By Billy Manzo

What are the secrets to boosting dine-in business at a time when more and more customers prefer delivery and carryout? Most of us can’t give every carryout customer a fat discount or compete with those Domino’s national advertising campaigns. But there are strategies you can try to get customers off their couches and walking through your doors again. It’s time to get creative.

1) Change up your menus as needed.

Many pizzeria owners don’t pay attention to how much they’re paying for things on a daily basis. That’s right, daily. Food is a commodity item, and commodity pricing is changing every day (and with diesel in New England at, like, $6.50 a gallon, it’s not changing for the better!). I may get a delivery on a Monday, and chicken breasts are $4 a pound. Then I’ll get another delivery on Thursday, and they’re $4.50 a pound. A week after that, they’re back to $4 a pound. I have to closely monitor what’s going in and out of my cash register. That’s why I no longer have any permanent menus in my restaurants. I have a paper menu that I can print in my office and adjust on the fly to protect margins. But a regularly changing menu is also a marketing opportunity! On social media and in store signage, you can announce, “Hey, we’ve changed up our menu! Come into the restaurant and check out what’s new!” You’ll pique the curiosity of potential customers and regulars alike.

Related: Creating the best takeout experience for your customers

To encourage customers to come into your restaurant, offer dine-in discounts to families with kids.

2) Offer freebies.

OK, this one is tried-and-true. People love free stuff. “Two for one when you pick up your order.” “Kids under 5 eat free in the restaurant after 4 p.m.” “Free dessert with every order over $50.” “Buy two, get one free on your next takeout order.” There are infinite possibilities. Sometimes, the freebie can be a spur-of-the-moment offer: The person manning our phones might say to a longtime customer, “Hey, come and pick up your pie, and I’ll buy you a beer when you get here.” The free house IPA costs us $1, and the customer feels special—dare I say, even more special than when they save three bucks off their Domino’s order—because it’s a more personalized touch.

3) Get involved with the community.

School clubs and local organizations are always trying to raise money, and we like to partner with them. Have a Boy Scout Night at your restaurant, with 10% of every carryout order going to the local scouts. Work with the PTA, Kiwanis or Knights of Columbus on similar promotions. Customers love giving money to a good cause.

4) Cross-market with other local businesses.

This is very popular right now. Even Domino’s got into this game: They began giving customers gift cards for other restaurants as a way to shine a light on the fees restaurants were paying to third-party delivery companies like DoorDash and Uber Eats. So if your friend or someone you know owns a Chinese restaurant two blocks down, give customers a $5 coupon for that restaurant when they pick up their pizza, and the Chinese restaurant will do the same for you. As a result, you’ll both get people through the door and widen your customer base.

5) Hire a rotating group of kids within your community.

The insurance industry is famous for this one, and so is the automobile industry. Car dealerships like having a rotating crop of salespeople because, when a new salesperson hits the floor, they bring new customers into that dealership—aunts, uncles, moms, dads and friends all come in to buy a car and lend their support. Same goes for your restaurant. New employees bring new opportunities.

This boxing mural at Hard Knox Pizza in Knoxville, Tennessee, offers Instagram photo opportunities for employees and guests alike. Photo courtesy Hard Knox Pizza.

6) Let customers feel “lucky.”

There’s a reason you see lots of advertising these days for DraftKings and other sports betting companies. People like to gamble. They like the chance for a big payoff. Use that to your advantage:

Lottery tickets: When I owned a nightclub, I would give a free Powerball quick pick or scratch ticket with every order. I would go to the store and pick up a bunch of them for a buck apiece. Customers got a huge charge out of it. Most of them would start scratching immediately and say, “Oh, I didn’t hit it!” and we’d all get a laugh.

Marble jar: We kept a big jar on the front counter that was filled with white marbles and three black marbles. For every pickup at your restaurant over $20 or $50 (your choice), you can have customers put their hand in the jar, and if they pull out a black marble, they can either get a percentage off or a free appetizer.

People like to gamble. They like the chance for a big payoff. Use that to your advantage.

A big, eye-popping giveaway: Like, say, for $500,000. “A half a million dollars? Billy, you must be nuts!” Not at all! There are companies that specialize in prize indemnity coverage for promotions, contests, games and more. These are the same companies that enable sports organizations to give a car to anyone who hits a hole-in-one at a golf tournament or scores a free throw from half-court during halftime at a basketball game. I worked with such a company for a big promotion, and it was one of the best we had. We put a treasure chest (which was empty) front and center in our place, and when a customer placed a $50-minimum order for pickup or dine-in, they got the chance to try and open the treasure chest using a four-number combination. If they opened it, they won $500,000. Talk about excitement!

7) Create an Instagram trap.

There’s a new generation of pop-up art experiences that are designed to look good not only in person but on social media feeds, and every small business owner should take advantage of that. All you need is a wall—near your restaurant’s entrance, near the bathroom, in the bathroom. On the wall, you can create any kind of design—pizza themes, neon signs, geometric shapes, or even just a pair of wings that customers can stand between. (There are even pop-up art museums with themed rooms that charge admission and sell out months in advance!) This makes the visit to your restaurant more immersive and interactive for customers, allowing them to snap selfie pics and post them on social media feeds, which is free marketing for your business. You can also take this idea a step further: When customers post photos of themselves in front of your Instagram trap and tag your restaurant, give them a $5 or $10 gift certificate good for their next visit. Then you can repost their post on your feed and gain even more visibility.

Really, the ideas are endless. Sure, we can’t compete with Domino’s dollar-for-dollar, but we have a massive opportunity to build relationships with a little creativity. In other words, Domino’s isn’t the only one with some tricks up its sleeve.  

Billy Manzo Jr. is a veteran restaurant operator and the owner/chef of Federal Hill Pizza in Warren, Rhode Island. This article has been edited and updated since it originally appeared in PMQ’s August 2022 issue.

Billy Manzo, Marketing