I don’t think I’ve ever met someone who didn’t, at some point, mention that they dreamed of owning a restaurant one day. For many, it’s up there with a modeling career, rock stardom, and moving somewhere tropical to be a consultant that lives in their bikini, margaritas constantly flowing.
But you did it. You’re doing it. It’s real.
You’re opening your new restaurant, a place that serves the food you love, and that you hope develops into a thriving community pillar – either as a watering hole, special occasion destination, or somewhere in between.
You’ve rounded up the capital, you’ve bought the equipment, and it’s time to open your doors in just a few days. But how do you get the word out? How do you make sure you aren’t listening to the sound of silence on opening day?
Dan Simons, owner of Founding Farmers, one of the top ten most sustainable restaurant groups in America, with one of the most loyal followings, and consultant to many major restaurants across the US, joins us to talk about developing your brand, creating community, and basic marketing strategies.
#1 Distill The Reason Your Restaurant Exists
“No one in their right mind opens their first restaurant to get rich – it’s just not done,” says Simons. “The first step in creating an amazing brand is to think about why exactly you got into this harsh and, frankly, frightening business. Is it about food, is it about an experience…or is it about something else? Get crystal clear about your inspiration, and ensure all roads emanate from that center.”
Founding Farmers, on paper, may seem a bit unremarkable at first. It’s a small restaurant group with a handful of locations, each of which has a modern barn theme. They serve American food in their large dining rooms, including salads, pancakes, and chicken pot pie. The reason they thrive? Yes, the food is excellent, and made from scratch, down to the mustard, which is pretty amazing. But it is more than that. Going there makes you feel like you’re part of something more than just tasty, wholesome food. They’re farmer-owned, they pay very close attention to their food sources, and they work to make their restaurants very green…from the light bulbs they use to composting. All of their restaurants are LEED-certified. They also use their restaurants as a platform to educate their guests and the industry about the importance buying from family farmers vs. corporate agricultural producers, what they call “unbundling the industrial food chain,” and operating with sustainable practices.
“We don’t push it in people’s faces, but we definitely make sure that it’s apparent. We want guests to know that by eating with us, they’re helping their immediate community, farmers across the US, and the environment. This matters to us. And it matters to our guests.”
By creating a common shared ethos – whether it’s commitment to good food and the environment, like Founding Farmers, exclusivity, and curiosity, like Chicago’s Alinea, or the simplicity, reliability, and warmth of the local diner that’s been around since before you were born, pick the feeling you want your guests to have when they visit.
Let that feeling guide your branding to create a consistent, effective marketing plan.
#2 Splurge On A Beautiful Website
Now that you’re feeling inspired and connected, it’s time to get down to brass tacks – or wooden chopsticks, as the case may be.
It’s almost 2017, and there is no longer any excuse to not have a website. “It pains me to see new restaurants that open up and have a site that looks like it’s from the 1990s. You aren’t saving money by skipping the online presence, you’re losing it – probably thousands,” said Simons. “We get almost all of our reservations through the web, especially mobile, and it’s been an invaluable tool with all almost unlimited marketing tactics. Don’t put yourself in the position of piquing a community’s interest online, like on Twitter or Facebook, and then having nothing to send them when they want more information.”
“Your website should also be a sample of what they can expect to see when they come into your restaurant. It is often a guest’s first glimpse, and ideally an effective teaser. If you put up a sloppy, lame website, well, that’s your brand, and the web visitors won’t be coming to visit your bricks and mortar,” warns Simons.
#3 Pursue Free Or Low-Cost Marketing – It Goes Farther Than Ever
“Social media is fantastic for restaurants,” said Simons. “Rallying the community around our cause, our food, and our home is easier than ever. We’ve gotten so much attention just starting conversations on Twitter about the food we serve and the talent we have inside Founding Farmers…generating foot traffic through traditional media at this scale would have cost tens of thousands of dollars a decade ago.”
Take a note from Founding Farmers’ Twitter account – their followers are nearing the 10,000 mark – and you’ll see a diverse array of content that is interesting whether or not you’re hungry. They’ve become a thought leader for the sustainability initiative in their area, and support those with similar values around them. Not to mention their delicious videos!
Other free methods can involve simpler tasks – like handing out free samples in front of your restaurant to draw in the passersby, being present at local fairs and farmers markets, and donating food to local charitable events.
When you are building your new restaurant, let your passion shine through, and the smells escape your kitchen, and you’ll be sure to have full tables.