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10 sales-building strategies from the top independents

One of the beneficial side effects of collecting surveys from the nation’s highest-grossing independent restaurants is that it offers a glimpse into their winning sales strategies, providing valuable lessons for all operators.

Special events and concierge referrals have long been part of the arsenal for independents and others hoping to drive traffic and lift sales. The results of our survey of the top independents reveals that, while they’re not trading in these bread-and-butter methods any time soon, such operators are finding success lately with tailored rewards programs, crowd-pleasing special events and more.

Here are some of the tactics the country’s leading independents—with revenues of $10 million or more—say have been most successful recently for building sales.

1. Kentucky Derby Party at ‘21’ Club

Thirty-three jockey figurines stand at attention above the entrance at New York City’s ‘21’ Club, so a Kentucky Derby party is a natural for a spring special event. The restaurant charges $55 per guest, which includes two cocktails, themed bar bites and games. The festivities take place in the Bar ‘21’ & Lounge area of the restaurant, which is the one space that doesn’t require gentlemen to wear a jacket—a rare remaining policy in today’s more-casual dining climate. ‘21’ Club also cites other “property guest experiences such as its Great Gatsby-theme bridal showcase and building sales.

‘21’ Club (New York City) Top 100 rank: 19; 2013 sales: $17.1 million

2. Unexpected special events at Frankenmuth Bavarian Inn

Woodcarvings, authentic German decor and “Bavarian” costumed servers help deliver a dining experience that already evokes a special event at Bavarian Inn Restaurant in Frankenmuth, Mich. But the huge space, which seats 1,200, also hosts special dinners and events, including a recent 1980s-themed murder-mystery dinner show. It cost $45 per person—significantly more than its regular $14 check average—and included the show, a nonalcoholic beverage and a menu featuring the restaurant’s trademark chicken and noodles, plus soup and salad (cash bar was additional).

Frankenmuth Bavarian Inn (Frankenmuth, Mich.) Top 100 rank: 84; 2013 sales: $11.2 million

3. Simple street signage at Scoma’s Sausalito

While technology-driven tactics such as social media and emails are the go-to traffic drivers for many of the high-grossing independents on the Top 100 list, it’s a decidedly low-tech strategy that has been most successful at Scoma’s: setting out signs on the street to guide guests to the “hidden local hangout” at the end of Fisherman’s Wharf on Pier 47.

Scoma’s (San Francisco) Top 100 rank: 32; 2013 sales: $15.4 million

4. Upscale rewards program at Portland City Grill

Portland City Grill credits the Eat, Drink and Earn rewards program (offered at all of parent company Restaurants Unlimited’s concepts) as one of its most successful sales-building promos in the past year. The program grants diners one point for every $1 they spend. Rewards range from a $25 dining credit (300 points) to a private wine dinner for 10 at the restaurant’s chef’s table (30,000 points).

Portland City Grill (Portland, Ore.) Top 100 rank: 54; 2013 sales $13.3 million

5. Adding a fine-spirits lounge at Daniel’s Broiler

In September, Daniel’s Broiler opened its Prime 21 “bar in a bar” inside the restaurant in a space formerly housing its vintage lounge. It calls the new space a “modern-day speakeasy” focusing on classic and craft cocktails, spirits and Champagne; beer and wine have been purposely left off the menu, though are available along with appetizers and small plates.

Daniel’s Broiler (Bellevue, Wash.) Top 100 rank: 86; 2013 sales: $11.1 million

Five more successful sales strategies:

6. Social media, word of mouth and concierges

The Hamilton (Washington, D.C.) Top 100 rank: 15; 2013 sales: $17.9 million

7. Collecting email addresses of customers who want to be kept aware when seasonal items arrive; beer and wine dinners

Bob Chinn’s Crab House (Wheeling, Ill.) Top 100 rank: 18; 2013 sales: $17.2 million

8. Rewards program, special events and social media

Zehnder’s of Frankenmuth (Frankenmuth, Mich.) Top 100 rank: 50; 2013 sales: $13.5 million

9. Social media, email marketing and hotel and dinner packages

Harris Ranch Inn & Restaurant (Coalinga, Calif.) Top 100 rank: 51; 2013 sales: $13.4 million

10. Special events, such as an annual clambake and Sunday supper wine diners

Willow Creek Farm (Broadlands, Va.) Top 100 Rank: 98; 2013 sales: $10.2 million

View the full ranking of the Top 100 highest-grossing independent restaurants

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