Stop Obsessing about Restaurant Marketing

I’ve talked to a lot of restaurant owners over the past few years, and one of the biggest topics that continuously crops up in conversation is their desire for “better marketing” or a “bigger marketing budget.” They invariably say something like this: “Gosh, I mean, we have the best food, the best service…if more people just KNEW about us—if we could just get more butts in seats— then our restaurant would be in good shape financially.”

Sound familiar?

Effective marketing strategies have become indispensable in business, but poorly executed techniques or a lack of fundamental knowledge about marketing as a tool can be disastrous for small, independently-owned restaurants. Unfortunately for many owners, “marketing” isn’t thought of as simply one tool in a toolbox of business management strategies—it’s some magical catch-all that is certain to make you go instantly viral and solve all your financial troubles.

Marketing won’t solve all your problems, because marketing can’t fix the fundamentals.

But that’s not how it works. Yes, restaurant marketing is important. But you know what’s more important to the health and financial well-being of your restaurant? The fundamentals! It is surprising how often I see the fundamentals of operating a great restaurant being overlooked, but nothing is more important when attempting to create a healthy, sustainably successful business.

Marketing isn’t the silver bullet you’re looking for. It won’t solve all your problems, because marketing can’t fix the fundamentals. Here are the reasons why you don’t really have a marketing problem—you have an operations problem.

You don’t have a marketing problem- you have an operations problem.

Problem 1: You have a poorly designed restaurant concept.

Some ideas are better than others, and not every restaurant concept is going to work (#sorrynotsorry). That’s a hard truth to face when you’re certain you have the next big idea, but you have to be intensely and aggressively realistic when analyzing the foundational identity of your restaurant concept.

  • You don’t have a clearly defined Unique Value Proposition. What specifically are you providing to your guests that is better than any of the hundreds of other options that they have? Why should they visit your restaurant? What is your story? What makes you unique? How specifically are you going to physically execute telling that emotionally engaging story in a way that captures your ideal customers’ attention and business?
  • Your brand is not a good fit for your market. Differentiation from market competition is good. In fact, it’s essential. Capitalizing on a market trend is good (e.g. the farm-to-table movement). But too much of either can be very bad. Too much differentiation in your market can alienate guests and leave them confused and frustrated. Building identity off a trend will leave you out of business when that trend fades. It is important to be different enough to stand out from the crowd, and innovative enough to grab attention…just don’t go overboard. Differentiation=good. Trend=good. Too much of either=bad.
  • Your branding strategy is ineffective. Branding is about communicating a complex and abstract message about your identity in a very consistent, simple, and powerful way. It’s an art, and a science, but most importantly, it’s a language. You have to learn how to communicate exactly who you are, what you offer, and what you stand for in concise and powerful ways.
  • You have a poor menu design or layout. Menu design can easily go sideways very fast: from inconsistent layouts, illegibility, too much clutter, and especially by not strategically placing key items. There are plenty of resources available to help you understand the psychology of menu design and how to optimize yours.
  • Your pricing structure is inconsistent with market allowances. You can’t charge more than your target customer base is willing to pay, no matter how exceptional your offerings. And obviously, you should never charge significantly less. Simple as that. You need to research and understand pricing expectations in your market (in combination with doing your own recipe costing) in order to find the optimal pricing strategy.
  • You try to be all things to all people. You’re never going to make everyone happy 100% of the time. Don’t try, because you’ll go out of business in the process. Instead, focus on what you do really well, and get even better at it. An overstuffed menu is difficult for guests to navigate and even more challenging for your culinary team to execute at a high level.
Systems and processes are the blueprint by which you consistently achieve desired outcomes.

Problem 2: Your operational execution doesn’t meet expectation.

Once you’ve effectively communicated your brand identity, value proposition, pricing structure, and market positioning, your guests will have an expectation of the experience they can anticipate at your establishment. When you don’t deliver on that experience every time, it costs your business dearly.

  • Your service team is poorly trained or apathetic. Service team members are at the front line of how your foodservice organization is perceived, and are a crucial component to implementing the experience you’ve designed for your guests. No matter how good your food is, if you provide unpleasant or unsatisfactory service, your guests’ experience will be disappointing at best.
  • Your culinary team is inconsistent. Long ticket times, wrong temps, incorrect plating, and inconsistent portions are all examples of the negative impact your culinary team can have on the experience of your guests.
  • You don’t have clear systems and standards in place. Systems and processes are the blueprint by which you consistently achieve desired outcomes. Without them, you may as well just sit back, cross your fingers and hope for the best.
  • You don’t respond quickly and effectively to guest complaints. You might think your most loyal guests are the ones who never encounter a problem. But the fact is that your most loyal guests are the ones who had an issue and were “wowed” by how you recovered. The best measure of a business is how they recover from difficult circumstances.
  • You don’t follow up with team after issues. Unless you follow up with team members after a hiccup about exactly what was learned and what will be done differently in the future, you should expect to see the same mistakes again and again.

Systems and processes are the blueprint by which you consistently achieve desired outcomes.

Problem 3: You don’t build relationships with the guests you already have.

The fundamentals of the hospitality industry are all about taking care of people and building relationships. Don’t expect to grow your business if you don’t build relationships with your guests.

  • You don’t engage with guests. Engaging with guests is about building an emotional connection. Guests that are emotionally engaged are fiercely loyal because they feel personally connected to your business.
  • You don’t turn your loyal guests into brand ambassadors. The easiest way to create a brand ambassador is to both provide a “wow” and build an emotional connection. The combination is exceptionally compelling.
  • You have no guest loyalty program. If your guests are brand ambassadors for you, it’s only fair that you reward them with a token of your appreciation. It doesn’t have to be coupons or punch cards. The important thing is that it elicits a sense of belonging and participation for the guest and demonstrates your gratitude to them.
Look for creative ways to expand market share.

Problem 4: You don’t exploit existing opportunities to expand market share.

There are plenty of ways to build your business without spending a dime on marketing. Building your business organically simply requires willingness to engage with your community in a meaningful way and leveraging resources to provide the experience and value your guests are looking for.

  • You haven’t built relationships in your local community. You have thousands of potential guests outside your establishment in your community. Don’t wait for them to come to you. Get out there and meet people! Build awareness, but don’t be a salesperson; find ways to get involved and help your community and you will be rewarded.
  • You don’t effectively utilize social media. Social media is a constantly evolving platform, and it takes work to stay up-to-date on current technologies. It’s not just about posting your daily specials. Don’t be afraid to ask for help managing your social media channels if you’re not comfortable.
  • Your employees aren’t acting as brand ambassadors. One of the most inexpensive ways to drive awareness is through your employees. They are passionate about the brand and should be proud and excited to talk about where they work.
  • You don’t leverage a delivery platform. Delivery is a massive trend across the foodservice industry, and with the introduction of Uber and Amazon to the food delivery playing field, it doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon. You’re leaving money on the table if you’re not utilizing a food delivery service.
  • You don’t capitalize on group and event dining. PPA spend is higher with group and event dining. Find ways to be flexible and accommodate these guests. If executed well, not only are you driving revenue, you’re also creating priceless positive memories associated with your brand.
  • You don’t look for creative ways to drive sales during non-peak hours. Be creative! It isn’t just about slapping together a happy hour menu. Look for ways to provide exceptional value or an exclusive experience in order to incentivize potential guests to visit during non-peak hours or days.

There are multitudes of ways to build your business without obsessing about your restaurant marketing budget. Obsess instead about perfectly and consistently executing the fundamentals of genuine hospitality and building relationships with your guests. Those are the real ingredients to a successful restaurant.