There's more behind the success of a new restaurant than just opening the doors and providing good food. Tom Vaughan looks at different strategies for success.
Build it and they will come: the maxim of a lazy businessman. Every now and then a restaurant launches and is an immediate success. The product is obviously spot on but that's not the end of the story. It becomes an immediate success because the brains behind the business prepared it to hit the ground running, then actively sought out a clientele. Nothing about opening a restaurant is easy, but with the right strategy in place, a savvy restaurateur can maximise those first few weeks.
1. HIT THE GROUND RUNNING
"If you get it wrong at first, especially if there's a lot of competition around, it can take three months at least to get a customer back in the door," says Ed Turner, commercial director at Geronimo Inns, and he should know - the group launched six new pubs in 2009.
Hitting the ground running is what a good launch is all about and can be make or break. If you alienate customers, or fail to get them through the door early on, a restaurant can take an irreparable hit in the first few months.
If there's one principle that established restaurateurs agree on, it's don't try and run before you can walk. Restaurant critics often say, in defence of berating a newly opened site, that if the business in question is charging full price, then it is fair game for criticism.
One ideal way of making sure a restaurant is fully prepared for its first full day of business is to put it through dry runs. Invite your locals to come in and eat at a discount, or even for free, and you're combining risk-free practice runs with a potent marketing tool.
"We've done as many as seven dry runs at a site before," explains Turner. "It's a way of getting everything right, getting locals in and getting them to be your critics at an early stage. It can cost a lot of money but it's actually a very cost-effective way of marketing. We can talk to our locals, hear any complaints and put it straight there and then."
Turner says it's important to make sure the staff are enjoying themselves in those first few weeks. "Spend time with them beforehand, and let them know it's OK to make mistakes as long as they are smiling," he says. "Even if people see them mess up, they'll think ‘at least they're trying and at least they're enjoying themselves'."
When Pinchito Tapas launched in Tottenham Court Road, London, in autumn 2009, it used a similar dry-run ploy, inviting local businesses and residents to come in and enjoy the food for a 50% discount in the first fortnight. And with the offer extended to non-locals, it was soon picked up by diners all over London.
"Discounting like that covers the bumpy period between being just a site and being a fully functioning restaurant," says Pinchito's founder Jason Fendick. "It's all about ironing out the bumps and showcasing the restaurant."
If the restaurant becomes super busy as a result of free or discounted food, all the better - putting staff through a worst-case scenario means that manic days won't catch them by surprise early on. Popular Mexican fast-food chain Chilango exposed its staff to the day from hell when its first launched and reaped the publicity (see panel).
Also, says Turner, make sure that when you launch, you do so with your full offer. "Don't launch with a part offer and promise people at the start that you intend to build on it," he says.
"For example, if you're planning on serving five real ales, make sure you don't open with three and make promises to extend the offer. You need to wow them from the start."
2. TO PR OR NOT TO PR?
When chef James Mackenzie opened the Pipe & Glass Inn in East Yorkshire four years ago, he says the decision whether to use a PR company was a bone of contention.
"People told us we must have one but at the time we couldn't afford it," he says. "In hindsight, whenever we got local coverage we would see the difference. But would we have made back what we spent on PR? It's difficult to tell."
Hiring a PR agency to help launch your restaurant will cost anything from hundreds of pounds a month upwards. There's no doubt that for some - especially those engrossed in cooking rather than the marketing side of their site - it can be worth the investment.
When Kerridge opened the Hand and Flowers in 2006, he initially didn't account for hiring a PR agency. "We got to a point where we'd been open for four months and it hadn't quite taken off, so we took on a PR and it shot off from there," he explains.
For those who can afford to hire a PR firm, it's a great way of outsourcing the promotion of your site, says Kerridge. "They won't stroke your ego or say they'll get in AA Gill or Michael Winner; they'll showcase local press and get local people on board. Very few places can pull in punters from across the country; you need to secure that local stream of punters."
However, says Kerridge, PR might not be for everyone. "If your business is mid-range, it might be money spent that you'll never get back. But if you've got something special that the press can pick up on - maybe you're in a great building or you have a fantastic wine list - then it's worth getting the PR to do the legwork for you."
For Mackenzie, it was an extravagance too far in those initial years and so he and his wife Kate did the legwork themselves.
"When we did something that the press might pick up on - like cooking a huge Easter egg - we'd write our own press release. We had a friend who would look over it and then we'd send it out to the local papers," he says.
The key is finding an hour a day to research who to send information to and to open up communications. Luckily for Mackenzie, he had an ex-journalist friend who pointed him in the right direction, recommending who to eâ'mail. But then the first few months of a restaurant launch is the time to beg, borrow and steal any favours you can.
There is another, more risky alternative to hiring a PR firm or to doing the marketing yourself - doing nothing. When Stephen Harris opened the Sportsman in Whitstable, Kent, in 1999, he did nothing - no self-promotion, no PR, no advertisement.
"My idea of PR is that it is sometimes a device for selling things that aren't good," he says. "Good restaurants are something that people love to tell others about. Every plate of food we sent out of that kitchen was our PR."
Word of mouth is a risky game, which paid off for Harris, principally because of the excellence of his food. But, he warns, don't expect it to happen overnight.
"When I started I thought of a year as a long time, and that I'd want the restaurant to be where we are now, after 10 years, after just one year," he says. "But we wouldn't have wanted it packed from the word go; we had just myself, my brother and my sister running the place, so we could afford to take our time and keep improving as word spread."
It's a risky strategy indeed, and not one even Harris recommends for everyone.
3. SOCIAL MEDIA
For Harris, Kerridge and Mackenzie, social media was a mere glint in technology's eye when they launched their sites. Nowadays, however, it can be a potent tool for restaurants hoping to market themselves. When Caterer ran a feature on the phenomenon last year, Neil MacLean, an online PR strategist and former Sunday Times travel journalist, summed up succinctly the benefits of a savvy web strategy: "One of the great things about social media is that in times of recession it's an opportunity for brands and businesses to speak directly to, build relationships with, and reel in customers, one at a time. Marketing and big ads might not be affordable, but you can find people on Twitter who are interested in what you do and [you can] speak to them."
At no time is this more important than those make-or-break first few months. Fendick recalls the launch of Pinchito Tapas, when the company used Twitter to build up hype.
"We tried to build a conversation about the opening before the launch," he recalls. "We posted pictures of the build, and talked about the stresses and strains of opening a restaurant. It's all about investment; the more you put into Twitter, the more you get out."
But to get people to listen you have to build an audience, points out Ciaran Norris, head of search and social media for marketing agency Altogether Digital. "There is no quick way to build up a network," he says.
"You'll need to put a resource into it at first - time or money. The best way is to get involved in the conversation - an hour a day will make an impact. Try and offer help, advice and tips, and make people want to follow you. You have to prove that you're useful, engaging, funny or interesting for people."
Offering deals can be a good way of building a local following. When Indian fast-food site Mooli's opened in London's Soho recently, it documented the build and launch of its restaurant on Facebook, Twitter and its blog (moolis.blogspot.com). In addition to this, the businessmen behind the site announced daily on the social media sites which demographic would qualify for a free sample of its Indian street food. One day it was Germans - to celebrate the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall; another day it was gentlemen with moustaches; and another it was customers with yellow scarves. By doing this, the restaurant built a sizeable following of locals on its Twitter account.
Likewise, Pinchito used Twitter to help promote its 50% discount for the first few weeks. "It's something people are keen to know about," Fendick says. "So we'd find other people would re-tweet the offer, or magazines and websites would pick up on it."
However, he warns, while it's good to market yourself, be wary of using social media as a tool for shameless self-promotion. "You mustn't try and shove your brand down peoples' throats," he says. "Ninety per cent of the time you spend talking about other things on Twitter. It's about building a personality as much as it is about building a brand."
Build the hype, prepare yourself and your staff, court the locals and pursue every stream of communication possible. It's not rocket science, but it is hard work, and what you put in, you will get back, says Fendick.
The maxim should read: build it, market it exhaustively, and they will come. But then that's not so catchy.
CASE STUDY: CHILANGO
The huge publicity the Fleet Street Chilango site received when it opened was somewhat down to serendipity, but also a heavy dose of savvy.
"As simple as it sounds, launching a site is all about the product," says co-founder and director Eric Partaker. "The only barrier is getting people to try it and then word of mouth will do the marketing for you."
After setting up a second site for fast-food Mexican restaurant Chilango in Fleet Street, London, in October 2008, the company courted local businesses, going door-to-door, talking to the receptionist or the relevant department, bringing along samples and asking them to let their employees know they'd be serving free burritos throughout one certain day. That day just happened to be immediately after the collapse of Lehman Brothers and, as the queue for burritos stretched down the street, the press gathered to photograph it and the national papers ran stories the next day comparing it with the 1930s bread lines of the Great Depression.
It may have been fortunate that the press decided to pick up on the story, but behind the coverage is a lesson in the importance of wooing local clientele. "The cost of handing out free burritos wasn't a big hit," says Partaker.
"Most people don't open with a big bang because they think they can't afford to, but that strategy did a lot of marketing for us. What you didn't see is that we didn't relax after that; we carried on a concerted effort courting local business. We're not into discounting but we've got the mentality that the first one is on us, and if the product is good enough the customers will come back and pay."