Sarah Dodds | December 6, 2022, 09:30 PM CST
Recently, while planning a vacation I spoke to someone who told me I had to go to a specific restaurant in Lisbon, for the “best pork cheeks ever.” She waxed poetic about the slow simmer in red wine and the tender, succulent meat, just a hop and a skip from a famous bakery and a must-see castle.
I was intrigued, naturally, and asked around. Someone else told me this restaurant also had amazing clams. I resolved to go meet these life-changing pork cheeks and delicious clams for myself. I found great anecdotes on Tripadvisor and even a website. Yet one mentioned reservations, and the website was strangely confusing, with a “contact us” link to nowhere. I searched third-party reservation apps and other local sources, to no avail. I sent an email, but didn’t hear back. I took to social media in search of the pork cheeks — no presence.
Finally I gave up. Maybe the pork cheeks are so magical they don’t need me and my tourist money. But in sum, it was a clinic in how not to increase your restaurant’s foot traffic. And I’m going to assume that if you’re reading this, you’re looking to get more folks in the door.
The basic lesson before we get into tricks and whatnot, is to be findable. If no one can find a website or a phone number or an address or anything, nothing else you do will matter. Any of the steps we’ll discuss can feel try-hard or sales-y, and they may not be your favorite part of your job. But if you start from an optimistic, probably true premise — that people would love to walk in the door, if only they knew a bit more about what you do there — then you can set about making it easy for these people to do just that.
Hello, my name is Sarah’s Restaurant. People know my name because I am wearing a sign that says Sarah’s Restaurant. Depending on what’s around me, my sign may be more prominent or less. If I am in a hip part of town with several other options, I want to stand out. If I am on a long stretch of road, I want to have a sign large enough so people don’t drive by me. Awnings are a great multitasking tool for signage, as are sandwich boards. A punny sandwich board or other eye-catching signage is a great way to get people to do your advertising for you — but we will get to that. Bottom line: I don’t want to be missed.
I can also stand out with color, which also photographs well, and bless the Millenials, neon is back. I may choose to paint myself pink or adorn myself in flowers. Isabella Cafe, in the Roma district of Mexico City, went all-in on these concepts. Pink, neon, flowers. Do I remember what I ate (did I eat?) or drank while I was there? No, but I remember the decor. I wandered around the space in a giddy daze. I remember the service was friendly and I liked it. Not everyone is going to have life changing pork cheeks. Some folks are going to be friendly and full of flair.
Sneakily, restaurant events are a great way to bring in folks who aren’t your regular crowd. What you choose to do depends on your restaurant/bar. If you’ve ever walked into a pub, looking for a meal, and discovered a trivia night, you may have turned heel and walked out. But if you stumbled across the same game in a regular bar, you stick around and sip your drink. Timing is also a factor. If you start the event/trivia/comedy later than the dinner rush, you can get yourself a second (or third wave).
Wine events are great if you want to draw attention to your wine list. Are you specializing in a region or style? You can educate folks about why you love the Jura or Island wines. Covering the cost of the wine with ticket purchases and having wine leftover to sell ain’t bad either.
Other sorts of events also throw off their own lasting benefits. A dedicated gallery evening on nights when you change the artwork brings in a new crowd with the new decor. Events around art, music, or learning also make great opportunities to collaborate with other local businesses. Is there a brewery or distillery nearby? You can host a class! The Cedarbrook Lodge in Seattle rotates through the local artisans hosting beer, wine and cocktails events. These are interesting draws and a chance to cross promote and great for your SEO and social media audience, as well. Speaking of …
If you’re not the most savvy social media user, and you’re hoping I’ll say social media doesn’t matter, my apologies up front. I am not a person that lives their whole life online, but your business needs to be out there. It’s part of restaurant marketing today, no way around it. Not everyone wants a ‘grammable bathroom, or neon signs that people want to pose with. That’s OK. But posting appetizing photos of your food and drinks is a great way to brag about the good works you already do. And with even a little bit of SEO know-how, you can make sure those are the shots that appear high in Google’s results when people go searching for your establishment. If you're just starting out, begin by creating your Google Business Profile, tricking it out with nice photos, and keeping it up-to-date.
If you aren’t artistically inclined or simply don't care to get arms-deep in your digital marketing, pay an influencer or a consultant or someone — the expense is absolutely worth it. People who see great photos of your food will also see that you care. It’s a good look. Even better? If you hand the task to someone already on your staff, give them a pay bump. And enjoy the new faces.
Serve delicious food, in a friendly environment with good service, consistently, and people will tell other people. If you are just opening, easing in isn’t the worst thing that’s ever happened. There’s nothing more stressful than a high-profile opening, with the inevitable chaos and failures, and a packed space. But, look, you really don’t have any say over how much people talk about you. Certainly before you open, you can’t bank on what people say about you unless you hire a PR team.
If you’re not going the PR route, think of word-of-mouth as a very nice thing to earn, but not necessarily part of your overall strategy, at least not in the short term. In the meantime, focus on what you can control.