Mobile Meals

Full-service restaurants can reap great benefits from participating in local festivals and community events.

With summer just around the corner comes the start of festival season and the opportunity for full-service restaurants to get involved in local food, music, and cultural festivals. No matter your location, having an active presence at community events is a great way for restaurateurs to expand their local reach and get samples in front of a larger audience. Before founding Ambur POS, I spent years working at my family’s restaurant, Kabab & Curry, and traveling to festivals across upstate New York. Whether tabling at larger expos like the Taste of Buffalo or more intimate community showcases like the Taste of Williamsville, festivals can help full-service restaurants generate long-term loyalty and create excitement around menus. Here are some lessons we learned along the way.

When to Participate

Full-service restaurants should have a goal in mind for each event they participate in, and often, these goals come hand-in-hand with the size and locations of festivals. The Taste of Buffalo, for example, is one of the largest in the country and the majority of attendees are from out of town. Since it’s unlikely guests will return to our full-service restaurant, loyalty takes a backseat to profit. In these circumstances, set a price goal you’d like to reach and charge more for dishes to drive stronger return. Meanwhile, smaller festivals attract audiences who live in the radius and serve as a prime opportunity to raise brand awareness. At local events like the Taste of Williamsville, Kabab & Curry prices down dishes to encourage guests to taste multiple entrees and stop by our flagship restaurant for a full meal. Full-service restaurants participating in community events should engage audiences by inviting them to taste new menu items and passing out coupons to spur repeat visits.

Though food festivals are a great way for full-service restaurants to engage with potential customers, participation is a pricey investment for restaurants just getting on their feet. Booths cost a couple hundred dollars or more, and a percentage of sales goes toward the festival and state taxes. So, before signing a contract, restaurant owners must ensure having a presence makes sense for their budget and fits into their larger business goals. The benefit of getting into the festival circuit early is that tenured participants get to pick their spots first, which is important because the closer a booth is to an entrance, the higher the return. If a restaurant is looking to participate long-term, the earlier they get involved, the better.

Registration and Menu Building

Organization is key when participating in events, but lead time varies per festival. Larger festivals require restaurants to register up to six to eight months in advance and sometimes entail participants attending mandatory safety classes. Local festivals, on the other hand, have more flexibility—restaurants can typically register the week before and then show up the day of. Ultimately, restaurants should give themselves a minimum of three to four weeks to get organized around food prep and necessary equipment. If events are part of a long-term strategy, consider investing in freezers and fridges to avoid recurring rental fees.

Full-service restaurants with more traditional menus should pay special mind to the dishes offered. Attendees crave food that’s relatable; when faced with unfamiliar traditional meals, guests will often explore competitor’s menus instead. More accessible foods, like grilled chicken, perform better among crowds. When applicable, take the initiative to rename dishes—Kabab & Curry will label kheer as “rice pudding” because more people will recognize it. As restaurants finalize their menus, a cloud-based POS system can come in handy to keep track of dishes, making it easy for restaurants to make updates to offerings and keep track of speciality items that aren’t included on full-blown menus, whether at the booth or on the go.

Staffing and Food Preparation

When partaking in larger festivals, it’s important to get ahead of the pre-festival rush by prepping food up to two months prior and then freezing dishes until the big day arrives. Smaller festivals, however, require less preparation. Restaurants should plan to prep a few days before. For a clearer sense of event traffic, work with event organizers for an estimate of attendees, but keep in mind that traffic also depends on the other restaurants participating; when Kabab & Curry was the only Indian restaurant, we were a lot busier.

As the festival approaches, restaurant owners should evaluate how to utilize their staff. At smaller events, town restaurants see decreased traffic because patrons are at the fairgrounds. Larger events, however, give full-service restaurants the opportunity to shut down because they’ll likely see higher return at festivals.

Festival Tools

Once a festival is underway, there are various tools and strategies restaurants can employ to streamline operations and foster ongoing relationships with their patrons. Participants should stock their booths with menus to expose guests to full offerings and, when permitted, sell branded merchandise such as hats and shirts to increase reach.

Though merch is sometimes frowned upon by organizers, coupons are a universally accepted practice. When showcasing in a local market, restaurants should pass out coupons offering attendees 10 percent off their next purchase. Give coupons a unique discount code (like Buffalo16) to track how many offers were redeemed and which festivals showed the highest conversions. Collecting email addresses is another way to drive retention, allowing full-service restaurants to engage patrons by thanking them for attending, telling them more about their restaurant, and providing exclusive offerings. Point of Sale systems like ShopKeep also come in handy while on the ground, allowing restaurant owners to track inventory, manage cashflow, and highlight popular offerings to help restaurants plan for next year.

Whether you choose to attend an event down the road or across state lines, festivals are an exciting way for full-service restaurant owners to showcase their menus, drive profits, and convert a few fans along the way. If participation makes sense for your restaurant, be sure to set firm goals and utilize marketing tools that will help continue the patron conversations even when the last tent is packed away. Let the feasts begin!

The opinions of contributors are their own. Publication of their writing does not imply endorsement by FSR magazine or Journalistic Inc.

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