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Working the neighborhood

Lacrosse. Soccer. Softball. Basketball. Leho Poldmae never says “no” to sponsoring a youth sports team in the Westminster, Maryland community where his franchise of The Greene Turtle is located. “We’re not here just to funnel money out of the community; we’re here to put money back in,” he contends. And the plaques lining the restaurant’s walls attest to his commitment.

While team sponsorships reinforce the sports bar persona of The Greene Turtle, Poldmae doesn’t limit himself to that theme. He has hosted a Military Appreciation Day, Operation Christmas Tree for troops overseas, Amelia’s Ace of Hearts Ride for the Susan G. Komen Foundation and countless fundraisers for local high schools, neighborhood kids with life-threatening diseases and county education programs. Does all this effort pay off?

Definitely, says Melinda Morgan Kartsonis, president of Morgan Marketing and Public Relations in Irvine, California. “Most restaurant customers pull from a three- to five-mile radius. Anything you can do to build top-of-mind awareness among these locals will increase traffic.”

It’s worked for Poldmae. When The Greene Turtle ran Amelia’s Ace of Hearts Ride, 200 of the 400 participants registered at the restaurant and 300 people celebrated at an after party. Not only did the actual ride raise money for breast cancer, it brought more guests in for meals. And contributions collected at the door during the party and through donation cards in the restaurant beforehand boosted the total donated to $28,000. “These events and sponsorships put the human aspect into marketing. They are much more powerful than ads in touching and reaching customers,” says Poldmae.

Matt Hood, CMO of the 87-unit casual BJ’s Restaurants, agrees. His company created a TASC Force (Team Action to Support Communities) to encourage employees to volunteer time for local community causes. At the McAllen, Texas, location, team members partnered with local STAR bikers to raise money for Feed the Children. “Our team members feel empowered and make a difference while also serving as BJ’s brand ambassadors in the community,” Hood explains. “Our goal is to become an active and involved member in each of our restaurant trade areas and neighborhoods.”

Fundraisers can be a sure way to generate positive buzz in the community—and extra dollars in the cash register—but you have to pick and choose carefully, Morgan Kartsonis warns. “Research local charities and sponsorships that you, your employees or your patrons feel connected to,” she advises. “Or see if it’s a good fit with the demographic of your customer.” The American Cancer Society may seem too big and impersonal for a neighborhood eatery, but people will rally around a soup kitchen or fund for a local burn victim.

One of The Greene Turtle’s most effective promotions—March Madness—was held during the NCAA basketball playoffs. The restaurant staged its own tournament, pitting county high schools against each other to see which one could amass the highest total receipts. Each school was encouraged to bring in supporters on several consecutive Tuesday nights—all purchasing meals at regular prices. At the end of the night, the school with the largest total went on to the next round, vying for a winner-take-all purse. It got very competitive, with school mascots in attendance and the grammar schools that fed into the competing high schools coming out to eat in support. Westminster High won the $5,700 purse—and The Greene Turtle won lots of good will.

While The Greene Turtle gets some assistance from corporate (each franchisee has to spend 1 percent of revenues on local marketing), even a small indie with a budget to match can make a big impact. Leading up to the opening of their wood-fired pizza concept, Urban Crust, in Plano, Texas, owners Nathan and Bonnie Shea tried a mix of low-cost strategies to reach out to the community.

“I’m a former high school marketing teacher, so I knew how important it was to get the word out in the first six months,” says Nathan Shea. One of his first targets was Plano’s school system, offering teacher discounts to his former colleagues for catered events, team dinners, booster club meetings, etc. Friends and family helped get an e-mail list started with 2,500 names, and more were added as customers came in to sample the signature pizzas and bar menu. “We held a contest for our servers to see who could collect the most names on chit cards each week,” Shea recalls. He then used the database to send out a monthly
e-newsletter called Urban Update, which includes promotions like a $5 drink and pizza-of-the-month. “We got instant results from the newsletter and the info we feed into local blogs and our Facebook page,” notes Shea. “Once you get the community involved, you don’t need paid advertising.”

Going in, the Sheas planned to direct marketing to two niche groups—City of Plano employees, whose offices are in walking distance, and young commuters who live in nearby apartments but work in downtown Dallas. So they produced Good Neighbor Cards on their laser printer and handed them out to city workers, entitling them to a 10 percent discount. The cards can be used for unlimited visits and apply to parties up to four to encourage people to bring in friends.

A clever “Reverse Happy Hour” promotion was created by agency Big Pink PR to entice the second group. “Most of the commuters miss the typical afternoon happy hour, so we decided to offer the same specials from 10 p.m. to 1 a.m. for the late-night crowd,” explains Shea. As a result, Urban Crust’s rooftop bar, 32 Degrees, has become a hot ticket for hip locals. It features a 30-foot-long ice bar with frozen beer and liquor taps and Reverse Happy Hour guests get a dollar off appetizers and drinks.

Marketing to apartment complexes is a smart way to go, agrees Morgan Kartsonis; you reach a lot of potential customers in one fell swoop. When Morgan Marketing discovered a slew of luxury buildings near the Newport Beach location of Wildfish Seafood Grille, they brought out the chef to cook a poolside BBQ. “We contacted the manager and offered to do a demo and menu sampling,” she reports. “It was very well received and attracted new customers.” 

Events are relatively low in cost and offer great value and return on investment, believes Lori Peterson, VP of marketing for Carvel Ice Cream. The 400-unit national chain helps stage two Customer Appreciation Days a year at local stores, one leading up to the summer season and the second, as a “thank you” at summer’s end. This September, free samples of the Oreo L’il Rounder—a new mini ice cream sandwich—were given out, along with coupons for holiday purchases. “About 95 percent of franchisees participate, many putting their personal stamp on the promotion,” says Peterson. “It builds crucial guest relationships—you can’t do that through an ad.”

Going local with little $$$

  • Maximize social media. Although Twitter and Facebook have worldwide reach, they can be effective local marketing tools. “Make tweets specific to your location and newsworthy enough to appeal to local customers,” says Morgan Kartsonis. “For example, hold a contest for area customers, have the chef tweet cooking tips or talk about timely promotions. It doesn’t matter if these messages reach the larger Twitter-verse—those who can’t participate will just ignore them.” On a Facebook page, post photos of recent events and links to media mentions.
  • Participate in restaurant weeks, block parties and “Taste of….” events. These give locals a chance to sample your food at a reduced cost or for a good cause.
  • Join the chamber of commerce. Networking with other community leaders will drive traffic to your restaurant for parties, fundraisers, meetings, etc. Better yet, offer to host the chamber’s breakfast or lunch meetings.
  • Start a birthday rewards club. “Offer a freebie or discount that guests value, like a free meal—not just a free dessert,” says Julie Northrup, founder of FreeBirthdayTreats.com, a Web site that aggregates birthday incentives from various businesses. “That way, the birthday celebrant brings the party to you.”
  • Launch a guest loyalty program. Build an opt-in e-mail and/or cellphone database of customers and offer “club” members price breaks on LTOs, menu preview tastings, entry into quarterly contests, coupons and other incentives.
  • Take to the streets. Distribute door hangers and/or menus to apartment and office complexes to encourage dine-in or takeout orders. Provide delivery and frequent diner rewards to spur return visits.
  • Create a community heroes Wall of Fame. Morgan Kartsonis suggests that guests nominate notable local heroes and the staff makes a monthly choice. The hero can be honored at a ceremony in the restaurant, at which his/her photo is unveiled and the honoree is presented with a dinner certificate. “This could garner interest with the local media,” she adds.

How to make restaurant week work better

From San Diego to Atlantic City, cities big and small have adopted restaurant week promotions to build buzz, get new customers through the doors and boost business at traditionally slow times of year. Sounds great, right? For many operators, it is: they’re turning tables quickly, the reservation book is full and the wait staff is happy with the boost in tips. Yet some patrons find restaurant week to be the nadir of the dining year, calling it “amateur week” (or worse) in comments on Chowhound and Yelp. Critics complain about small portions, cheap ingredients and lousy service, as well as an inability to get a table at their favorite spots. The result? A blizzard of bad publicity—and potentially a missed opportunity to gain new customers and retain the old ones.

If restaurant week has got you down, consider the following ways to improve it—and keep your customers happy:

Prioritize existing customers. Rather than making your bread-and-butter customers fight through the crush of novelty seekers, push them to the top of the line. “Give them a preferred guest card or access to a special hotline for reservations that allows them to get ahead of the queue,” says Izzy Ginzberg, a Brooklyn, New York-based marketing consultant. “Or offer them free delivery service during restaurant week as a way to thank them.”

Offer free items rather than discounting. To participate in restaurant week promotions, operators typically must agree to offer a prix fixe menu. During Boston’s recent restaurant week, for example, diners paid $33.09 for a three-course dinner (sans tax, tip and beverages) and $20.09 for a three-course lunch. That’s a significant discount for some restaurants. At the upscale L’Espalier, which specializes in sophisticated New England-French cuisine, a la carte lunch entrees normally run $25 and up and the regular prix fixe dinner is $82.

According to Rob Bedell, a Santa Monica, California, marketing expert, this disparity can create problems for patrons who use restaurant week to try a new place. “If a discounted price is a guest’s first impression, you may have a hard time disassociating that thought from their mind,” he says. “They got your product for a certain price. Now, that’s what they expect going forward.”

Instead of adopting uniform pricing, as most restaurant week promotions do, Bedell says, organizers might ask participants to
offer diners a free appetizer or drink when they buy an entrée. “It may not seem like that big of a difference, especially if the pricing comes out the same, but the psychological difference does have an impact on the customer,” Bedell says.

Create opportunities for upselling. You may not be able to convince restaurant week organizers in your city to ditch the prix fixe approach. If that’s the case, look for ways to increase margins. Megan Sullivan of WordHampton Public Relations, which created restaurant weeks in the Hamptons and another for the rest of Long Island, advises participants to create wine pairings for the restaurant week menu items, or to add an additional course on top of the prix-fixe menu. Servers should talk up these specials, which can go a long way toward offsetting the slim margins on food and increased labor costs that come along with restaurant week.

Give customers reason to return. To build repeat business from the hordes of bargain-seekers who flock to restaurant week promotions, give them incentive to return. This may be especially effective in destination-dining spots such as Newport Beach, California, which this year is introducing what it calls a “Bounce Back” program to follow up on its October promotion week. “We’ll be giving our restaurant week diners a gratuity card for 20 percent off another dinner at that same restaurant,” says Peggy Fort, a consultant who organized the city’s promotion. The card will cover food only, and will expire six weeks after restaurant week ends. “We want to see if it’s a way to bring people back to Newport Beach after restaurant week is over.”

Consider opting out. If you can’t maintain quality standards for food and service during restaurant week, it’s better to pass up the event altogether. “The biggest failure I’ve found restaurants fall into is reducing the quality of the food,” says Alaina Inman, a corporate branding expert who used Atlanta’s recent restaurant week as an excuse to try three new restaurants. “Even though it is $25 for the three-course meal, I'm still spending $40 to $60 in total, and I expect the same quality of meal that I could get any other day. If they cut corners, I’m unlikely to return.”

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