According to William Millett, Ph.D., restaurant owners are one of two types of people: Operations people or marketing people.
"But you can't be both," said Millett, an instructor of restaurant marketing at Johnson and Wales University, in Providence, R.I. Millett tried to live the role of operator-marketer when he owned a tourist-season restaurant near the Rhode Island coast.
Millett said owners should hire out every possible operational duty in order to free up time for marketing efforts. Owners should work on getting guests through the doors again and again.
Regardless of whether an operation is part of a nationwide chain or a mom-and-pop start up, Millett believes good marketing ideas make local connections, especially with testimonials.
"Get regular and local customers to give you a testimonial," he said. "You take a picture of them, write down what they say, and put it up where customers can see it."
Millett said that allows people to learn what the average customer thinks about your operation, rather than someone paid to endorse it. And those testimonials come free, he added.
If your business is mentioned in print, frame it and hang it in a prominent place inside your restaurant. At every turn, Millett said, restaurateurs should crow about their businesses.
To attract customers from the road, Millett said operators must make customers want to stop and come in. As a child, his family drove past restaurant after restaurant waiting for his mother to spot the right one. What she looked for, Millett said, is what realtors call curb appeal.
To boost curb appeal at his own restaurant, located near a cycling path and nature trail, Millett added bike racks and picnic tables. "If it's possible for you to do, add outside dining," he added. "It gives the impression that people want to be there."
Millett said most businesses would give anything to obtain the customer data that restaurant operators not only get for free, but often ignore. If operators want to target customers effectively, they should pick up the myriad clues they leave behind on guest checks.
"Those tell us a lot about when customers like to dine, what food they want, where they want to sit, what wine they like — and we ignore it!" he said. "We usually file that away in some box somewhere, when we should be using that information to build a database on our customers."
Millett said operators seem willing to spend a fortune on promotions, but unwilling to track which promos really trigger a customer to return. A repeat buyer, he said, is proof positive of whether a promo worked.
Additionally, Millett said operators shouldn't just consider promotions they think will be home runs, rather they should initiate those that add up to a lot of base hits, which build business steadily over time.
"You have to be patient with marketing by giving ideas sufficient time to come to fruition," said Millett. "It could take two to three months or even two to three years to see the results."