You've trained your staff, stocked the wine cellar, written the menus and you're ready to launch your new restaurant. All you need now is customers walking through the door which, unless you have the profile of Gordon Ramsay, means you need to do some form of marketing.
For Fabrizio Russo, who opened the Lock Dining Bar in Tottenham, north London, in March, getting his new business off to a successful start meant thinking about marketing from the beginning. "Because of our location, we can't rely solely on passing trade," he explains.
It's an unusual spot for a restaurant: an industrial estate next to a canal. On the plus side, it's clearly visible from the main road and has ample free parking. Yet Russo admits non-locals are reluctant to come to this part of London.
But he feels that even with an established brand or location, it still makes sense to proactively market your business. "There's so much competition nowadays that you need to develop an identity to stand out," he says. "Restaurants open all the time, and even if you serve great food and tick all the boxes, it can still take months or even years to build up custom
by word of mouth."
So what's a good starting point? According to Ray Jones at the Chartered Institute of Marketing, the number one marketing rule is to know your audience. "Your customers could be local businesses, tourists, families or a complete mix, but you need to be aware of who they are, otherwise you can't target them effectively," he says.
For Russo and his business partner, head chef Adebola Adeshina, initial marketing activity has been all about building up a strong local trade. The pair organised a 12,000-leaflet drop in their surrounding area. "It was a very cost-effective way of letting everybody know we were here," says Russo. "We got a good number of bookings, some from as far away as Cambridge."
Getting a website up and running before the restaurant opened was also a priority. "It's essential to have a website nowadays, and you can use it as a marketing tool even before you launch," says Russo. "We've put our menus on there for customers to download and in time, reviews will be posted too."
Another general rule of thumb is to draw up a marketing plan, which pinpoints objectives for specific activities as well as how to achieve them. Promoting a midweek business lunch special, for instance, will require a different approach to attracting a Sunday lunch crowd. "It might be an advert on local radio, a press campaign to win over journalists or a mail-out, but you need to work out your end goal so you can evaluate results. If not, you can risk drifting from one costly initiative to another," warns Russo.
Launch parties, for example, can be a real expense, just at a time when budgets are tight. Are they worth the money? According to Chris Horton, director of Restaurant Services and marketing consultancy for the Lock, they're not always necessary and they certainly don't need to be glitzy.
"It can be useful to invite local businesses along for a networking drink but otherwise you could be wasting your money," he says. "Many journalists won't turn up to a launch, and some would rather come on their own anyway."
Monthly fee So what should you allow for a marketing budget? Not surprisingly, there are no rules. As a guide, bigger agencies are likely to charge a monthly fee starting at about £2,000, while a freelance consultant can charge anything from £200 a day plus expenses.
For Russo and Adeshina, with a minimal budget, it was all about getting maximum value for their money when they appointed Restaurant Services. "We couldn't afford a monthly fee or a 12-month contract, so we negotiated a flexible, five months' worth of work for the year, which will work out around £2,500," says Russo. "As a small business, this works perfectly, and we can target our marketing as and when we need it."
Richard Pugh recently changed the name of his Henley-on-Thames restaurant from the Bull Bar & Brasserie to the Henley Bar & Grill. He also decided to focus on an initial launch period, instead of an ongoing marketing service. He took on The Restaurant Ingredient to handle marketing and PR in the first month, for a fee of £1,000.
"Our brief was to increase bookings and generally bring in more customers," says Guy Holmes, director of The Restaurant Ingredient. "Around 80% of potential customers usually live within a three-mile radius of any business, so our strategy is focused on those who live or work nearby."
Activity so far has included contacting more than 100 local businesses to give them menus and collecting business cards to build up a mailing list. Holmes has also approached local hotels, sports clubs and trade associations. One particular success has been a 20% discount promotion offered to three big employers in the area, publicised with display material as a listing on each company's intranet site. Holmes has also set up a discount promotion for members of a local gym, publicised by posters in changing areas and flyers.
Pugh believes the campaign is paying off. "Bookings have been good so far as a result of the promotions and it's clear people are seeing our name much more than before," he says.
PR has also helped to establish the restaurant's new identity, via a press release sent to local media, a competition to win dinner for two and a local journalist invited to do a review.
For Holmes, it's important to support a marketing campaign with PR. "Getting editorial coverage is extremely valuable. Customers are far more likely to take notice of a review than an advert," he says.
Getting journalists interested in writing about you can be a challenge, though. The key, according to Horton, is to think of an interesting angle that "sells" your business. "For instance, the fact that Adeshina at the Lock prepares carcasses himself, instead of buying in cuts of meat like most chefs, was mentioned in the Independent, because it's quite unusual to do that nowadays," he explains.
The Lock has had some real PR success since it opened, with the write-up in the Independent and listings in various London media such as Time Out. "The Independent review produced real results very quickly, whereas local advertising or other promotions may take longer," says Russo.
Looking ahead, Russo believes it's important to think up new marketing ideas. Plans at the Lock include theme nights, wine and gourmet evenings, and a monthly newsletter e-mailed to contacts gained from business cards. The pair are also attending local business association meetings for networking. "It's about building relationships long term. When you're new, it's easier to be in the limelight, but down the line it's up to you to get your name out there."