The general public can be a fickle, sensitive, and at times infuriating group of people. After two decades in the business, I have learned to love them, in spite of their fussy ways and often bizarre behavior. Why? Because they pay the bills and keep the business running. Often, they turn out to be genuinely decent human beings.
It’s excellent having ‘regulars,’ the old familiar faces who return time after time, helping to steadily keep things going. But it’s not enough – you need growth. You need a regular flow of new customers. Not to mention, if you are a start-up restaurant or catering business, it can take time to build up that regular clientele.
How do you get new customers in through those shiny front doors, without physically dragging them in off the streets? I’m going to give you ten ways to do just that.
None of the ideas listed below are going to be about increasing frequency or check average. Those sales building techniques are for another day. The ideas below are strictly about how to get NEW customers.
1. Custom Referral Program
Word of mouth is the best way to attract new customers.
Yes, this is obvious. Most word of mouth advertising happens organically; you provide someone with a memorable experience, and they tell multiple friends how much they enjoyed it. What is not always apparent though is how to encourage more people to talk glowingly about your business and drive new customers in the door.
One compelling way of doing this is through a customer referral program. Referral programs incentivize your current clientele to be advocates for your business and encourage their friends and family, who have yet to visit, to try your establishment.
The best type of referral program works to provide perks to both the person making the referral as well as the new customer on their first visit.
Setting up a referral program is a win for everyone involved. You get new customers to try your restaurant. The people who referred the new customers feel more a part of your restaurant’s success, plus they get rewarded for it. The new customers get a discounted first visit and (hopefully) become raving fans in their own right, referring friends of their own.
Word of mouth marketing is the best way by far to grow your business. A referral program adds some octane to organic word of mouth growth, helping to get new customers in the door quicker.
2. Hotel Bounty Program
If you travel for work a lot as I do, then you know that asking the front desk for restaurant recommendations is a common practice. Take advantage of that practice to get more customers in the door.
A hotel bounty program is an idea that is so simple it’s brilliant and is very similar to the customer referral program mentioned above. I have seen first hand how it can bring enormous amounts of first-time customers.
This concept works by incentivizing hotel managers and front desk personnel to recommend your restaurant when their guests inquire about local places to eat. Utilize custom business cards that the hotel employee (or manager) can give out along with menus.
The customer then can turn in that card to get a discount while also earning a $1 credit for the hotel employee that recommended them. Track the hotel employee bounty coupons by collecting them in an index card box until said hotel employee comes in to redeem. BOOM, you just earned TWO new customers (the hotel guest AND the hotel employee). Just make sure the hotels have a stack of menus and bounty cards!
My dad used a variation of this when he was delivering pizza during his retirement. Whenever he delivered to a hotel, he would drop off a $1 off card at the front desk as a thank you for referring the customer. Even if they didn’t refer the customer the first time, the front desk clerks quickly caught on and started talking up the restaurant and suggesting it to guests checking into the hotel.
As the program became more well known, a clerk who wanted a free dinner would start referring people for delivery early in their shift, and he would end up going back to that hotel repeatedly. His all-time best was 14 trips in 12 hours!
3. Business Alliance
Ally with local businesses that compliment your own. These businesses should offer different goods and services but be of a similar level of service and quality as your place while also targeting the same customers.
For example, you could partner with a local bed and breakfast and massage place to form a discounted group “bundle” that you could all be pushing inside your businesses.
4. Live Entertainment
Live entertainment is a great way to bring new faces into the building. Aside from the excitement that having live entertainment brings, the act itself will usually have some level of a following that you can count on seeing in your establishment during their gig.
Think beyond just live music here. What about a local comedian? Quiz nights are a blast. If you are a family restaurant, your live event could be a “Kid’s Night” featuring a clown, face painting, you name it! Speaking of kids…
5. Partner with the Local School
When I was a kid, I fondly remember Pizza Hutt’s “Book It” program. The only time my family would go to Pizza Hutt was when I earned my special coupon for completing my reading assignment.
Aside from the increased traffic a program like “Book It” brought, it also created a nostalgia that I feel every time I set into a Pizza Hut to this very day.
If your restaurant targets families, then setting up a program like this with the school is a no brainer. You might have to help with some fundraising efforts to get them to see the benefit of the program as well, but it is well worth the minor investment.
6. Road Signs
Major interstate highways have signs at the exits informing travelers of the different hotels, gas stations, and restaurants that are nearby off the ramp. They also usually include which direction to turn at the end of the off-ramp and how far away the different establishments are from the exit.
Most of the people who use these signs to find places to eat are just passing through, which usually means a first time customer. Getting listed on one of these signs is a great way to pull people off the highway who are traveling.
7. Smart Flyers
We all still get the menus through the door or stuck under the wiper blades of our cars, but how many do we keep? I know that most of mine get recycled within minutes of seeing them, or filed in a drawer, never to be seen again.
A newer and more successful idea is the smart flyer, a small leaflet with a targeted discount or promotion, bearing a coupon that lasts for a specific time – no more than a month. Make it professional, and don’t irritate your potential customers by bombarding them with flyers every week. They won’t love you for it.
8. Local Press
Although a somewhat dying breed in some regions, the local newspaper can be an effective way of reaching new customers, especially when first launching a restaurant. Not that a new eatery is exactly front-page news these days (depending on where you live, I guess!), but when combined with a well-thought-out promotion, it could attract a fair amount of attention.
9. Leverage Major Holidays
It may seem cliche, but people love a good holiday. Any excuse to dress up and head out to a restaurant, whether for New Year, Valentine’s Day, Thanksgiving, or Christmas, people are happy to let others do the cooking for them.
Make the most of this with discounts for group bookings and go to town when it comes to decorations. At these times, it pays to go the extra mile when dealing with customers. They are generally in good spirits anyway, so keep them happy, and they’ll spread the word.
10. Have a Strong Online Presence
Make no mistake, as genius as the above ideas are, having a strong online presence is the number one thing you can do to drive new customers into your restaurant. There are many components to this, and you cannot afford to miss a single one.
Social media is undoubtedly one of the best tools to help spread the word about your restaurant and attract new customers. This might seem overwhelming, especially with the abundance of people offering to manage it for you for “only” hundreds to thousands of dollars a month, but these platforms are designed to be quickly learned.
Feel free to get help from younger staff members if you have any – it seems second nature to them. With so many options to choose from, you may feel overwhelmed, but a simple search will show you how trends are changing and which sites would suit you best.
As a general rule, the three top networks currently used by restaurateurs are Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Make sure your photographs are excellent quality (Instagram is primarily known for this) and that they show your establishment at its best.
Post live pictures from the kitchen or dining area – being careful not to infringe on the rights of your diners, of course. Invite happy customers to leave positive reviews, and allow family and friends to leave glowing reports.
Statistics show that more people than ever are using the internet to search for places to eat, often for specific types of cuisine, so post regularly, with short, punchy, and uplifting articles to catch their attention. Engage with customers and build those relationships.
Deal with any complaints promptly and effectively, which goes without saying, but it’s an area that is often woefully neglected. A complaint that is dealt with swiftly and efficiently can be as productive and positive as the best review.
That’s right, more technology! But it pays in the end, trust me. It can be a headache, but there are plenty of professional website templates out there that need not break the bank, and that will draw the crowds.
Businesses that don’t bother to take the time to set up a website come off as lazy and unprofessional. They are not expensive and can be set up by almost anyone.
Aside from social media presence, a website helps give you a public face before the customer even steps in through your door, so it must look as good as possible.
On your website, you can set up a mailing list through which to offer promotions and even to send personalized birthday greetings, along with a ‘birthday gift’ like a free dessert or complimentary drink. Friendly, personal service goes a long way to establishing trust in your business and is a sure way to bring new customers in as your reputation spreads.
You will benefit significantly from ensuring your website is optimized (SEO, or Search Engine Optimization – a bit technical, but not as scary as it sounds) using specific keywords to allow prospective customers to find you.
When you are just getting started, don’t worry too much about this. But when you are ready to supercharge your growth, try to find someone nearby and hire them to optimize your website for local SEO. Alternatively, if you have the time and technical skills, you can take a few courses online to learn about it and do it yourself.
I like to keep restaurant websites as uncluttered and straightforward as possible, allowing people to navigate quickly and easily to find precisely the information they needed. Menu prices and pictures are a must as people use these as a deciding factor when choosing a place to dine on a given night.
If you want to level up, set up online ordering through your website, customers love being able to order directly through the website. Not to mention, I much prefer orders being placed online to having the phone buzzing off the hook every few minutes, adding to the stress of an already hectic shift.
Google My Business
Set up a Google My Business account so that Google can easily recognize and recommend your business appropriately in search results as well as map listings.
You’re going to want the big players in the virtual assistant game to recognize and recommend your restaurant. Unfortunately, there is no single setting to gain immediate relevance with Alexa and Siri. Both rely primarily on local listings, so be sure to get set up anywhere and everywhere, including places like Yelp, Foursquare, Trip Advisor, City Search, and Apple Maps Connect.
Great Visual Content
Poor quality pictures can negate the impact of your web presence. There is no need to invest in a high-quality camera; just learn to use your smart phone’s camera capabilities.
Websites like iphonephotgraphyschool.com teach you everything from the basics to advanced techniques to make your pictures look like they came from a professional photographer with pro-level gear.
Consider leaving a smartphone out for employees in both the back and front of the house to use to photograph dishes as they are prepared or are ready to go out. This investment might seem steep or even trivial, but the amount of buzz they can create on the web will pay for itself!
Are You READY for New Customers?
Getting new customers in the door is entirely useless if you can’t execute great food and memorable service.
Something you hear me say a lot is that the customer experience will never exceed the employee experience. If your employees are not happy, those feelings will ultimately manifest themselves into the customer experience.
This doesn’t need to be rocket science, but it bears mentioning. Bad employees drive away customers while great ones drive customers in the door. Do not start trying to aggressively build your top line without having a strong cultural foundation and a great team already in place. Just like building a house, if you invest and build on top of a poor foundation, eventually, everything is going to come crumbling down.
If you have a great team and they are ready for growth, the next thing to ask yourself is if you understand your brand. You need to understand your unique selling point, whatever it is that makes you special.
If you do not understand your brand and what makes it unique, it is going to be very tough to differentiate yourself to potential customers and drive them in the door. All efforts to attract new customers should focus on what makes you different.
Being unique and being local, you have an advantage over the bigger franchises. Yes, they may well be staffed with locals, but the customer sees the name, the familiar brand, not the people inside the building. A genuinely local business will automatically present the feeling of being a part of the community, so you have a head start.
Putting it All Together
These ideas are just a few amongst the many that have been learned, often the hard way, over twenty or so years. Because of advances in technology in our digital age, connecting with customers has never been easier. Getting new customers through the door, though, is still a challenge as there is increased competition, mainly from the mega-franchises who have deeper pockets for advertising money.
The main thing is to make those connections, get online, get noticed, and prove that you are the best place in town in which to eat. Show them something different and exciting. Use all these tools and use your imagination to find others.
Starting a new restaurant is an exciting and terrifying thing. You have invested your money, your energy, and your time. You have poured your heart and soul into it, and it deserves to be a success.
No doubt, some will recognize this feeling and scenario to some extent. Restaurants fail all the time – even the big, famous chains. Smaller, independent eateries face many disadvantages but equally can benefit because of their independence. And that is something to maximize. You have free rein, you are different and you are unique. That is where your value lies.
When you get it right, it is one of the best feelings in the world. The website looks fantastic, the Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter accounts are buzzing with comments, great reviews, queries, and photos of happy customers. The staff is busy, but smiling. The advanced bookings from customers, new and old, are flooding in so fast there’s no way to accommodate them all. If that’s your only problem, well, that’s a significant problem to have!