Slaying the neighborhood Goliath, Part Two: 10 tips from Tom Feltenstein

Sharp restaurant operators know the truth about building a profitable operation: You can’t make money on customers who don’t show up. Over the years I’ve compiled an extensive list of moneymaking promotions that are proven to work in the foodservice environment. Some of them are easy to pull off; others require some long-term planning, creative thinking and perhaps even a touch of audacity. But when you’re competing with the major national chain that recently opened down the street, a little risk taking can pay handsome dividends. Here are some ideas to build up your slow nights, pack in the crowds and maintain your market share even when the big dogs show up in your backyard.

The Spelling Error Ad. This one’s old-school, but sometimes the old-school approach helps you stand out from the pack. Take out a display ad in your local newspaper. The headline should read something like this: “There is a spelling error in this ad. If you spot it, we’ll give you $10 off any purchase of $20 or more.” The copy should go on to explain that, in order to receive the discount, guests must circle the error and bring the ad during their next visit to your restaurant. You can make the error as easy or as hard to detect as you’d like. The point is to get your customers to take the time to read and absorb your advertising message. This is a great way to do it!

Polaroid Testimonials. Buy a modern version of the classic Polaroid instant camera and start snapping shots of your favorite guests. These cameras—such as the Polaroid Pic300—allow you to shoot, print and share your photos on the spot. Take instant photos of your guests having fun in your restaurant and post them on your own “wall of fame” in the pizzeria. If the local bowling or softball team comes to eat at your pizzeria, take a group shot and post it on your wall, too. When customers see their photos in your restaurant, they know they’re important to you—and you’ll become important to them. You can even have the photos converted into tray liners or place mats and give them to your guests as souvenirs! (But always ask the customer’s permission before displaying their photos, and never take or post a child’s photo without a parent’s OK.)

To demonstrate your commitment to the community, shoot video footage of local sports teams in action and replay the highlights at your pizzeria.

Big Game Highlights. Speaking of local sports teams, here’s a way to hit a home run with your customers every time. Acquire or shoot video footage of that local soccer squad or bowling team’s game or match, then edit it and replay the highlights in your pizzeria on a designated night. Invite the team members to join you for this event, and they’ll bring their friends along to celebrate their big plays and to laugh at their blunders, all while they eat and drink in your restaurant. This high-scoring promotional idea also helps build your image as a pizza restaurant that is heavily involved in your community. You can also share highlight clips on your Facebook wall through the Vine video app to build your social media audience. (Using Vine videos will have special appeal to younger customers, who may even share your videos with friends on their phones. With that in mind, make sure that you brand the video clips with your pizzeria’s name, logo, website address and other key information.)

The Tab’s On Me. Here’s a fun way to build bar sales and boost traffic. This promotion encourages customers to buy drinks for their friends or acquaintances, even if those friends aren’t present at the time. Set up a chalkboard behind the bar and have your bartender keep track of the drink buyer’s name, the type of drink he has bought for his friend and the name of that friend. Let the buyer add a brief dedication or message to his friend as well. The drink buyer can even take advantage of your happy hour prices, and the recipient can redeem the beverage on any visit. With this promotion, your existing customers will serve as brand ambassadors, bringing in new customers from their circle of friends. You can also expand the promotion to include items from the food menu.

Let guests set up their friends with drink tabs to be redeemed at a later date.

Anniversary Thank-You. This anniversary-themed promotion helps build community awareness, goodwill and customer loyalty. Using your loyalty program database, display a list of 100 customer names on a bulletin board or display area inside your restaurant. Anyone who comes into the restaurant during your anniversary week promotion and finds his or her name on the list gets a free pizza or entree. To reward larger parties, give everyone else in that customer’s group a free soft drink or dessert. Seize this opportunity to sign up all new guests for your loyalty program so they’ll have a chance for a free meal next year.

Beat the Clock! Entice seniors in your community to dine at your establishment by handing out “Early Dinner Club” cards. Offer a 15% discount to any senior who presents the card during specified hours, such as between 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. on any day of the week. When the seniors bring their friends or family members, sign them up for the promotion with a short-form application. This allows you to create a database of names and addresses for your mailing list. To flatter your customers, make sure to ask for proof of age!

One Dollar Off. Here’s another promotion that will stimulate business during your early dinner hours. During a specified period of time, give every customer a $1 discount off his ticket and multiply the discount by the number of people in the party. In other words, if there are four people in the party, take $4 off the entire check. You can vary the hours for the special to suit your needs, but I recommend offering the promotion between 5 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. If your community has a large concentration of senior citizens, you may want to back the start hour to 4 p.m. or 4:30 p.m., as seniors like to dine early. This promotion also appeals to moviegoers and other people who have time commitments for meetings, sporting events, etc. Support the promotion with social media, direct mail, table tents, posters and menu inserts.

May I Have Your Autograph? If your city has a major sports franchise, do a little networking with the team and try to procure autographed photos from popular team members. Then give away the signed photos to your guests via social media (of course, they’ll have to come in and buy a pizza to receive their prize) or during an in-house promotion. If possible, arrange for team members to sign autographs in your restaurant on special days. Give customers a chance to win team-autographed footballs, basketballs, jerseys and other items as well.

The $2 Smile Button. It can be hard to get your waitstaff to smile for the customers, but here’s a way to make it worth their while. Have them wear “smile” buttons and attach a $2 bill to each button with a little note that reads, “If I don’t smile, you get this $2 bill.” Give each server five $2 bills in total, and tell them they can keep the money they didn’t have to give away to their customers. That will keep them grinning! (I know what you’re thinking. Why $2 bills? Because they’re unusual and interesting in and of themselves. Guests will definitely notice them!)

Tom Feltenstein is a restaurant marketing consultant and the CEO/founder of Tom Feltenstein’s Power Marketing Academy. Learn more at PowerMarketingAcademy.com.