Restaurant week is coming up in the Hudson Valley.
This means that there will be lots of foodies (and wannabe Yelpers) flooding into Hudson Valley restaurants that they’ve never eaten at before to try foods on a prix fixe menu for under $30.
This event happens twice a year in our area – in March and November – and it’s really a great opportunity for both the restaurants and the people living in and visiting the area. For the restaurants, it’s really a superb opportunity to attract new customers, get lots of exposure, really give everyone a taste of what they are capable of and, ultimately, to create lifelong fans, customers and brand ambassadors. And for area residents and visitors, it’s a great chance to try out a new restaurant for an affordable rate.
However, in spite of it having great potential on both sides, after talking to some restaurant owners, I’ve learned of some potential problems with the whole concept, and I wanted to take a moment to share the problems and potential solutions to help you make the most of your participation.
Potential problems With Restaurant Week
The two main issues with participating in restaurant week events, from a restaurant’s perspective, are profitability and retention.
Firstly, profitability can be an issue because because:
- the food choices are inappropriate for the price point of the prix fixe,
- too many reservations that week are restaurant week/prix fixe rather than “regular” customers ordering from the standard menu.
2. New Customer Retention
And, secondly, retention can be an issue because
- as the price point of the prix fixe is often lower than what your average sale per customer would be on a normal day, you may be attracting people to your restaurant who wouldn’t normally visit your establishment due to affordability, and
- restaurant week customers don’t become regular customers because you don’t have a plan to keep them engaged.
The Key to Success: Starting With Goals In Mind
That said, the real key to finding success in participating in Restaurant Week (RW, hereafter) – or other promotional activities/events – is to have an intention and goal in mind prior to doing it.
Firstly, having specific goals and intentions in mind at the outset allows you to plan and strategize techniques to implement to create the desired results. Secondly, starting with goals allows you to measure the results of whatever you’ve done in your strategy, in order to see if it was worth it and how you might adapt your method the next time to improve your results.
Of course you can have whatever goals you want with doing restaurant week, or any other event for that matter, however, before you even decide to do RW, it’s important to understand your overall business goals, in order to decide whether RW will be an effective tactic to achieve your goal. Then, if you do decide that RW is indeed in line with your overall goals, you can feel confident that you’re on the right track. Once you’ve decided to go ahead with it, then you need to decide which goals you are working toward by participating in RW and what specific, tangible results you hope to achieve from doing this promotion.
My suggestion for RW goals would be
- increasing your restaurant’s overall exposure,
- creating new repeat customers/fans,
- creating referrals and
- making the promotion itself be profitable/self-sustaining.
The last one, however, may take a few years to get right. I personally believe that it’s ok for your RW or event promotions to run at a loss for the first few times. Treat it as an experiment and plan to fail the first time or few. It’s about figuring out the right strategies and tactics to achieve your goals and sometimes profitability doesn’t happen right out of the gate.
Of course, your goals could be wildly different from that, but those are what I see as being the most accessible and beneficial inherent results of doing an effective RW program.
10 Strategies & Tactics for Restaurant Week Success
If you’re looking to use RW as part of your overall marketing plan, as I recommend, and your goals are what I’ve listed above, here are a few ideas to help you get more out of participating in your local Restaurant Week celebration.
1. Promote, Promote Promote
Yes, one of the biggest benefits of RW is that you get all sorts of promotion from the entity that is organizing the event. That means you are potentially reaching markets that you hadn’t reached before. That’s awesome for attracting new customers – but don’t forget, you hopefully already have your own marketing/promotion plan and current customers and followers. Even if your goal and purpose in doing RW is to gain new customers from other markets, promoting your participation to your current fans and followers, and as part of your current advertising and PR strategy, will be beneficial.
Your Current Advertising
By including your plans for RW in your current advertising, you can include the logo and get more views, credibility and attention.
Current Social Media Following
Additionally, on social media, you can hop on the trending topics and hashtags for the RW and other food related topics, so you can get views and engagement that way.
Referrals for RW Reservations
And, finally, by promoting to your current following, you can generate referrals.
Perhaps your current customers are going someplace else during RW, but they have friends who’ve never visited your restaurant… well, if you can get them to get their friends to go to your place, you’ve just gotten new customers that already have a basic level of trust for your establishment.
But, how do you do that? You can make an incentive program – such as, running a promotion or contest on social media that says “Are you our biggest fan?” For every 3 RW reservations you refer our way, you’ll earn a free entrée the next time you come in. (Or something like this.) Now, obviously, you’ll have to create a system to manage the logistics, but implementing this type of promotion can help you create repeat customers that are already in your extended network.
2. Loyalty Incentives
As I said above, one of the major problems is customer retention. So, in order to tackle that, you can create an incentive program for restaurant week goers to come back. If you already have a loyalty program, such as a card where you build up to earning a free meal or something, you can allow the RW customers to use their RW meal as their first one. Do this automatically by punching the first spot on the card and putting it in with the bill. (Or some other creative way that is automatic, so it’s not something the customer has to think about or want to do and worry about, it’s already done. Easy, simple and stress-free.)
If you don’t have a loyalty program already, WHY DON’T YOU HAVE A LOYALTY PROGRAM????? I don’t care what it is, but everyone likes to build up to something and if your goal in business is repeat customers (which it almost always is in food businesses, since that’s how you thrive), then you absolutely MUST have a loyalty program. So, when better to create one and start it up for RW?
And finally, you can create a special loyalty strategy specifically geared toward RW (and other event) customers.
Firstly, this can involve capturing their contact information so you can email them in the future or send them special coupons or promos in the mail. How you go about doing this can vary, but a simple way is to have all your servers and host(s) trained so that either they can sign up while they are waiting to be seated or at the end of their meal. All staff should talk about the benefits of staying engaged, and discuss this throughout the experience. (Practice to find the right balance to not seem like you’re being pushy or annoying with it.) You can include a survey with your check and on that, include space that they can put their contact info.
Then, once you have their information, you can implement your post RW strategy – which might include special promos or messages for RW visitors. Say, you send them a Thank You message about a week after RW. This message contains all your info – such as social media links, details on the loyalty program and referral programs. Then, in about a month, send a promotion specifically designed to get them to come in again – such as a special coupon or info on current specials or an event you’re hosting, etc.
3. Referral Program
Again, this is another strategy that can build off of any other referral program you might already have. But, the basic idea is to create an incentive program for restaurant week goers to refer their friends.
So, this might look similar to the referral program you created in step one above, or it might be more specific to just the RW customers. So, for example, you could give each RW customer a specially designed card to give to their friends – something with the RW logo on it that says, “My friend came here during RW and wanted me to try out your restaurant,” put a place for the original customer’s name (so you can trace it back) and then on the referral card, there can be some bonus, like a free drink with the purchase of an entrée or a free appetizer or BOGO. Then, you can keep track of the people who send you someone, and send them a free gift or special bonus as a thank you for their referrals. Tracking can be as simple as a spreadsheet, or if you already have a CRM, you can track it in there. This is another thing that your staff should be aware of, so that they can talk it up during/at the end of service. (“If you enjoyed your experience, we’d be so grateful if you’d share this special coupon with a close friend.” or “Did you enjoy your experience?” – Yes. – “Well, we’re doing a special program to give you *some bonus* if you have any friends come in and use these coupons.”) Have a stack of coupons available at the hostess desk and you can even mail some coupons to them as part of a follow up promotion or the thank you note I mentioned above.
4. Tangible Take-Home Memory
Most of going out to eat is about making a memory. So, why not play off of that fact? You can create a special takehome gift that can memorialize the experience for your new customers. (I.E. gives you a unique quality that they can use when they talk to their friends/family about going to your restaurant). This could be a photo booth, a photographer documenting all couples/families in their special evening attire, or perhaps a red carpet with a branded background at the entrance, and a photographer to take photos of anyone who wants them. Or, you could send them home with a really neat and beautiful piece of marketing material, such as a beautifully designed postcard with a delicious looking photo, takeaway menu or some other cool thing – like a tshirt, pens, magnets or something relevant to your restaurant. Maybe you make special buttons (pins) that have your logo and some clever statement about RW, your restaurant or the Hudson Valley. Maybe you already sell memorial products and you have a discount on them during RW, or include a free something to your RW reservations.
If they have something physical to bring with them, they’ll remember your restaurant every time they see it in their house. Friends might see it and ask about it. It becomes a tool, not only for their own loyalty, but also for word of mouth marketing.
5. Make it Social
In addition to the social media plan in step one (about using general RW hashtags and promoting ahead of time on your social meida), it’s key to develop a social media interaction during restaurant week, such as your own hashtag for your restaurant or a contest, as well as a post RW plan.
The purpose of doing this is to get people who go to RW at your place engaged right away, and to boost awareness among their networks as well as on your own social media and the extended networks that come about through effective social media use. For example, in addition to your own posting, you can encourage your visitors to write a tweet or post about their experience, share a photo of their dish (maybe), or review you on yelp (or wherever you get reviewed). Tell them to use the hashtag #HVRW or #RestaurantWeek or #YourName (etc.). You could also run a contest simultaneously. For example, you might come up with a clever hashtag like, #OverheardAtYourName or #FavDishAtYourName or #WentToYourName and then retweet/post the most clever and give them some kind of prize, such as a gift certificate or free drink next time they come in, etc. (Of course, one of the rules for the contest has to be that they start following you, so that they get any posts you share in the future.)
6. Focus Inward: Staffing
Making RW a success isn’t all about promotion, it’s also about making sure you run the business efficiently and make sure staff is properly trained in all promotions and maintain a focus on excellent service.
Success in restaurants isn’t only about food or promotion – they are of course important, but much of it is the overall experience. And… much of the experience is contingent upon the service the customer receives. Is everything going smoothly? Do your servers know how to describe the flavors and foods on the menu? Do they know how to casually throw in all the promotions without sounding too pushy or like a robot? Are they happy employees or disgruntled? Are they efficient in taking orders and bringing them out? Do they know how to answer difficult questions or respond effectively to difficult customers? Do they have sufficient breaks? Do they know how to get customers to spend more money without being obvious?
Before you do any major promotion, it’s key to make sure your staff is on the same page and that you have a supportive working environment for them. Additionally, it’s not just about knowing the promos during RW, but also before and afterwards, talking up RW or the post RW promos. So, in advance of RW, your staff should be talking about RW and hoping to get referrals and reservations. You could even run an incentive program for your staff, where every reservation that they cause, they get some reward – a bonus or a gift card or whatever motivates them. Make a goal for each staff person to take a certain number of reservations… etc. Then give them a reward. Or, even have a team goal, and if the team goal is met, everyone gets the reward.
7. Upsell, Upsell, Upsell!
Because the whole point of RW is that it’s a prix fixe and it’s often a lower amount than your typical average sale, look for other opportunities to upsell.
This is not about nickel and diming (i.e. charging an extra fee for substitutions), rather finding creative ways to sell additional items to increase to total sale per person/table. Drinks are a great place to start, since people already are spending less, they’ll perhaps be more inclined to experiment on a drink or get an extra drink where they might not have done so normally. Just be careful to not violate any rules that might be part of the RW that you’re participating in. Be creative.
8. K.I.S.S. (Keep it simple, stupid) Your Food
There are many strategies for food selection for your prix fixe menu. Some people take the opportunity to experiment with new directions, while others go with classics, restaurant specialties and restaurant favorites. Any of these are pretty good strategies, but the most important things to remember are to not overcomplicate things.
Firstly, because you’re probably charging less than you would normally, be mindful of your food costs when selecting dishes. Rather than sacrificing on ingredient quality, but perhaps select recipes that have fewer ingredients or ingredients that generally cost less, would be a good idea.
In terms of selecting new ideas versus classics, remember your overall goals. For RW you’re often making a first impression and hoping to get people to come back. You want to give people a reason to come back. Therefore, it may not be the best time to try something out for the first time ever or to go too plain Jane. (For example, if you’re an Italian restaurant, something like Chicken Parm might be too standard and not give you the best opportunity to stand out in your customers’ minds. Maybe you have a different take on it, and it’s a specialty, then ok, but be honest with yourself if your version is too standard to make an impression and if it’s only on your menu for the people who aren’t adventurous.)
In my opinion, a good rule of thumb here is to go with something that is unique to your style of cooking or restaurant and is a go to favorite for your regular customers. Not something too out there, something accessible to the majority of new people trying you out, and unique enough to make an impression.
Depending on the rules for the particular RW you’re participating in, and if your goal is simply to make a profit during RW, it may be a good idea to set a limit on the number of RW reservations you’ll take each night. It’s possible that some RW programs won’t let you do this, so just pay attention to the rules. But, if you’re allowed to, it may be a good idea to limit the this. By limiting it, you allow yourself space to accept regular customers (at full price) and you also can create demand for reservations at your restaurant, since they are limited, they can run out. That won’t increase the price, since it’s set already, but it increases the chances that you will fill up/sell out your slots. Additionally, setting a limit can help control costs on food, staffing, etc. that you’d be spending for your participation and therefore can help increase your RW profit margin.
10. Part of the Whole
And finally, the most important strategy is to remember that RW is part of a larger, integrated marketing plan. Restaurant Week is not the only thing that you’re doing to promote and grow your business and customer base.
RW is most effective when it is part of your overall business/marketing strategy, otherwise it can ultimately be a waste of time.
When not part of an overall plan, you’ll potentially boost sales for a week and then see a drop off in customers after it ends. Then, all that time and the money spent to participate will have been wasted.
On the other hand, if you view RW as one part of the whole, you’ll take the time to plan out strategies to, like those listed here, to keep your new customers coming back. You’ll find solutions to the inherent problems with RW and you’ll keep customers coming in throughout the year. And, isn’t that what you want anyway? A constant flow of customers? Well, the only way to achieve that is by doing consistent marketing and providing a solid experience to your customers.