Free ways to promote your restaurant

The restaurant business can be tough: margins are thin and at times it looks like the only ways to reach new customers are prohibitively expensive. For the savvy restaurateur though, there are plenty of free and inexpensive ways to promote your business. We’ve worked with restaurants for more than a decade, here are some of the best ways to reach new customers:

Reach out to local press

You might think it’s hard to get a mention in a local newspaper; you’d be surprised by the reality. Daily publications (no matter how large) are constantly under pressure to find interesting stories to write about. All it takes is a phone call or an email – most journalists make their contact details freely available at the end of their articles online.

Before you reach out, take a minute and think about what makes your business special. Have you just opened your doors to the public, do you have something special on the menu, an interesting backstory? Journalists love to tell their readers about something new and interesting in their communities. Don’t be shy, sell yourself, no one else will!

The same applies to radio and TV. You might think it’s hard to get a feature on these platforms, again it’s much easier than you think. No matter the platform, everyone is always looking for great content to share with their readers, listeners and viewers.

Reach out to local bloggers with your story

The same is true for local bloggers. You don’t need to hire a PR expert to reach out. Just write up the story of your business, who you are, whats going on and why – and get in touch. Speaking personally, I love when I hear from a restaurant owner. So many times I see restaurants close their doors with a whimper and look back at my inbox: not a peep from the owner. Again, speaking personally, if I don’t know about your business – I can’t write about it. Gastronomic SLC reaches close to a million people a year as of 2019, why wouldn’t you want to share your story with that audience?

Reach out with some freebies

You might wince at this one, but I can point you to a number of restaurants that have executed on this and their business has blossomed. You don’t need to give away the farm or spend a fortune. Just invite people into the restaurant and show them what you’re about.

My personal advice is to not request that freebies are contingent on an end action, e.g. dinner is on us if you post three times to social media – it’s tacky and it will bleed through in any eventual coverage you receive. You want people to speak authentically and enthusiastically about your business. They’ll do that if you give them a good showing of what you’re about.

I’ve attended more media events and invites to restaurants than I can remember. What’s the best format? For me, I love it when a restaurant invites folks down one by one, rather than attend one big media dinner. I like the one on one time I get with servers, managers and chefs to really understand the business.

What about influencers?

I kinda hate the phrase influencers, but there’s no denying certain people have the ability to reach large audiences. If you’re specifically looking at social media, tread with caution. I’d recommend reaching out very carefully and deliberately. Looking at the social media accounts of those you’re considering inviting, don’t get wowed or starry eyed simply by follower accounts. Remember it’s very easy to get follower counts into the tens of thousands using bots and automated tools.

Look for influencers who take great photos, who talk in detail about the food, who seem authentic. I’d also recommend reaching out slowly over time. Don’t invite 50 Instagrammers all at once and then stop. Invite one a week for a whole year – a steady flow of buzz about your business is better than one big bang.

Embrace Yelp and other review sites

Regardless of what you might think of review sites, the fact of the matter is that they exist. Your clients and potential new clients will discuss and read about your business regardless of your personal viewpoint. My advice is embrace these platforms rather than thumb your nose at them. These sites offer an unparalleled opportunity to communicate with customers directly, and for free.

First of all make sure you claim your profile and all the details are correct – this is usually free. So to is replying to, and engaging with customers as they make reviews. If someone has a poor experience, find out what happened and offer to make it right. Invite the customer back in and maybe treat them to a free dinner. Remember, other potential diners actively review this type of behavior. We all make mistakes, and when we see someone step up and make it right, that just speaks highly to a business.

Also try to look at your business objectively. If you have a 100 reviews and 75 of those reviews speak to a dish that’s executed poorly – look closely at that matter. I’ve lost count of the number of restaurant owners and chefs that mock reviewers as uninformed or clueless. Guess what – these are the people you’re expecting to hand over their hard earned cash. Listen to what they’re saying.

Also, as a final point on review sites, don’t sweat the negative reviews that are clearly outliers. In this day and age, consumers are sophisticated enough to spot clearly unbalanced reviews. People don’t act on single reviews, they take the context of all your reviews into account. Again, by proactively taking charge of these pages – people will notice.

Yelp events

Speaking of Yelp, you’ll find Yelp’s local Community Managers are very keen to work with you and your business. Community Manager’s work within a set geographic area to make sure Yelp is serving their users and businesses well. One way they do that is to organize free events for their regular and elite Yelpers.

In my experience there is no charge in holding an event for local Yelpers if you work with the Community Manager. Of course you’ll need to provide the food/drinks etc. but in return Yelp will bring as many committed foodies to your business as you can handle. These are typically some of the most fanatical diners in the local foodie scene. If you make an impact with them, they’ll talk about your business over and over.

Social media

At the very least, reserve your place on all the most popular platforms: Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest. Make sure your contact info and hours are correct at a bare minimum. If you have a menu, upload it. If you have photos of your food or inside your business, upload those too. When people check out your business, they will often stop by your social profiles in due course.

You needn’t become obsessed with social media, but it doesn’t hurt to try to post semi-regularly. Personally I find Instagram is the best platform for restaurants closely followed by Facebook. Restaurants have a unique opportunity in that their product is so photogenic. People love to look at beautiful food photography.

Of course, you can spend as much as you want on expensive cameras or professionally photographers (not a bad idea too), but most of us have a decent camera right in our pockets, in our smartphone. Taking great food images is relatively straightforward, just remember good light is your friend. If you have to take a plate of food outdoors at noon to get the right light, do it! Avoid taking picture

If you really don’t feel confident about taking food photos, again I’d point you to inviting people down to your restaurant. Many love to take great food photos and will bring decent camera equipment with then – I know I do! And if a restaurant asks to use the shots I’ve taken, of course no problem, heck I’m humbled!

Participate in online communities

There are plenty of places where your diners go online to talk about what they love: eating out! You can take part in these conversations and add value. Reddit, Quora, Facebook Groups, forums and more. For example, I run a local food and beverage group with 100s and 100s of local foodies. Check it out here.

When you join these communities, it’s important to be respectful of the group and it’s rules. Don’t just storm in and start promoting your business. See how the group ticks, answer questions intelligently when they come up; and in time yes, you can start to mention your own business. Just move slowly and judiciously, it will pay handsomely over time.

Menu specials, events, signature dishes

There are only a small number of restaurants that can sit on their laurels; executing the same menu year after after and maintaining a strong customer base. These are typically the most established restaurants, and it takes a lot of hard work to get there.

I would advise every restaurant owner to always be thinking about ways to encourage people to talk about your business. Maybe offer a weekly or monthly special, something that captures the season or something timely. Maybe hold a special set dinner paired with a local breweries’ beers or a wine broker.

Some restaurants do fabulous business by offering (literally) spectacular dishes that make diners stop and take notice. Here in SLC I can think of restaurants that offer table side services like guacamole made in a molcajete, Caesar salads prepared to order or carbonara prepared in huge wheels of cheese set aflame. Thee are the types of signature dishes that will draw people to a business just to experience.

Partner with other businesses

Riffing on the above idea of partnering with a brewer or wine broker, look at other business that you can team up with. Are you located next door to a movie theatre or sporting arena? What about offering a free appetizer with a ticket from a movie or game?