By Jennifer Bulotti - President, Stryker-Munley Group Sacramento

Decades ago restaurant owners had only a few ways to draw in customers to settle in to enjoy their great food, atmosphere, service and beverage selections. Print, television and radio advertising reigned—and an occasional well-placed local newspaper article or word-of-mouth suggestion would help round out a customer’s decision to choose Joe’s Deli or Bob’s Beach House. And the food and people who presented it mattered.

As competition in the restaurant and hospitality space becomes more crowded—with Starbucks and national chains slyly edging into the fast and fresh space for busy parents, executives, employees, teens and families—local restaurateurs must be more aggressive and focused than ever to remain competitive and stay ahead of the trends to position their brand.

Who Stole My Fries?

A pure example of how corporate America is diving in to the Hometown USA market is your corner Starbucks and their migration in to the food space—from Egg Bites and Bistro Boxes to Cake Pops, beer and Free-Wi-Fi—Starbucks has all I need to survive three meetings, a long stint writing and at least two conference calls. Heck, as a college student I never imagined drinking coffee in a branded cup (let alone coffee at all). Now it is a status symbol and an assumed $5.00 per day investment. Starbucks is the brand of your “office” (local, approachable and nimble), your personal brand (who doesn’t like their name scrawled across their cup of extra spice non-fat pumpkin grande latte?), and your social center. It is a humble and low key place with precise quality standards replicated consistently around the world to connect with friends, family, business partners and digital devices. There is almost nothing Starbucks can’t provide for an employer or employee except Google Sleeping Pods.

The brand has managed to upend local restaurateurs who are now feeling the pinch of their customers “going with what they know” with a consistent decades-long brand trust in a perceived “local hip company” which went global on several fronts…and fast. Starbucks has crossed over the demographic spectrum quickly and has encroached on business of the local coffee shop, bakery, deli, office, bar (I recently had a glass of wine at a Starbucks), and I’m sure, the “coming soon” dinner market.

Would You Like Fries with That?

What most restaurant owners don’t realize is that closing the gap between national food brands and chain restaurants and their one location (or multiple location) brand, is closer than they think. Competing with national brands may have been a pipe dream back in the day, but with supreme focus, agility and consistency, locally-held brands can move up the foodie star ranking fast. They just need to add a few items to their marketing menu.

Know Who You Are. And Your Customer.

I know many restaurateurs who think they know who their customer is. “He/she/they are like me. They are young, upwardly mobile, like clean lines and hipster music, and are foodies.” However, when you really dig deep into your database of customers (provided by your awesome Point of Sale/POS system, social media analytics, web site analytics, third-party applications and server/staff feedback), you might find that your target audience at 1 p.m. on a Sunday are two independent senior-aged women (who have been friends for 40 years and love tradition), champagne-drinkers with their grandchildren having a bite before an Off-Broadway matinee. You may also discover your 9 p.m. Friday crowd veers toward a millennial-age, hipster who likes Sam Smith’s music and drinks coffee until 1 a.m. Everything should drive to your specific audience—from social media messaging, digital advertising and rewards systems to a traditional print ad in the local paper.  At SMG, we have clients that have up to 12 different sub-demographics/psychographics coming through their doors in any given week depending on time of day, downtown activities, season or specials we are running—from a simple brunch crowd to a full nightclub experience with celebrity DJ. Not an easy task to market to each of these demographics cost-effectively back in the old days, but with digital marketing, it’s becoming easier to target our most likely customer every day.

Fortunately, those in the food service industry have always been branding and marketing leaders, not laggers. Restaurant owners are learning to self-correct quickly, and instantaneous data now allows for these real-time adjustments in operations, food offerings and menus, service and marketing. The industry is truly aligning in the digital space. While many want to remain “non-digital” and hyper-local, others are looking to digital ads, social media, search engine marketing and content marketing to lift their brand into the newly-hatched 2000s.

“Facebook and Yelp and Open Table, Oh My!”

Beyond implementing a sophisticated POS system to track who is coming through your door, and what they like based on buying behavior and surveys, there are a few simple things to consider to further attract and retain your loyalists. 

Let’s say you’re an all-organic, farm-to-fork restaurant in the Bay area in California. In today’s world:

  • It is easier than ever to place targeted digital ads to attract the most likely customers to your establishment-people who enjoy great seasonal food, are interested in sustainability and their health, and can afford the price points that naturally come with naturally- and locally-sourced foods. If you understand who your “look alike” customer is, you can execute a pretty strong digital campaign on Facebook and other social media platforms targeting customers specifically with offers, promos and value-added experiences based on their lifestyle and dining preferences.
  • Be sure to keep your social media platforms fresh with interesting and inviting content, based on who you are targeting. Some restaurants may maintain 3-5 social media handles to target specific targets and manage their messaging, imaging and promos.
  • A strong Search Engine Optimization (SEO) strategy will get you pretty close to what we affectionately call “getting butts in seats.” A few online reviews and testimonials—recruited by your strongest advocates or pop-in customer—can move your star ranking and organic search quickly. Likewise, keeping your web site content updated and dynamic will help search as well.
  • Most importantly, if your establishment can allow for it, consider working with an online reservation system, such as OpenTable, an application that not only drives potential customers to your establishment, but tracks and reports out who your customer is, their experience and gaps that you may want to fix through survey results gathered after the experience.

And, always keep your media relationships engaged.

 I can’t stress enough how important relationships are with the key media partners who know your brand, your customers and offerings. They are on the front line, working alongside you in your community. Whether they are bloggers or television news anchors, it is important to keep them in step with your establishment.

I’ll Have a Shake with Those Fries: Monitoring and Adjusting

Being nimble is critical, and the digital world is perfectly suited to support your agility if needed.

Even the brightest star can fall, and tiniest glimmer of a star can rise. Whether your marketing slips, or a bad review happens online, or you have a show coming through town to your local theater, you have multiple lives as a restaurant owner in this new day to adjust quickly and affordably. Not seeing the reservations you would like for brunch? Make a minor adjustment in your digital ad strategy to target a different audience or tag on to a Sunday performance in town. Bad review on service? You can make immediate operational changes to fix, and better yet, reach out to your audiences about “How we have improved your experience at Joe’s Deli.”

Just because you’re in a digital world, does not mean you must be a cold, digital person.  Customer engagement and transparency in the digital world is more important than ever. Be real and care. And be known for who you and your team are. Be ready to respond to a game-changing moment. Not many outside of California will remember the Squeeze In’s moment on “Diners Drive-ins and Dives.” But it was a game-changing moment that helped propel their burgers to the global stage. They surprisingly maintained their brand (“small, but worth the wait for the best burger”) despite the tsunami of business they experienced. They were immediately catapulted into the digital world.

Don’t Worry—They Will Still Know Your Name at Joe’s Deli

Local restaurateurs will always have an edge with messaging around “local, fresh, owner/operator service-driven and unique.” And in the end, your people and the environment you provide matters. But it’s that next step that you need to take to make sure your unique message rises above the rest.

Jennifer Bulotti is the president of Stryker-Munley Group Sacramento. Jennifer works with innovative restaurant and hospitality brands across Northern California.