices when considering which hat to sport.
The numerous reports of its death notwithstanding, print remains a relevant medium, notes Joel Cohen, owner of the Raleigh, N.C.-based restaurant marketing firm, RestaurantMarketing.com. It comes down to an operation’s budget, size and location. “Make sure the largest percentage of readership is within easy distance of your restaurant so they can take advantage of what you’re offering,” advises Cohen, while discussing effective print advertising strategies that might promote a restaurant feature or event.
But, successful marketing is about more than just deciding what to promote; foodservice operators need to consider the timing of their initiative, too, advises Wayne S. Roberts, president of Toronto’s Blade Creative Branding, an integrated advertising and branding agency. The audited circulation an industry magazine trumpets is calculated according to the multiple readers it will eventually reach, but it might take 10 weeks to reach them, says Roberts. And, while that might be acceptable for a large player with an enduring presence, the smaller guy would be better served talking to the media. “Find the people in your area who might benefit from a story on how you prepare your food, what you’ve done with your restaurant or [what you have to say] about the industry in general.” For example, submit an article about backyard barbecuing tips to a local paper. The printed promotion costs nothing, and yet it sets you up as an authority figure on a subject that’s near to your heart.
At big chains, where the cost of a television ad can be amortized over 20, 30 or 50 stores, TV and radio marketing is a good choice. The same doesn’t apply for a one- or two-store outfit, where the value for money diminishes exponentially.
Many of the traditional rules still apply in traditional marketing. “[It’s] still very powerful if you use it properly,” says Cohen. Placing ads where the highest number of potential customers are listening or watching ensures there’s no wasted readership, viewership or listenership. Sports-bar operators should consider advertising on television and radio sportscasts, and restaurant owners operating in the financial district should consider advertising during business programming. And don’t forget the local cable options — from gardening programming to parenting shows, the possibilities are endless.
The broadcast medium works at Oliver & Bonacini Restaurants (O&B). “We like radio very much,” enthuses Theresa Suraci, director of Marketing and Communications for O&B. More than anything, the company turns to the airwaves to promote its gift cards during the holidays. “We feel there’s a market waiting to receive that message at that time,” Suraci says.
Last summer, Toronto’s Nota Bene launched a successful promotion whereby a suckling pig was roasted every Monday. In addition to promoting the event on Facebook and initiating direct emailing, the restaurant employed Twitter extensively. “It was great,” says Yannick Bigourdan, co-owner. “There was a direct, instinctive response.”
But many local restaurateurs don’t always understand how to use the fledgling digital medium, says Blade’s Roberts. They don’t know how to do search marketing, how to optimize their website, or how to use Google Adwords, he begins. As such, many “fall [victim] to the spurious sales techniques of Internet marketing companies, saying they’ll get them the top ratings. It’s a challenging environment, and if you don’t know how to manage it, it can get expensive.”
Roberts recommends restaurateurs use the web as a general marketing tool by getting onto referral sites, such as Yelp or Dine.TO, and making sure their websites are optimized so content, HTML and associated coding is edited to increase relevance to specific keyword searches. That said, don’t jump into bed with any Internet-marketing company that promises the world. “There are opportunists, and you might think you’re getting a one-stop solution for your marketing, but marketing is hard work. Don’t embrace every Internet opportunity — pick the ones that’ll work for you,” suggests Roberts.
Cohen agrees, adding that digital marketing is constantly changing, encompassing many programs and is difficult to measure. “Don’t try to learn everything,” he advises. “Pick one or two [areas] that you’re comfortable with and focus on that.”
The O&B team did just that, using Twitter to spread the word about a recent event. Martin Picard, chef and owner of Montreal’s Au Pied de Cochon restaurant, was in town to promote his new cookbook, Au Pied de Cochon Sugar Shack, and the O&B marketing team asked him to guest chef at Canoe. The message about the Quebecois-inspired Sunday night meal was delivered through Twitter and on the company website. “It generated a lot of excitement,” says Suraci. And the love multiplied. Many of the guests were chefs, so the roomful of enthusiastic diners sent many messages through the Twitterverse, sharing their delight in the experience. “It was very satisfying, because it was the real deal,” says Suraci.
And, the “real deal” is important, since authenticity drives successful marketing in the digital landscape. Digital marketing is cost-effective, but it’s also risky, says Suraci. “Your followers are real believers and, if what you’re doing on social media is simply advertising, they’ll recognize that as your motivation,” she cautions.
The experts agree restaurateurs should have realistic expectations about online marketing. Cohen suggests managers seek employees interested in the digital world and encourage them to lend their web skills to the company. Digital marketing may or may not work, but it’s a great way to communicate with customers and expand a restaurant’s network. “For every success story you hear, there are probably 10,000 that fail,” says Cohen.
“If you’re going to get involved in community work,” intones Roberts, “make sure it’s something you can talk about.” Buddy up to associations engaged in something you believe in, so you can talk about it passionately, he continues.
At Nota Bene, marketing is largely about public relations. Bigourdan hosts events at the restaurant and tells his guests. And, since the restaurant is involved in 25 charitable affairs annually, including work with Bloorview Kids Rehab and Second Harvest, its PR machine is finely tuned. First, the marketing team sends a mass email to its database, announcing the event; it follows up with social media posts that rhapsodize succinctly and that might be augmented with printed inserts to fit in the billfold. “The people attending those events are usually your patrons,” Bigourdan explains. “They expect to see you supporting your community. That’s why community events are a good fit for restaurants — it’s part of your responsibility.”
Ryan Smolkin, founder and CEO of Toronto’s Smoke’s Poutinerie, agrees. His 33-location chain is behind myriad fundraising initiatives for hospitals and hosts an annual World Poutine Eating Championship. Smoke’s donates proceeds from the contest to the Daily Bread Food Bank. “[It’s] about giving back,” says Smolkin of the annual event. “I don’t think there’s that immediate return on investment and driving of sales as with traditional [marketing], but it’s about building goodwill. I’m not looking for PR.” Instead, he wants his customers to see that he’s looking after the people who are looking after him.
At the end of the day, managers should focus on executing the core tenets of their business instead of falling victim to the onslaught of marketing mayhem, advises Cohen. “We’ll always be a people business,” he says. “The magic bullet is not technology; it’s not [about] being on Twitter and Facebook, it’s about being a great place that gives people a great experience. And when you stop understanding that, you might as well be a vending machine.”