Independent restaurants can’t really compete with the big marketing budgets that national chains have at their disposal. But they can do things to get the word out and create a brand that resonates with guests. That’s what Charlie Hopper says. A marketing veteran who has been writing columns on the subject for Food & Wine since 2011, he recently shared some of the advice from his latest restaurant advice ebook, Nuggets, Nibbles, Morsels, Crumbs.
How can an independent restaurant owner make some marketing noise?
One of the things I’ve learned over the years is that everything matters. When people are making decisions about where to eat they don’t just take in the marketing, they consider everything about the experience. So everything you do is kind of branded, even if you don’t think about it that way. You need to think about what you want people to think of your restaurant, where you are positioned in terms of the competition, why you exist, how people use your restaurant. Then you can start making decisions.
What is something you can do that doesn’t cost a lot of money?
Improving the connection with customers. Many restaurants aren’t giving their servers a whole lot to work with in terms of what to say or recommend. They need to control the meal in a way that will bring people back again. Some places just describe food in a very cliché manner, using terms that don’t have meaning, but you can’t tell somebody something is delicious and have them believe it. You have to describe how you do it, not how it tastes. Don’t say it’s sumptuous or grilled to perfection, say “we slow roast this for 8 hours before you get here.” Find out what makes you different versus your competitors.
How important is social media in the mix?
Social media is this underused tool that people who are strapped for manpower have a constant headache about. It’s a way of extending hospitality, but it’s such a challenge because people expect companies to respond right away. If someone were to post something on a channel while in your restaurant, it really rewards that customer if you can thank them while they are still there or shortly after. It creates an emotional attachment to the restaurant. You might try assigning it to someone on your staff and not making them feel bad about checking their phone for alerts. If someone has tiny inclination to engage, they should. It creates a sense that there is somebody in charge here who cares and has a personality.
What about responding to criticism on social media?
How to do it without looking pissy is a huge problem. One basic rule is: React quickly and don’t let it sit there unaddressed. But don’t have a robotic response. The trick with social media is creating need for us all to develop some comfort with being ourselves. Our first reaction is to become very corporate: “Sorry that you had that experience. Please contact me offline.” Having a personal, honest and open appearance is the only way out. Some people are just doing it to get something free, or because they are mad about something else in their lives. I know it drives independent owners especially crazy because it’s a pride thing. But you have to swallow your pride and remind yourself the customer is always right.
Be open and friendly, be empathetic, be publicly willing to hear somebody out even if you disagree, then counteract it but don’t be defensive. Offer some sort of second chance.
Even if your response comes from Jenny’s Diner, you have to talk as a person, as who you are. Some people struggle with talking like a person. That’s where defining your brand comes back—if you understand why people like you and can enunciate it and describe in terms of ideas that lead to actionable behavior, you can say that is not how we would respond, this is how we would respond. It determines what you say.
What defines a brand?
It sounds so high flown when you say branding. Brand: It’s almost like we should come up with another word. It’s really how people feel about you. Why do I feel good about that restaurant that I can’t put my finger on?
There are three restaurants in our town square—I have an opinion about each one. Where did I get it? I don’t know. It’s based on the price and the type of things they offer: at one I can get an avocado in my omelet, but over there they have this tremendous bread. You start to get a feel from the product, prices and décor. It’s something you can not control and it’s random—that’s probably what happens in most cases. Or can deliberately control: We encourage kids, for instance.
You don’t want to have 10 logos that are all slightly different. When you sponsor the little league, you want them to use the same logo as is on your bumper sticker.
There are all kinds of little signs we pick up on all the time. Is there a chalkboard and, if so, what does it say, is it funny? If you walk into Bob’s Burgers, get a sense right away because of the dump pun on the white board.
People just want to feel like the place they are doing business with is alert, alive and energetic. They want to feel a sense of energy. What creates that? Does the waitress seem to be just doing her duty, or is she engaged in her job? If you go in the bathroom and there is a problem, it’s got to be fixed; otherwise, there’s no sign of life.
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