The restaurant industry has hit its saturation point, and the bubble may be ready to burst, according to some restaurant industry experts. These experts cite rising rents, increases in minimum wage and fierce competition as some of the reasons behind the struggle of many restaurateurs today.
This, of course, is not true for all areas. Perhaps traffic is strong at your establishment, or maybe, like other U.S. eateries, you've noticed a downswing in the number of diners patronizing your restaurant lately.
In a competitive market, you can't rest on past performance and achievements. To succeed, you have to continually evolve and reach out to regular and new customers. Even established, moderately busy restaurants can benefit from making changes.
For the first time in American history, people are spending more eating out than on groceries, so now is a great time to focus on increasing your number of regulars. Here are some ideas for increasing patronage to your restaurant, including how to convert infrequent customers to regulars and boost your restaurant's sales.
Win Over Less-Frequent Visitors
Every restaurant has them: customers who come in a few times per month or once every few months and haven't yet become regulars. Since these patrons are familiar with your service and food, they should be easier to convert into regulars than brand-new customers.
Industry experts agree you should reward and take care of your best customers. However, it's likely that nearly half of your patrons are infrequent visitors who could be enticed to come more often. The first step to increasing traffic is to analyze your sales data and purchasing trends. If you do not have ways of analyzing data, you should. Usually you can add this type of technology to your point-of sales (POS) system.
Next, reach out to customers either directly or via social media. Find out what kind of incentives interest them. Ask your followers what they want. If you don't use social media, now is a good time to create several different accounts, including, at the minimum, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. You can then test different strategies based on the information you can gather, such as the following:
Create an app for your restaurant. Many restaurateurs have found success with apps. Apps can be used to communicate with customers, track loyalty programs and more. Companies such as MojoBistro, ChowNow and Shoutem can help you create professional apps rather affordably. Keep in mind, though, that most restaurants have better success with targeted app communications than, for example, sending out senior discount information to nonseniors. Many consumers prefer tracking loyalty and rewards points through an app rather than using a card.
Track customer data and profiles using your POS system. Most modern restaurant POS systems track a customer's sales and profile information. Using this data, employees can identify your target customers and offer rewards or future incentives to them when they are paying their checks. Many apps can even track information such as food preferences, birthdays and allergies so you can provide personalized customer service.
Train your staff to treat all customers like your best customers, even those who visit less frequently. Without being invasive, your wait staff should learn regular customers' names and preferences. And, of course, you can track this information using your POS system. Customers should feel welcome and that their needs will be met when they eat at your restaurant. Excellent service can ensure they return.
If a customer has a bad experience, cold food, long wait times or bad service, make a strong effort to resolve the problem before they leave your restaurant, even if it costs you a bit. Your restaurant will fare better in the long run if a customer leaves a comment on social media about a problem and how well you handled it rather than just a damaging negative review. If you manage the problem quickly and to their satisfaction, they are more likely to give your restaurant a second chance.
Strive to provide consistent service and high food quality. Sometimes patrons will visit a restaurant and have a good experience, but have a different experience the next time they visit – even if they order the same menu item. This makes them less inclined to visit again and even less motivated to bring a friend with them.
It may be an opportune time to upgrade your restaurant's technology to provide better service to your customers. Even if you provide old-world fare or traditional foods, you can benefit from providing prompt, accurate modern service.
Tableside Ordering & Self-Ordering
Many restaurants have found increased success by bringing in modern ordering technology. Touchscreen devices, such as tablets, on each table can be configured to allow customers to place their own drink, appetizer and dessert orders. Customers can order when they're ready, and orders are often more accurate. Further, many restaurants have found that self-ordering increases the average ticket size.
Amazon Echo (Alexa) & Google Home
This technology is still new, but some restaurants are taking advantage of hands-free, voice-activated technology, like Amazon's Echo (with Alexa) and Google Home to increase business. Creating these integrations involves professional development skills. For Alexa, you can start by visiting Amazon's developer pages for an Alexa Skills Kit. Google also offers developer information. Soon you'll likely find professional services you can hire to create integrations for you.
Social Media Ordering
Social media companies are adding capabilities so patrons can order your food online through their social media accounts. Delivery.com allows customers to order items for delivery using their social media accounts. Slice provides similar services for pizzerias. This type of online ordering may not work for all types of businesses, but it may be a nice addition if your eating establishment already provides delivery and takeout services.
Entice Regulars to Increase Exposure
Regulars may need prompting to share their experiences with their friends, colleagues and family. There are a few things you can do to inspire them to entice others to your restaurant. Some tactics are free; others may cost you a bit. Not every effort will produce results – you know your market best, but not trying anything will produce zero results, so it's worth experimenting with a few incentives.
Social Media Reminders
Nearly everyone uses social media these days. Print your social media handles and website information on menus, gift cards, marketing material and webpages. Seeing Facebook, Twitter and Instagram icons remind customers to share photos and experiences with your restaurant. And it goes both ways: You should be active on your restaurant's social media pages. Thank patrons for positive comments, and respond professionally and constructively to negative comments. Many marketing professionals say you should spend 30 minutes each day managing your social media accounts.
Actively Donate to a Charity
Supporting local or national charitable organizations can help your restaurant garner free press while helping those in need. Some restaurants have had success with a "buy one, give one" concept. You could advertise something like, “For every meal purchased, we'll donate a pound of food to the local food bank.” For example, in Utah, Even Stevens, a sandwich shop, donates the equivalent of one sandwich for every sandwich purchased. Such promotions can boost conversations about your business, and customers feel like they are helping the community as well.
Bring a Friend
Offer your regulars a "bring-a-friend" pass. Print some passes for a free entree, appetizer or other item, and hand them out to some of your best customers when they visit. You can tell your regulars, "We really appreciate you being one of our best customers. Here's a gift you can share with a friend." Such offers give you opportunities to win over new customers while boosting loyalty from existing ones.
Host a Themed Event for VIPs
Invite your most loyal regulars to an event and allow them to bring a guest. It doesn't have to be free. You could, for example, host a summer luau for $40 per person, everything included. You certainly don't want to lose money, so charge enough to cover your expenses, but make it worth talking about. It could be a wine tasting, a cooking class, a live music night, anniversary celebration or even a local celebrity's birthday party. Make it something people remember and want to do again.
Create Photo Opportunities
People are taking pictures of their food and activities and posting them to Instagram and other social media sites. Create something people want to take pictures of, such as amazing food presentations, a unique piece of art, sidewalk interactive art, handwritten daily anecdotes or other creative focal pieces. You don't have to have a 20-foot-tall margarita glass like Margaritaville, but whatever you decide to do, align it with your restaurant's identity and make it photo-worthy.
Make Some Changes
Everyone resists change, but maybe it's time to make some adjustments. You don't have to do it all at once, but making some changes to your menu, front of house or staff can breathe new life into your restaurant. Even regular customers like seeing something new every now and then.
Add Special Diet Menu Items
Chefs may resist, but like it or not, many patrons today want vegan, vegetarian, low-carb, gluten-free or similar menu options. You'll gain new patrons by recognizing and accommodating people's needs. Offer attractive and tasteful alternative menu options. You may gain a loyal following among a certain niche of customers you may not otherwise have anticipated.
Update Your Menu
If you haven't changed your menu recently, now is a good time. Keep your bestsellers, of course. Once you have decided on a few new menu items, test them. You could even invite some of your best customers in for a taste test. Allow employees to sample new items as well. If the idea of changing your menu is intimidating, make little changes: new dip sauces for your fries, a new salad dressing or perhaps a new protein item to a standard dish.
Provide Locally Sourced Food Choices
Locally sourced food is trendy for a reason. It gives you the opportunity to support local farmers, wineries, breweries, cheesemakers, bakers and ranches, and the more people you have good relationships with, the better. If you work with local providers, they and their associates may also become your customers in turn. And most people are willing to pay more for local fare.
Update Your Front of House
Sometimes, older establishments have to overcome a preconception in some consumers' minds that equates older things with being unclean. Even if your 30-year-old chairs are fully functional, it may be time for a change. Do a deep clean of your restaurant. Add new paint, remove clutter, change the decor or move things around, add some art, install new lighting, and change anything else you can think of to update your image. Also remodel your bathrooms if needed. Studies have shown that unclean and unattractive bathrooms are off-putting to customers. A bathroom update is worth the investment in most cases.
Retrain or Hire New Staff
Your staff greatly influences the success of your business. If you already have a good staff, they may just need some updated training. However, if there are management or service issues, general discontent or overall poor performance, it may be time to clean house and hire a new crew. This gives you a chance to train employees from scratch and eliminate long-standing issues hindering your restaurant. Ultimately, you need a hardworking team that provides amazing food and excellent customer service.
Add a New Service Area
If you can afford it and have the space, you may benefit from adding a service area. Some businesses expand to the outside and offer patio or sidewalk dining. Changes don't have to be dramatic. You can add a new bar menu. Some fast or counter-serve restaurants have increased business by taking orders right from the street, similar to a food truck.
To learn more about basic restaurant marketing on social media, see our Restaurant Marketing Guide.
Written by Pamela Stevens
Image from CREATISTA/Shutterstock