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Chef Laura: Get a free buzz


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As a dutiful employee, I always parked my car far from the building and made the trek. The rock star spaces were reserved for our paying customers.

So it was shocking to hear my revered marketing professor in grad school say, “Tell your employees to park at the front of the building.”

Slackers, I thought.

He continued, “Have you ever driven by a restaurant and the parking lot is practically empty?  It looks pathetic so you keep driving.  Then you approach a place packed full of cars?  Instinctively, you want to know what all the fuss is about!” 

Many businesses I’ve encountered struggle marketing themselves.  Why? Because they think they C.A.N.'T.

  • Cost – hiring an outside marketing firm is expensive
  • Afterthought – marketing is often at the bottom of the small business owners’ priority list
  • No marketing experience – didn’t major in it in college, unsure how to do it, seems complicated
  • Tried it before – it yielded no ROI and they’ve given up on it

It doesn’t take a Master’s in marketing or a team of consultants to successfully promote your business.  Jay Conrad Levinson coined the term “Guerilla Marketing” in the ‘80’s.  This non-traditional style of marketing, like how employees park, is still thriving because it’s F.I.E.R.C.E:

  • Free to little cost
  • Interactive
  • Easy
  • Reality-based
  • Consumer-targeted
  • Effective

There are successful restaurants already employing FIERCE marketing tactics.  Here are some I’ve visited during my travels that are head-n-shoulders above the rest.  I caution you not to employ all these tips; think of it like a menu and pick one or two:

  1. Turn & Burn.  Do one thing and do it well.  Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack in Nashville cranks out their signature spicy chicken on a piece of white bread with a pickle.  Next!
  2. Embrace your Nemesis.  Pat’s and Geno’s are the cheese steak kings of South Philly and long time rivals. Customers want to know whose hoagie reigns supreme.  Inevitably they patron both joints - directly across the street.
  3. Cash Only.  Ralph’s, another Philadelphia institution, is the country’s oldest Italian restaurant.  Their “gravy” (that’s “marinara” to you and me) is to die for.  But they only take cash – always have and always will - business is still ba da bing ba da boom-ing!
  4. Play Hard to Get.  Round Rock Donuts north of Austin is home to the golden yellow “World Famous” glazed.  When they sell the last one, they close up shop regardless of the time. You snooze, you lose.
  5. Catch Phrase – Employees at The Varsity in Hot-lanta shout “What’ll ya have!”  You better know what you want or no chili dog for you!  And please don’t ask for a Pepsi.
  6. Hidden Menu - Started in Cali, In-N-Out Burger’s popularity is contagious.  Their posted menu is simplistic, but customers “in the know” can order off- menu.  Animal Style anyone?
  7. Secret Password – Beverly Hills-based Sprinkles was the first on the gourmet cupcake scene.  They stay relevant by leveraging social media.  “Friends” of Sprinkles can “whisper” the flavor of the day for a freebie.
  8. Small Space = Big Buzz – The pint-sized Mike’s Pastry in Boston’s North End always has customers queued up for a city block.  The only thing that separates you from one of the city’s best canolis is about 25 minutes…and patience.
  9. Weird Gimmicks – Get married at the unapologetically quirky VooDoo Doughnuts in Portland.  Or just renew your vows with a “Redo your I Do at Voodoo” package.
  10. Mind Yer Manners – At the historic Durgin Park in Boston’s Faneuil Hall, your meal always comes with a heaping side of rudeness.  That’s part of the allure.  Dick’s Last Resort (nation-wide) hopped on the ‘tude train and is riding it all the way to the bank.  Their unofficial slogan: “This ain’t no Chuck E. Cheese.”
  11. Customer-driven Kitsch – Like “Spot” marking his territory on a hydrant, customers also like to mark their spot in a slightly more sanitary way.  The ceiling of Little Bear in Evergreen is littered with bras, and the Forbidden Island Tikki Lounge outside of San Fran also showcases “ceiling art” of dollar bills and colorful drink umbrellas.
  12. Go Ape -If all else fails, make a splash by serving terrible Mexican food and hiring some cliff divers.

Be on the lookout for FIERCE guerilla marketing tricks next time you dine out. And share your buzz-worthy sightings here.

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Laura Cook Newman

Laura Cook Newman is a professional Chef and Training Manager for a Fortune 500 food manufacturer. She earned her chops at Johnson & Wales University, has an MBA in Marketing and hosts a blog for behind-the-scenes insights on the food service industry. Contact her at www.ThreeHotsAndaCot.net

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