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Restaurant Marketing and PR: Time-consuming but vital

As restrictions ease, and restaurants reopen or prepare for a reopening, marketing and PR will become increasingly important for operators to work with, even if they never have before. Regaining consumer confidence, and getting customers in the door is essential to restaurant survival.

While this article was written PRE-COVID, many of these ideas still stand true for our ‘new normal’.

You have just created an electrifying new menu or poured a fortune into your décor, but those things aren’t worth much if no one knows about them. Spreading the word is just as important as finding the perfect produce supplier or hiring an imaginative sous chef. But marketing and public relations can be time-consuming endeavours requiring strategic thinking and a good deal of patience.

There’s lots of inspiration to be found through the experiences of your fellow restaurateurs, as well as PR and marketing pros.

“The key is to create a narrative and ensure communications to the media and public is finely crafted so people understand the concept, spokespeople and menus,” says Shawn Rusich, owner and principal of Butter PR, whose clients include many culinary and hospitality heavy hitters such as Eataly, Miku, Ritz-Carlton Toronto and the Cheesecake Factory.

Traditional press releases and developing relationships with media can certainly be effective, particularly if these strategies are woven in with social media. “We’ve started to move away from typical methods, such as tradeshows,” says Erin Breckbill, vice-president of sales and marketing for hospitality group “Social media is king. It has a reach no matter what you are promoting.”

Even so, no matter the strategy, it’s important to be thoughtful about what you’re promoting.

Control the message

Philanthropic partnerships can be an effective way to bring patrons into your establishment. Take, for example, the Eating Disorder Awareness Campaign for the WaterStone Foundation for Eating Disorders that ran in several Toronto restaurants last February. “We are always looking at innovative ways to engage with Canadians to raise awareness of eating disorders across the country,” says Kim Duffy, founder of the charity. The beauty of the campaign is that each restaurant could customize it to their needs.

“We made participation flexible. For some restaurants that meant donating an amount from a particular menu item, for others, it meant donating a set amount for each guest. We kept the concept simple and fun,” says Duffy.

One of the participating restaurants that really ran with the concept was Pétros82, the restaurant at Hotel X on Toronto’s Exhibition grounds. “Giving back to the community is a pillar for us. Learning that over 1 million Canadians struggle with eating disorders every year was eye-opening for us. We decided our involvement had to be bigger,” says Breckbill ( runs Pétros82).

As it turned out, the timing aligned with the restaurant’s launch of their Sunday Brunch, so they decided to donate $5 from each cover. But they didn’t stop there. They knew their clientele would be just as moved as they were by the need for education and funding around eating disorders. They dedicated extra marketing dollars to radio ads social media and contacted existing patrons by phone to tell them about the brunch program “People still appreciate human touch,” says Breckbill. The menus mentioned the program and the servers were trained to explain the initiative to diners. “The staff feel like they are supporting the cause and doing good,” he says.

And the benefits are indeed reciprocal. The restaurants received exposure to WaterStone’s social networks: “We have worked alongside the restaurants we have partnered with to profile their participation through social media and media outreach placements throughout the duration of February, to help raise awareness of their commitment to supporting important causes,” says Duffy.

So, did it work?  “We’ve almost completely sold out every brunch since we partnered,” says Breckbill, adding that many clients have inquired how they can further support WaterStone.

As for WaterStone, “the reception has been incredibly positive and we are overwhelmed by the support we have received from not only the restaurants but the diners visiting the restaurants, the media and bloggers and influencers,” says Duffy. “It’s amazing how doing good can unite people. It is certainly something that has worked well for both parties involved, and next year we will be looking at ways we can team up with other restaurants to support their business strategies, too.”

Timing is everything

Let’s be honest, the goal of both PR and marketing strategies is to get bums in seats. Such is the intent of the often-imitated Winterlicious, held in the first two weeks of February, a notorious slow time for restaurants. Typically offering a limited menu of prix fixe dinners at a discount from typical prices, the Toronto event started in 2003 with 35 restaurants has now grown to more than 200. While Toronto’s Winterlicious and its Summerlicious counterpart are an initiative of Tourism Toronto, restaurants can find innovative way to use the calendar to their advantage.

This past February, Burdock & Co., a farm-to-table restaurant in Vancouver, launched its Moon Dinner Series, held on full moon evenings throughout the year featuring menus inspired by traditional names of monthly moons. The initiative plays into Chef Andrea Carlson’s new cookbook, Burdock & Co: Poetic Recipes Inspired by Ocean, Land & Air.

Ultimately, any strategy must be authentic to the restaurant’s character, says Rusich. “We’re only as successful as the companies we represent.”]

Strategies to help your restaurant stand out:

  • Consider working with a public relations company; find out who’s behind successful efforts that you admire.
  • Add a charitable element.
  • If you have solid environmental practices, make sure your customers know it.
  • Partner with local companies to promote one another’s businesses. For example, serve and promote a local craft brewer.
  • Use apps such as Hoot Suite to simplify and automate your social media efforts.
  • Make sure your actual menu is Instagram worthy.
  • Invite local food bloggers to sample your offerings.
  • Create selfie ops with cool art.
  • If you play great music, share a playlist online.
  • Feature your hashtag on menus and other collateral: Consider running a hashtag photo contest.
  • If they’re willing, offer your chef or bartender to local media outlets to discuss trends and share recipes.
  • Participate in local food festivals.
  • Offer tastings and cooking demos.

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