Restaurant Marketing 101: Creating the Perfect Plan for Your First Year

Your restaurant may be only as successful as your marketing, and you have a small window of opportunity to get it right.
Leaving your restaurant's marketing to chance is a recipe for disaster. Use these tips to get it right on your first try. (Photo: DisoberyArt/Shutterstock)

As soon as you open your new restaurant, the clock starts ticking. You need to start producing enough revenue to make payroll, pay the rent and pay your investors. And you have a limited window of opportunity to generate buzz and create a customer base.

Related: NCR Silver’s Guide to Starting a Restaurant

“You’re only new once, so they key is to make the biggest bang,” said Warren Ellish, president and CEO of restaurant marketing consultancy Ellish Marketing Group and marketing faculty member at Cornell University’s Johnson Graduate School of Management.

“Anything you can do to be as busy as you possibly can be and generate as much awareness and trial as possible in the first few months is critically important. The higher you get the curve, the higher your sales are going to be after the honeymoon when it comes back down.”

What’s more, if you capture customers early in the life cycle of your business, they are more likely to become brand advocates and tell other people about your restaurant, Ellish noted.

To get those guests in the door, you need to get your marketing strategy right. This guide, which includes advice from four restaurant marketing experts, will help you do it.

Develop your own unique strategy

There is no one-size-fits-all restaurant marketing plan. The right plan depends on your location, your style of service, your target demographic and more. For some restaurants, a social media presence might be most important. For others, email or community involvement may be what moves the needle.

Don’t aim to do everything — TV, radio, newspaper ads, etc. “I would go in and say, ‘What’s the most important thing we can do?’ and I’d invest most of my money in that,” advised Ellish. “A lot of brands figure, well, I need to be in the newspaper, I need to be here, I need to be there. They pick five things and they don’t do any of them effectively.

“For most restaurants in the U.S., doing some social, doing some PR and some great direct mail, and doing some great menu design and point of purchase material would be a really, really effective use” of a marketing budget.

Spend more on marketing in year one


To build a buzz and a customer base, spend more money on marketing during your first year of business. (Photo: Syda Productions/Shutterstock)

“Your marketing dollars go further if you spend them early,” said Ellish. “People are interested in trying the new thing.”
Restaurant typically spend 3 to 10 percent of direct sales on marketing, Ellish said, but most will intentionally overspend in the first year, and especially the first six months, to get the biggest bang for their buck.

“You only get a chance to open once,” said Linda Duke, CEO of Duke Marketing, LLC., a marketing firm that specializes in working with restaurant and retail chains. “So I recommend spending at least 5 percent or more of estimated gross sales. Creating a buzz for your brand’s grand opening to drive sales requires a budget and legwork.”

Rom Krupp, founder and CEO of Marketing Vitals, an analytics software platform for restaurants, sounded a similar note. “I would invest as much as I can in the first year or two to really establish myself in the community because then I’ve got a customer base that keeps my business going.”

Krupp added, “Depending on your restaurant type, you’re only looking at a 2- to 4-, maybe 5-mile radius of customer base. Without new residents and businesses moving in, you’ve got a very small amount of customers you need to capture and keep as your customers very fast.”

An early marketing push has another advantage, too. “The more you put into effective marketing early on, the bigger you grow your customer base, the less vulnerable you are to competitors,” said Krupp.

Build an optimized website

Just about every business needs an optimized website. “It doesn’t have to be anything fancy,” said Ellish. “People come to find out where you’re located, when you’re open and what you offer and serve. Communicate that them simply, quickly and visually in way that ties to your brand’s positioning.”

Pay to have your site designed with SEO in mind instead of trying to “add in” SEO later on.

Related: Why Small Businesses Don’t Have Websites – and Why They Should

Have a social presence


Creating a strong social presence for your restaurant is crucial to attracting customers. (Photo:

“Facebook and Instagram and generally most important for restaurants,” said Ellish.

But don’t just aim for likes. “Likes don’t correlate to increases in business.” Instead, aim for engagement. That means using social media platforms for more than just talking about your business.

Avoid the make the mistake of checking the “we created a Facebook page” box and then moving on. Be active on the channels you choose from the day you start the account. Ellish recommended hiring a community manager. “Have a community manager so when someone posts a comment, positive or negative, you can respond. You’ll lose trust really quickly if people comment and no one gets back to them.”

As important as social media marketing is, you shouldn’t rely on it exclusively. “Launching just using social media will not make you successful,” said Ellish. There are exceptions to the rule, he said. “But on the whole, you need to use some of the traditional approaches to reach the targeted households in your trade area.”

Don’t dismiss direct mail

Some younger restaurant owners immediately toss the idea of direct mail out the window because they think it’s outdated. If that’s your attitude, think again.

“Targeted direct mail is one of the most effective vehicles if done correctly to drive awareness and trial for a new restaurant,” said Ellish.

Related: 4 Statistics That Prove Business Owners Shouldn’t Ignore Print Marketing

Given the small radius of a typical restaurant’s customer base, any dollars you spend reaching people outside that radius are more or less wasted (unless you’re a destination restaurant). Direct mail lets you laser-target a certain area. “Direct mail can go into the houses you want with the exact message you want, and they’re trackable and statistically projectable,” said Ellish.

He recommended using a self-mailer over a postcard. “A self-mailer is an opportunity to communicate with people in your trade area and tell your brand story.”

Duke advised, “This direct mail piece should be high impact, an unusual size and brightly colored to draw attention.” Include an offer for something free, such as a complimentary signature menu item, she suggested.

Wait until two or three weeks after your opening to send it. “Ensure that your operations team is fully up to speed before you inundate them with new people,” said Ellish.

Optimize your signage

“The number one form of awareness is walk by/drive by,” said Ellish. Have very good signage, keep it lit at night, and make sure your logo is visible from a distance.

Promote your grand opening


Invite customers to celebrate with you at your restaurant’s grand opening. (Photo:

Throw a grand opening and promote it heavily. (Ellish recommended hiring a PR firm for this.) Send out a press release, invite the media, announce it on your social media channels. Duke also suggested considering paid ads on social and buying radio, TV or newspaper ads, depending on your market and demographics, for opening week.

But here’s the catch: Don’t throw a grand opening until you’re truly ready for a crowd. Do a soft opening first, advised Alan Someck, restaurant consultant and Institute of Culinary Education Restaurant and Culinary Management instructor.

“You don’t want to open with a lot of ‘rah-rah’ the first day. Some restaurants will wait a month after opening before they have a grand opening. Typically you have a dinner with friends and family first, or open without letting anyone know. Just kind of open and test out your systems. Bring out certain foods, see if it’s consistent.”

As part of your soft opening, in addition to a “practice night” with friends and family, you might also give a pre-opening “practice” dinner for a local nonprofit and their special guests, Duke suggested.

Another idea: Hold a ribbon cutting and invite the chamber of commerce and city officials. Also consider hosting a VIP tasting party, either before or after your opening, said Duke.

“The objective is to invite as many of the movers and shakers in the local community to enjoy complimentary food and drink, hear the brand story, meet and greet the franchisee and/or general manager, taste the food, leave feeling special and tell the story to many others in the community to create buzz and awareness,” she noted.

At all these events, be sure to capture guests’ contact information and get permission to email them. One way to collect their information is to ask them to sign up to win a menu item or meals for a year, Duke suggested. “The slips can be used for a raffle and enable you to get permission to email them and ask them to follow your brand on social media.”

Have a way to track what’s working and what’s not

Krupp said it’s critical to be able to track the effectiveness of your marketing efforts.

“Don’t just create a bunch of media, a bunch of emails and not have a way to track down what works. Because it’s very expensive to replicate mistakes, or even worse, think that your marketing worked and in fact it didn’t work, and now you’re replicating it and wasting money.”

Use unique redemption codes for offers and unique codes on direct mail pieces that indicate where the pieces were mailed. Creating unique messages on every type of marketing can also help you understand where acquisitions might have come from. For example, if one billboard features a chicken product and another a beef product, and you see a spike in beef sales, “you can kind of tell where it came from,” said Krupp.

Try to identify not just the channel an acquisition came from but ultimately, the individual guest, so you can better understand how to market to that person and what he or she wants.

“I could have a million email addresses and send a million messages, but not until the message I send the individual is relevant do I transition from being a spammer to actually being somebody that drives business,” Krupp noted. If you keep promoting beef products to a vegetarian, for example, your messages essentially become spam.

Consider using a deal-of-the day coupon site

“I’m personally not a big proponent of coupon, coupon, coupon,” said Krupp. “I don’t believe that’s a good way to run a business. What I did find is for new restaurants, for the first customer acquisitions, it’s probably the most effective way to do it. You do it once, and you never do it again. It’s cheaper than TV, it’s cheaper than radio, the distribution can be very large and you’re really only paying for the redemption.

“What you don’t want to do is create a customer base that waits for the next Groupon.”

Use local store marketing

Local store marketing can mean many things. Getting involved in the local community is one of them.

Your approach will be different depending on where you are — a mall, the suburbs, an urban area. “The key is you need to connect with the community, be part of the community. Figure out what it is that allows you to engage in your community, and do it in a real way,” said Ellish.

Don’t go it alone


Getting help with marketing, PR and advertising in your first year can set you up for ongoing success. (Photo: WAYHOME studio/Shutterstock)

Marketing, especially in your first year, is too important to leave to chance. Hire a PR firm (make sure it has contacts and relationships in the market where you want the publicity), a marketing consultant, an ad agency — whatever outside resources you need to get things done, Ellish advised.

And provide them something unique to talk about. (This is where your brand positioning comes in.) “If you don’t have anything unique to talk about, it’s very hard for them to get you coverage,” Ellish noted. In particular, your point of difference should be clear in everybody’s mind. “Be a specialist and do it really, really well, and there will be plenty of people in your target market for you to do business with.”

Spending on a food photographer can do the important job of making people hungry and thirsty for your food and drink.

Once you get people in the door, your food and service will do the rest. But getting them in the door requires effective marketing, which the pros know how to do.

Said Ellish, “Investing some money to not lose money on bad mistakes is very helpful.”

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