Think the food truck trend is impractical for your franchise concept, or cooking classes too small-scale? Think again. Panelists at the National Restaurant Association Restaurant, Hotel-Motel Executive Breakfast showed multi-unit executives how to leverage these interactive trends for real long-term gains.
 
The session was titled "Blazing New Revenue Streams," and included Susan Shields, chief marketing officer of Jamba Juice Company; Scott Baitinger, operator and co-owner of Streetza Pizza; and John Inserra, senior vice president of restaurant operations, Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants.
 
Baitinger summed up the session's point in a single quote. He set forth the idea of "Restaurant 2.0," a brand that develops a "face" that interacts with its customers. Demonstrating that interaction to executives who have long been in the business, however, is the tough part, so Baitinger and company offered several practical scenarios. For example, the truck crew takes birthday videos of customers, which has driven a combined 62,000 YouTube views. "(We) help promote the people helping to promote us," Baitinger said.
 
The food truck movement is almost a natural extension of social media as both build community. And they have myriad uses: Branded vehicles are natural customer engagement tools. They also also be used to vet new possible brick-and-mortar locations, conduct food testing, and carve out extra revenue through catering and festivals. Baitinger said the pizza truck is granted free access to festivals it once had to pay to participate in, because their extensive press coverage makes their appearance attractive to any event.
 
In fact, an experiential focus ran through the entire session. Kimpton Restaurants director John Inserra has found success with event-based marketing at a much lower-tech but still effective means: the cooking class.
 
From the Hotel Allegro's Chicago 312 to Hotel Monaco's Panzano in Denver, Inserra's uses the cooking classes as a way to build buzz for hotel restaurants, establish the chefs in their local communities, and educate guests on food. These inroads have created powerful brand loyalty in time, he said.
 
He gave the example of Panzano's chef Elise Wiggins, who has been so successful with the classes that she often conducts them offsite, at farms, ranches and wineries, reaching new customers and extending brand reach. Wiggins instructs about once a month.
 
The senior VP of Kimpton hotels finished his segment by offering some caveats for restaurateurs to keep such events profitable: Think about how to focus and showcase your chef personalities ahead of time, he said, and make sure the price point is both accessible and profitable. He said the classes typically range in price from $45 to $65.
 
Additionally, he encouraged operators to exploit all of the opportunities these face-to-face occurrences afford a brand. Inserra said people have been securing the classes as gift certificates for others, allowing the presenting restaurant a novel way of new customer acquisition.
 
The classes have helped some of his restaurants completely turn around their business, Inserra said.
 
As for Baitinger, the company plans to deploy just under 60 trucks in the Midwest by the end of the year.
 

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