Marketing Your Restaurant: How to Make an Impact on a Small Budget

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You step into your restaurant at the start of the day. The kitchen is humming with prep work, the back door is full with your fresh food deliveries, and the front-of-house staff is readying the tables with armies of salt and pepper. You are operational, but how can you beat the odds knowing that nearly 60 percent of restaurants will fail within their first few years?  

Part of the solution for success is having a solid, executable marketing plan. Knowing your product, price, placement, and promotion schedule is paramount to your business’ viability in the local market. As a rule, most established restaurants budget three to five percent of sales for marketing dollars. If your sales are under $500,000 annually, this budget can get crimped quickly. You may even have the majority of your budget tied up in traditional print campaigns, local mailers, and signage.  

With only a few dollars—perhaps quite literally—left over for marketing, you can still create fresh marketing campaigns through clear visibility online and within your local community. Focus on your website, social media, and community events.

Keep Your Website Updated and Easy to Navigate

The cost of hosting and maintaining a website should already be built into your marketing plan. If you do not have a website and need a way to get started, there are many affordable options, like GoDaddy, Wix and Weebly, to register a unique domain name and host a site. Many offer packages that include website builders with templates for those who do not mind a bit of a DIY project.

Once your website is running, be sure to update your pictures with fresh views of signature dishes and the interior decor. Your customers eat with their eyes, so consider hiring a professional photographer to create more visual appeal. 

The website should also be mobile friendly. If it is an extra cost that is not within your budget at the moment, be sure to have a .pdf of your menu available to download easily. Many consumers will make a decision about where they want to eat based on the availability of foods they like, foods that fit their diet, or simply their taste at that particular moment. Satisfy their desire for information while they are in the decision-making process.

Finally, invest time in your website analytics. Know how much traffic your website is getting. Do not be afraid to Google search your own business. Make sure that your restaurant has all the relevant information available when a search engine finds it: a website link, phone number, hours of operation, accurate address, etc. Take advantage of Google My Business, a no-cost solution to make your restaurant visible on Google Search, Google+, and Google Maps instantly. Bing has a similar tool called Bing Places for Business.

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Increase Your Social Media Presence

Both Millennials and Baby Boomers are tech savvy. While the latter is more likely to use Facebook, almost everyone is plugged in to a larger social network. If you have not created a Facebook page for your business, do it now. It will be an investment in time, but can be a no-cost solution for extra marketing. Beyond posting updates about menu changes, use it to showcase your niche in the local market, whether it be sustainability, farm to table, or family-friendly. Keep your posts short, include pictures, and create new posts about once per week. Once you have built up a larger amount of followers, consider running a contest. For example, ask your followers to “like” and “share” your restaurant in order to be entered into a drawing to win a free entrée.  

Facebook also offers “Facebook For Business” advertising, but there is a cost associated with it. If you choose to allocate marketing dollars to this, take the time to research what you would spend in the long run. It is possible to expand your local reach without spending money on this type of advertising. Rather, grow it organically with your devoted customers. Encourage your customers to write reviews on Yelp or post photos of their experience to Instagram. Think of social media marketing as a true guerrilla campaign: feet on the street, meet clicks on the web.

Then there is Groupon. While not social-media-related, it is something consumers eagerly talk about and share on social media. Customers love it but businesses beware. While it seems nice that there are no upfront costs to a Groupon campaign, Groupon will require 50 percent of the revenues from each deal. Make sure that Groupon is part of a larger marketing strategy and not the only marketing strategy to drive business to your restaurant. Know your profit margins and crunch the numbers to make sure it is viable within a long-term strategy.

Increase Community Involvement

Be local! Increasing visibility in your neighborhood and surrounding areas can be as simple as offering to cater events at schools, local radio and TV stations, even car dealerships. If this seems like a daunting task, talk to your local Chamber of Commerce about opportunities to host, cater, or sponsor a charity event. There will be an investment in food product and labor, but exposure can drive future business. Write press releases and contact your local news organizations about your community partnerships.

Once you have a contact at your local news organization, you have opened another marketing door. For example, perhaps your executive chef is being nominated for an award or is the recipient of one. Plan to showcase his or her skills in a reservation-only “meet the chef” meal or hold a cooking class led by that executive chef. Send out a press release about the chef’s accolades and about the subsequent special event. 

Tie It All Together

Have fun creating unique marketing campaigns. For example, festivals and fairs are great ways to integrate your restaurant into the local community. Allocate funds appropriately to rent space, and serve your unique, niche items. Post pictures on your website and social media accounts, and offer a promotional coupon to your followers that share your posts and announcements.  

Once you’ve grown your online and community presence, always continue to look for future marketing opportunities. Keep your eye on your competition and monitor what they are doing. Reach out to them and start your own community co-op or street festival. There are a myriad of ways to promote your restaurant that will cost little to nothing in dollars. The investment of your time and resources will go much further than you ever expected.