Marketing Part 4: Low-Cost Ways to Build Customer Traffic

Don’t forget that new customer acquisition benefits your business in two ways. A guest choosing your restaurant over the competition means 1) your company makes more money, and just as importantly that 2) the competitor makes less.

Don’t forget that new customer acquisition benefits your business in two ways. A guest choosing your restaurant over the competition means 1) your company makes more money, and just as importantly that 2) the competitor makes less.

There are dozens and dozens of more ways to build traffic without advertising, so which one works? Like a diet, the one you stick to. Different strokes attract different folks. All of your potential customers are not standing in one spot waiting for you to invite them in. Every successful “shoe leather” marketing plan has more moves than U-Haul, because every market is different. To be successful, your managers should combine shoe leather local store marketing with focused media spending and savvy public relations. Don’t just connect to your community, own your community. But if you start anywhere, you’d best start here: always be marketing. If you haven’t figured it out yet: Marketing is a philosophy, not a department.

Merchandise: Walking billboards

To extend your brand further into the marketplace, consider selling logo merchandise-mugs, T-shirts, hats, shoes, glasses, pins, barbecue sauce, salad dressing, etc.-from your operation. It extends your product line without increasing labor costs. Russ Adams, owner of the Strongbow Inn in Valparaiso, Indiana has this to say about merchandise: “The margin’s good, it’s cheap advertising, and you don’t have to refrigerate them.” What restaurateur doesn’t envy the merchandise lines and sales at Hard Rock Cafe? We’ve been extremely successful selling T-shirts and hats at our restaurants over the years, and here are a few hints on how to make it work for you:

Determine a fair price for your T-shirts or hats. Now add a dollar more. Give that dollar as a commission to employees who sell a shirt or hat.

Prominently display the name of your city on the shirt or hat. That dramatically improves its appeal as a souvenir and collectible.

Display your shirts and hats prominently throughout the restaurant and bar. Post the price large and legibly on each item to improve impulse buying.

Offer a fun incentive to encourage your customers to wear your logo T-shirts as much as possible when they travel. Post pictures in your restaurant of customers wearing your T-shirts in front of famous landmarks or signs as they travel. For instance, shots in front of the Eiffel Tower, the pyramids, Disneyland, Wrigley Field, and so on. Put up a sign near the photos explaining that you want more shots for the “Wall of Fame.” Tell your customers to bring in the pictures, and then write the guests names prominently on the photo and post it on the wall. You’ll be amazed how many people will come in for dinner or drinks with their friends just to show off the pictures. Most importantly, they’re motivated to wear your logo-ed clothing while they travel, spreading the name along the way.

Reward frequent buyers with double dip on slower days

If you have a frequent shopper or frequent diner program that awards points to customers for each dollar they spend, good for you. Encourage more patronage on slower days by offering double points for frequent diners.

Own a golf tournament

As a business owner you are bombarded with dozens of requests daily to support charities, each promising “a lot” of business in return. Golf tournament sponsorship is constantly pitched to us, but what do you really get for sponsoring a hole for $1,000? Good will? Maybe. More business? Possibly. But I’d like to suggest a better way based on an idea I heard from John Keener, owner of The Charleston Crab House restaurant group in South Carolina. He suggests sponsoring a “hole-in-one” contest on a par three for $10,000 instead of the $1,000 hole sponsorship. Sound crazy? Well, John ponies up about $500 for hole-in-one insurance, and gets all the publicity for 50 percent of what his fellow sponsors are paying to generically sponsor one of the other holes.

Assemble an internal marketing task force

Who needs an expensive marketing consultant when you could assemble a task force of employees from different departments to execute commando marketing tactics in your area? A leader should be chosen, and once a month the group should convene for 60 minutes to share new ideas and brainstorm cost-effective ways for you to bring in more customers. Don’t judge or dismiss any ideas in front of the group. In fact, the wackier the idea, the better it might be. We’ve done this with great success at our restaurants for the last 14 years, and here’s probably the best idea that has paid off time and time again:

Creative couponing

Speaking of Yellow Pages, hereÕs a great commando marketing story. In 1987 a small but popular local pizza chain in Denver was being challenged by a national chain that had just entered the market. The national chain flooded the market with full-page ads in the phone books and coupons offering two-for-one pizzas for a low price, and was really making a dent in the little guy’s business. So the local pizza maker took action. They took out ads everywhere that offered the same two-for-one pizzas at the same low price. For a coupon they required that you tear out the full page ad of the new chain competitor from the Yellow Pages!


Let guests (and servers in pre-shift meetings) sample bite-sized portions of new appetizers, entrees, desserts, or bevergaes. Be sure your managers describe the item enthusiastically and in detail.

Worksite marketing

Within a 3–5 mile radius of every restaurant there are usually dozens of businesses, hundreds of homes and thousands of potential new customers. High-performing MUMs know that persistence and patience by their unit managers are the keys to canvassing those local businesses and building rapport with receptionists, sales people, sales managers, workers, and executives. Do the businesses have employee meetings or sales meetings that present takeout or delivery opportunities? Banquets? Business dinners? When? How often? What can you do to get them to try you? Samples, deals, hospitality? Maybe all three. But you have to start with a weekly plan for making contact and then work that plan every week, with patience, persistence and without fail.

Bridal Shows

Participate in these semi-annual events and promote your restaurant as potential catering, bridal dinner, bridal shower, bridesmaids or bridegroom dinner hosts.

Free ice cream clobbers competitor

In the early 1980s in Lakewood, Colorado, two mobile home companies were slugging it out for business right across the street from one another. The battle for customers was fierce with each business trying to get the customer to ignore its competitor across the road. Finally, a winner emerged with a single but deadly marketing technique that pandered to the part of human nature that can’t say no to a freebie. Each customer that toured the selection of the King of the Row mobile homes was asked if they’d visited the competitor yet. If they answered no, they were each given a free half gallon of premium vanilla ice cream as a parting gift. The customer was then faced with the decision of visiting the competition across the street and letting the ice cream melt in their car or going straight home to the freezer with the free gift. Knowing human nature as you do, who do you think won? You’re right.

Marketing is a philosophy, not a department

There are, of course, thousands of good cost-effective ideas to acquire new customers, and those are only a few of my favorites. I like to make my competitors work hard for their business, so while it’s important to have more customers patronizing your business, I think it’s just as important that they’re not buying from the competition.

Customer satisfaction is worthless. Customer loyalty is priceless

And, finally, don’t fall into the trap of feeling satisfied with, or crowing about, how many pieces of direct mail you’ve sent out to your marketplace. That’s hope alone, and hope is not a strategy. There’s a huge difference between customers coming in and customers coming back. It’s more important to reach the people that count than to just count the people you reach.

“Acquiring” new external customers is only half the job of a profitable foodservice operation. Customer loyalty and repeat business is the name of the game. We are the only industry whose real assets walk out the door every day!

We all can think of businesses we’ve either worked in or read about whose owner’s attention began to shift from the customer a t hand to the one he was trying to get in the front door. Or worse yet, the owner was keeping her eyes on the stock market instead of the customer. Don’t lose focus on the customer at the table by putting all your attention into capturing the customer outside the door. So know we’ve got new customers in the front door how do we keep them coming back? Visit our section on Service.

© 2022 Golbon RFS | Developed by Lumen Creative
Scroll to Top