Is it time to sunset promotional days?

Restaurant Business
peter romeo

A belated happy National Lasagna Day! Or should I say National Cheesecake Day? I’ve also been tardy in spreading good cheer for National Tequila Day, World Tofu Day, National Meatball Day, National Meatloaf Day, National Soup Month, National Creative Ice Cream Flavors Day, International Hot & Spicy Foods Day, National Burger Day, National Cheeseburger Day, National Oatmeal Month and Cup of Warm Beer Appreciation Night.

OK, I made that last one up. But it could fly amid the current promotional frenzy. If something can be eaten, chances are it has its own day of commemoration. And in the industry’s current straits, the odds are even higher that operations of all sorts are seizing the occasion to play carnival barker to the general public. 

Those gimmicky occasions are in addition to the usual slew of promotional opportunities, from Nurses Day to Teacher Appreciation Month to Shark Week to National Twins Day (as in fraternal or identical, not the Minnesota baseball team—though we’re not 100% sure).

Necessity has pushed the industry far beyond the attitude that if you build it, they will come. Today, restaurants have to give customers an extraordinary reason to visit. Often that intended justification is something like National Cheddar Fries Day (April 20, in case you forgot) or Cruciferous Vegetables and Legumes Month (January, of course). The industry is hungering for promotional opportunities almost as badly as it yearns for people to hire. If the cause doesn’t involve a discount, so much the better.

But Prune Breakfast Month isn’t exactly an opportunity that brings results down the road, though that probably could be phrased more politely. In the scramble for special-occasion tie-ins, operators are lunging for a minute of attention, forgetting the objective is cultivating new long-timers. They’re resorting to gimmicks and one-offs instead of brainstorming truly inventive ways to flaunt their service and fare. An abomination created because it elicits guffaws during National Cephalopod Week (“Celebrating all things tentacled,” the third week of June) isn’t going to succeed in that mission.

Those occasions and the dishes that play off them are all in good fun, but there’s a danger to the promotional mania that’s catching hold of the industry amid a stretch of sluggish sales and soft traffic. Whenever a gimmick replaces the holy trinity of food, service and ambience as the focus of a restaurant, there’s a chance those draws for repeat visits will be muted. A place is likely to end up with some great Instagram posts of concoctions guests wouldn’t think of eating more than once a year, not a path worn to the door by patrons who originally chose the place because of its National Garlic Month festivities.   

Promotions are effective, and particularly necessary in the current industry environment. But the gauge of their success should be what they generate for the long term, not for 24 hours of potato soup mania (National Vichyssoise Day, Nov. 18).

Think about that as you hoot and holler while sipping a warm beer.

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