According to William Millett, Ph.D., restaurant owners are one of two types of people.
"Either you're an operations person or a marketing person -- but you can't be both," said Millett, an instructor of restaurant marketing at Johnson and Wales University, in Providence, R.I.
Millett tried unsuccessfully to live the dual role of operator-marketer when he owned a tourist season restaurant near the Rhode Island coast. For years he took it upon himself to tear down and clean his kitchen equipment in the off season -- until he realized his time was better spent on building the business instead of finding ways to save money.
"Operations people think about cutting costs, which is what I was doing," said Millett, who spoke on the "Four T's of Effective Restaurant Marketing" during the National Restaurant Association's Restaurant, Hotel and Motel Show, May 18-21. "Marketing people think about boosting sales, and I wasn't doing enough of that."
William Millett, Ph.D., spoke to several attendees of his marketing seminar at the NRA show in May.
Millett, a former Certified Executive Chef, 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, he said, while staffers feed and entertain them.
Let customers do the talking
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.
Testimonials that cost money never hurt, either, he said, but operators shouldn't simply pay the local celebrity to endorse a restaurant. Millett suggests owners seek unbiased opinions through the press.
"Hire a publicist who will create another kind of testimonial, and pay them on a per-event basis," he said. "Pay them on the number of words printed about your restaurant in the paper, or for the amount of time your place was on TV."
If the mention comes 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. Even on the restaurant's telephone greeting message, he said customers should hear about every "best of" award the place has won.
"We're playing for money here, folks, so this is no time to be shrinking violets," he said. "You and your business should be one, inseparable, and that leaves you no time to hide behind anonymity."
Momma knows best
To attract customers from the road, Millett said operators must provide tangible clues that 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. Regardless of the restaurant's cuisine, name or popularity, the car didn't stop until she said, "This is the place."
What she looked for, Millett said, is what realtors call "curb appeal." The parking lot was clean, the dumpster wasn't overflowing and the cooks weren't outside smoking where customers could see them.
When she went inside, his mother inspected the bathroom immediately.
To boost curb appeal at his own restaurant, located near a cycling path and nature trail, Millett added bike racks and picnic tables. Just having people gathered outside his restaurant, Millett said, made it more attractive to passers-by.
"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, then 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."
"You and your business should be one, inseparable, and that leaves you no time to hide behind anonymity."
Willliam Millett, Ph.D.
Johnson & Wales University
Restaurant servers and counter workers should try to learn some of each customer's personal information, such as birthdays and key anniversaries. The operator then has the chance to give that customer special treatment by inviting them in for a pizza or side item -- on slow nights if possible, when he or she can give them personal service. The database, he added, will even tell the operator what things they already like.
"Remember, no restaurant can go after every customer," said Millett. "This allows you to go after those who already like yours."
Pull the trigger
Millett said operators seem willing to spend a fortune on promotions, but unwilling to track which promos really "trigger" a customer to return. While two-for-one pizza promos most always drive traffic, does the operator know whether those customers found the pies good enough to return later and pay full price? A repeat buyer, he said, is proof positive of whether it 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."