The Real Business of Restaurants Isn’t Food — It’s Emotion

By Donald Burns, Foodable Industry Expert

What do you sell? What do you really sell? Now, don't go for the obvious answer that most give: We sell food and beverage. Some might give a better answer of: we sell an experience. You’re getting warmer. Think about it. What is the driver behind “an experience”? It’s emotion.

We are, by nature, emotional beings. It’s the depth of our emotions that makes us human. We have a wide range of emotions we can tap into. They can elevate us to the highest levels or they can take us into our lowest lows.

So, if emotions are so important, why do most restaurants pay little attention to the emotions that drive sales? Maybe because we never really stopped to think about the emotional triggers involved in marketing and daily operations. Let’s resolve that!

You can’t ignore the power playing the hunger emotion. It can be a primary driver in the reason guests come to your restaurant. While the hunger card can be like holding an ace in your hand during a poker game, and although it is nice to have, you would not want to go all in on a single ace. You need supporting players to be able to deliver the winning hand in the game of restaurants.

Emotion: Caring

Human beings are emotional and also very social. We gather in groups and communities to form a collective bond that carries us through the best and worst of times. Think of towns like Boston that become a fan frenzy when the Red Sox win the World Series. Look at how the town came together in unison for a tragic event like the Boston bombing.

The sense of community is one that pulls people together. You can tap into that by supporting your community. Pick a local charity, youth group, or animal shelter (furry friends are family, too!) and do some marketing towards helping one of them out. You have to be a good neighbor before you can be known as the neighborhood restaurant.

Emotion: Adventure

If you’re like most restaurants, not everyone in your market is a local. Tap into the emotion of adventure guests crave when exploring new restaurants, new flavors, and local ingredients. When most people travel, they want to eat like a local.

What locally sourced ingredients or farms could you spotlight on your menu in your social media to help you stand out in a crowded market? New Mexico is famous for its green chile. In the fall, roadside vendors fire up butane tanks and baskets full of freshly harvested green chiles that are flame-roasted right in front of you. Some tourists become so addicted to the flavors that they find restaurants and farms that will ship them to their home.

Emotion: Certainty

We are at times a conundrum. One minute we desire one emotion and then that emotion can change in a split second. While we discussed that we have a need for adventure, we also have a need for certainty, for something familiar. When you tap into this, you have a menu item that can become a top seller.

Comfort food says it all in its first word: comfort. Deep down, we have memories and feelings of food from our childhood. Those are hardwired into our subconscious and get triggered when we see certain words, such as meatloaf, grits, fried chicken, stew, pierogi, tamale, posole, picadillo, or matzo ball soup. Depending where you grew up, some of these words might trigger an emotional feeling of being home. Home is always an emotion you want to tap into.

Emotion: Scarcity

This emotion has been employed by advertisers for decades because it works. “For a limited time only” is often the tagline used.  Missing out is a powerful driver that you can use more in your menu design.

A lot of restaurants use happy hour menus to draw in people before dinner. These menus are specially priced to entice. While it is a great concept, most restaurants execute this incorrectly by offering items from their regular menu at a discount. By doing this, you have now just devalued the item by offering at a price decrease. If your regular calamari on the menu is priced at $12 and you offer a happy hour version at $6, the perceived value of your regular item now has dropped.

If you created a special happy hour menu with unique items that your guests can only get during that specific period, you now have a limited time offer that can drive sales and keep your brand value intact. That is win-win for all.

Emotion: Surprise

Sometimes that little something extra, a little something that comes unexpected with a purchase, can go a long way. It could be at the beginning of the meal, such as chips and salsa or perhaps an amuse-bouche appetizer from the chef. It also can transcend beyond food, like providing purse rack setups by the table for ladies. Even just having mouthwash in the restrooms can be a nice surprise.

Explore the concept of “take home marketing.” Give a treat (cookies, truffles, etc.) that the guest can take home. Make sure the box or bag has your logo or branding on it. Then later that evening or the next day, the guest will see it and it will trigger a positive emotion about your brand (if you exceeded expectations during their time at your restaurant). This is how you create raving fans with unexpected surprises.

Emotion: Connection

This is probably the most powerful of all marketing emotions. When people feel connected and feel a part of your brand, you have something few can buy — loyalty. Brand loyalty is the reason people will drive past a dozen other restaurants to dine at yours. When you make the guest feel connected, you don’t compete in the middle any longer. You stand out.

How do you connect with your guests? You engage with them. It’s sad that most restaurants use social media just to talk about themselves. The first word in social media is “social.” Don’t forget that. Comment on their Facebook posts, share their Tweets, like their Instagram picture. Whatever it is, focus on them, engage with them, communicate with them, and connect with them. The Beatles sang that “All you need is love.” Well, share that feeling with those that follow you on social media. The construct of all social networks is reciprocity. It starts when you take the first step towards the guest and don’t wait for them. You need to give before you get.

Now you have some emotions to tap into beyond just the one of hunger! When you are willing to change your view of marketing and the guest experience, you will open up your brand to a bigger world. You’ll stop competing and you will stand out.