I had an interesting conversation with a local restaurant owner in Costco the other day as he tried to push his enormous cart of mozzarella, spices and tomato base towards the checkout counter.  As a former Italian restaurant owner myself, I knew his story without even having to ask- his vendor undoubtedly messed up and good old Costco is always a solid last-minute bail out for our kinds of businesses.  I could instantly feel his pain since I was in the exact same position myself dozens of times.

After sharing war stories for a few minutes about incompetent delivery drivers and the perfect blend of cheeses for pizza, the owner asked me if I knew anyone that would be interested in buying his restaurant.  He explained that while the business was still profitable, it seemed like his customer base had continually shrunk over the past five years even though he’s remained highly competitive on his pricing and delivered a great product.

Then I told him what every restaurant owner needs to hear- online marketing is essential for every restaurant in the Spartanburg area, regardless of how big or small they are.
Why?  Think about this for a moment.  How do you order a pizza these days?

For my family, we hop on our smartphones, look at the current specials and then submit our order online…and that’s how over 70% of America does it these days.  That means if you’re still handing out flyers, placing newspaper ads and using other forms of traditional marketing these days, only 3 in 10 people are even noticing you.

For example, my family loves Sidestreet Pizza over in Tryon.  Besides the long wait times, I honestly couldn’t say a single negative thing about it.  The service is great.  The food is great.  I love the atmosphere.  Yet, I haven’t eaten at Sidestreet in at least 4 years.  But I’ve ordered from Dominos, Papa Johns and The Pepperoni Express in Inman dozens of times since then, all because they have a solid online presence and I can see their specials quickly.
Are franchises like Pizza Hut better than Sidestreet?  I don’t think we even need to dignify that with an answer.  But the big chains are making a huge effort to cater to today’s consumer and that simply makes them more relevant.  People will literally settle for food from an inferior brand simply because that’s what they see in the search engines.

And as I explained this to this restaurant owner in Costco the other week, he sort of hung his head in defeat since he didn’t know anything about internet marketing.  Even if I built him a great website, he said, there was no way possible that he would be able to keep up with updates and things that would make him stand out.

He also mentioned that cost was a major issue…and I realized that he wasn’t just trying to sell his pizza restaurant; he was on the verge of going out of business completely.  That’s the only reason why I’m not sharing his name or his location (yet).  Stay tuned for updates though, because I am actively working on his search optimization as we speak.

Now, I could completely relate to his situation.  When that bad ice storm hit Spartanburg back in 2003 and my restaurant was without water/power for over a month, I had no idea how to get my customers back fast enough for it to really make a difference.  I was underwater in debt and the idea of a website would have been laughable for me just like it was for this person.  But then again, I didn’t know back then what I know now…and you can’t ignore that 70% of all consumers perform a Google search before heading towards a local restaurant.

Since I definitely don’t want any other local restaurant owners to feel this way, here’s a quick cheat sheet of simple things you can do to drastically increase your online presence on a tight budget-

  • Build a Facebook and a Google Local business page, and start a campaign for people to like your page. My favorite for restaurants is giving customers a $3 off coupon or a free side item for following you on social media…and you’d be amazed how quickly it will be shared and deliver traffic to your doorstep.
  • Take the time to register on at least a dozen directory sites like the Yellow Pages, Zomato (formerly Urban Spoon), TripAdvisor, etc. Create complete profiles there and offer a special unique to each website, and be sure to add some photos of your mouthwatering food.
  • Ask your best customers to leave reviews for you on those directory sites in-house for an instant $1 off their check total per person (per review). If you’re doing this regularly, then you can simply raise your menu prices by $1 and all the reviews are free.
  • Build a restaurant website using one of the free online tools or contact me to create an affordable website for you. Then add the essentials- great photos, a full menu, daily specials, directions via Google Maps, a food blog, etc.
  • Use the same tactic to get customers to opt into your email marketing campaigns; just give them a great one-time special to share their email addresses.
  • Once you’ve completed the social sites, directory sites and your own personal website, start sharing fun facts about Spartanburg, cool photos, daily specials and other information people wouldn’t mind reading.
  • Likewise, every time you post a blog or a new special, share it straight to your social sites for people to see it. Then send out a weekly email recapping what you’re doing for customers.

Now, you may be thinking that most of those things are far outside your comfort zone, which is exactly what the restaurant owner inside Costco told me as well.  But then I asked him- how many times a night do you have to tell your younger employees to get away from their smartphones?  Fifty?  A hundred?  Every one of them is a social media genius- they just don’t realize that their talent for wasting time online can actually become a massive resource from a business standpoint.

And honestly, I do not recommend the free website builders like Weebly since they are hard to customize and rank effectively.  But if you have to choose between doing nothing and launching a basic website…go the free route every single time.  While it certainly can’t hurt, the help it could deliver is enormous.

So if you can’t afford to hire me right now, then put your youth to work knocking out the above list and improving your online presence.  You will be absolutely amazed at how quickly it makes a difference…I’ve seen restaurants go from on the verge of closing to being on track for $50k+ months in a matter of weeks.  It just takes a substantiated effort of communicating with your customers and giving them reasons to pay attention to you online.

If you have any questions about how to market your restaurant online or you need a little more guidance on making your location profitable; then feel free to contact me through my online form to set up a consultation.  Since restaurant management will always be in my blood and I love having the chance to make a difference here in Spartanburg, the initial consultation will only cost you lunch.  Hopefully you know somewhere good to eat.  =)

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