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7 Restaurant Marketing Ideas

Picture this: It’s a weeknight, and your restaurant is jam-packed with hungry patrons. They’re chatting, passing plates around, and ordering lots of food. To top it off, your reservation list is booked solid for a month.

The scenario above is a restaurant owner’s dream – one that many don’t get to realize. However, don’t believe the urban legend that most restaurants fail in their first year – data from a BLS survey suggests that only about 17% of independent restaurants failed in their first year.

Restaurant management is no easy feat. It definitely takes a lot of hard work for a restaurant to make it past its first five years, but in this article, we’ll focus on arguably the most essential piece: marketing.

In this list, you won’t find common sense items like claiming your Google page or purchasing ads. Those are given. You’ll get seven hard-hitting, creative ideas that are guaranteed to bring life to your business. Let’s jump in:

1. Promote Your Top-Selling Items

Let’s start with an easy one. Pull a report from your point-of-sale system (POS) and figure out what your top-selling items are. Then, take that list and start promoting them like crazy.

Don’t promote what you like or what has the lowest food cost margin. Promote what people love. People keep coming back for your “greatest hits,” so why waste advertising dollars on promoting anything else?

Having high-quality photos of your best-selling items will help tremendously here. Invest in a professional photographer who knows about angles, lighting, and editing. Pay a premium here, and you’ll see premium returns on your marketing efforts.

You can use these photos on your menu, Instagram page, TripAdvisor page, website – you name it. These photos will last you years and have some the best ROI of anything you do.

Charlie's round the corner ice cream signage

2. Create a Talk Trigger

Word of mouth reach is invaluable. It’s the most effective marketing technique, and the best part is that it’s completely free. When your customers are as passionate as you are about bringing people in the door, great things happen.

One of the best ways to spread the word about your restaurant is through a talk trigger, which at its core, just means something unique people will tell their friends about. A shining example of a talk trigger in action is Skip’s Kitchen.

At the counter, the cashier fans out a 54 card deck (including jokers) face down and asks customers to select one. Most cards simply act as table markers so the servers know where to bring food. However, pulling out a joker means you win a free meal. Skip’s Kitchen is packed most days because people love the excitement and the chance to score from free food.

3. Leverage Content Marketing & SEO

If you’re thinking about spending a bucket of cash on your website, then think again. Keep it to no more than $1,500-2,000. Why? Because when people are looking for somewhere to eat, they type what they want into Google.

These days, Google has everything they need, ranging from your hours to your phone number to your menu. It even provides neatly organized customer reviews.

Save your money and spend it on the next best thing: content marketing. If you run a steakhouse in a big city, then you want to show up at the top of the SERPs when people type in “best steakhouse in Dallas.” The only way to do that is through SEO optimized content, and lots of it. If you’re new to search marketing, then it’s worth investing in some professional help.

person using macbook air on white table

4. Invite Food Critics & Bloggers to Your Door

It isn’t just about the food anymore. People want a fun dining experience – something they can enjoy, brag to their friends about, and post on social media. One of the best ways to find great food and experiences is by following various food critics, foodie influencers, or checking food reviews in local publications.

In Lexington, Texas, Snow’s BBQ had a respectable customer base that kept them busy most weekends, but it was nothing to brag about. That all changed when they won Texas Monthly’s Best BBQ award in 2008. Practically overnight, they had dozens – if not hundreds – of people lined up outside their door.

Your restaurant could be the next Snow’s BBQ. Start by figuring out where people find food recommendations in your city and start extending offers for a free dining experience to various influencer types.

5. Give Away Free Meals for Special Occasions

Chances are that you have a go-to spot for anniversaries, birthdays, or graduations – we all do. People create special bonds with the restaurants where they celebrate life events. You want a piece of that action.

Free meals on birthdays is a must for every restaurant. Or a free dessert, at least. It’s pretty rare that people dine alone on their birthday, so you’ll recoup lost revenue and potentially have new regulars. If you run ads on Facebook, you can even specifically target people with upcoming birthdays.

Make it a point to ask people if they’re celebrating anything when they reserve tables with large parties. If they are, then do what you can to make it as memorable as possible. Decorate the table and bring free appetizers or desserts. Have the chef come speak with them about the menu personally. Get creative, and they’ll keep coming back and bring their friends and family, too.

man leaning hand on table looking on group of people

6. Create a YouTube Cooking Show

Millennial food lovers are a loyal bunch – one that’s fueled an astonishing 280% growth in food channel subscriptions year-over-year. The best part? The barrier to entry to creating your own show is incredibly low these days, and it has the potential to drive serious traffic.

Make videos showing how you make your favorite dishes, how you source your ingredients, and showcase different events that your restaurant hosts. Give behind the scenes access, and your customers will keep coming back for more.

7. Build a Food Challenge

People love food challenges. The Hot Ones YouTube Channel, where celebrities eat a range of the hottest chicken wings during interviews, has over nine million subscribers. That’s greater than the population of New York City.

Get your staff together to start coming up with some fun or crazy food challenges. Whip up an extra-tall stack of pumpkin spice pancakes with a half-gallon of Pumpkin Spice Latte and call it “The Pumpkin Spice Challenge.” Anyone who finishes every bit gets a free entree on their next visit.

Create extra spicy tacos and invite local politicians to debate while they tear up from ingesting ghost pepper sauce. The potential for creativity knows no bounds here.

As we wrap up, it’s crucial that you keep your online reputation top of mind. It’s the lifeblood of your business and is often what will make or break you. Incentivize your customers to leave good reviews, and make sure that you respond to every single review you get across all platforms.

Even if you receive a negative review, be sure to respond calmly, and consider offering a discount for their next visit. Highly rated restaurants will get more business and likely spend less money on marketing. It’s truly a win-win.

Have any other restaurant marketing ideas? Tell us in the comments below:

Sam Molony

Sam Molony is the marketing strategist at ZoomShift, the leading employee scheduling software. When Sam's not publishing or promoting new content you can find him playing his guitar or baking.

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