Let’s start with how to open a restaurant. In order to generate strong word of mouth, one method is to have a soft opening, also known as a “friends and family” opening, where people are invited for free dinners or discount dinners. Similar to that are grand opening parties: inviting friends, colleagues, public officials, and people in the industry who are going to get the word out for you.

A former student of mine, for example, who recently opened a restaurant in Poughkeepsie, New York, emailed her former instructors at the CIA for the grand opening party. Many CIA instructors showed up, and they started talking to their friends and families, and the place absolutely took off, just from that simple public relations strategy. Fundraisers, community relations, charity events—all of these fall under the category of public relations and publicity.

Along with the opening, most restaurants need to do some advertising, whether through newspapers, radio, television, direct mail, or outdoor advertising. Radio, for instance, can be highly targeted. For example, if you’re looking for a high-end, highly educated target market for your restaurant, you could support one of the programs on NPR. Here, you are also supporting a worthy cause. Pandora radio is another strong possibility, because it identifies the demographics of its customers, which leads to more precise segmentation.

Also popular are press kits and PR agencies. Agencies can be helpful because they try to get any sort of news story published to attract attention to the restaurant. Something we teach here is that operators can write their own press releases and send them to local news outlets, which is very effective and low-cost.

Social networks, obviously, are huge, and along that line is the idea of getting prominent placement in Google searches. And the restaurant’s website is incredibly important—what we’re seeing now in the restaurant industry is that the first contact with the customer does not happen in the restaurant as often as it used to; the first contact actually happens online.

Other publicity ideas include catering, cooking demos, and going on TV shows or radio shows. Street fairs and county fairs are another effective venue, as restaurants can promote their food and chefs directly to the public.

For urban restaurants, I recommend marketing to hotels and concierges. Taking care of concierges by inviting them in for free meals often leads them to recommend the restaurant to their guests.

Discounting, done well, is another smart way to market your restaurant. In slow times, prix fixe menus prove popular for many restaurants, and even early bird specials remain a good way to energize a slow time of the day. You can also send complimentary food to regular guests, another way to build loyalty.

The menu and the specials are both successful marketing tools, as well. Specials are effective at building loyalty and return visits; if you have a rotating list of specials, it keeps customers coming back and interested to see what is on that specials list on a weekly basis.

Finally, there is internal marketing, which is often overlooked but is so important. You have an incredible opportunity to market to your customers in a really effective manner, and that’s by educating and treating your staff well. When you take care of your staff and compensate them well, you make them happy and effective, resulting in happy and loyal customers.

Bill Guilfoyle is an associate professor of business management at The Culinary Institute of America. His experience includes being chef/owner at The Blue Heron Restaurant in Montgomery, New York, managing multiple restaurants in New York City, and serving as sommelier at The Quilted Giraffe in New York City.
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