The pandemic presented challenges to businesses in every industry, but restaurants and the world of hospitality were hit particularly hard. The entire restaurant business model is built around in-person service and eating and drinking—activities one can’t do while wearing a mask.
Many local restaurants faced a steep learning curve when it came to building out digital platforms and assets needed to survive the pandemic.
Now, with the country beginning to open up again and in-person dining returning, restaurants are presented with the opportunity to reimagine themselves and their marketing strategies. Many restaurants started or enhanced their delivery options in 2020. 2021 is the year to improve things like online ordering and find new ways to attract both in-person diners and delivery customers.
Fortunately, there are a whole host of great restaurant marketing ideas to help you come back stronger than ever in 2021. Let’s take a look at 15 of the tactics to get you there.
1. Give your online presence a tune-up
Many local restaurants, particularly those neighborhood staples that have been around forever, had a very limited online presence prior to COVID. Some have always relied exclusively on word-of-mouth for their restaurant marketing.
2020 changed all that. The pandemic forced many businesses to throw together websites, launch online ordering platforms, and establish a presence on social media to provide updates to guests looking for current information about hours and safety protocols.
If this dash to digitize sounds familiar, then now is the time to audit those systems you cobbled together last year as part of your restaurant marketing plan.
Make sure your website is optimized for search, including things like NAP (name, address, and phone number), metadata, and alt images. Check how your website performs on mobile and make sure it’s in working order—Google indexes and ranks results based on mobile sites.
If you’ve been relying on a third-party platform to handle your ordering, consider creating your own app. Doing so empowers you to keep control of valuable first-party customer data. Google is doing away with third-party cookies on Chrome in 2022, so having your own information about customers has never been more critical.
2. Address COVID fears
People are split on their feelings about the impending “return to normal.” Some are very excited to throw off their masks and dine in boisterous dining rooms as soon as it’s safe to do so. Others remain COVID-nervous.
It’s up to you to ensure all of your diners feel comfortable returning to your restaurant. It’s a tricky balancing act, and it starts with knowing your customers.
Consider sending a survey to some of your regulars to gauge how your target audience is feeling about post-COVID life. If you don’t have contact information for regular diners, ask your service team if they’ve noticed any trends among those who have dined recently.
And finally, take into account the type of establishment you run. A fine dining restaurant’s patrons might have different expectations about their future in-house experience than the crowd at the local sports bar and grill.
Create restaurant marketing materials that align with the general sentiment, but make sure you include information to keep everyone—from the most carefree to the most cautious—informed. Include information about ongoing safety protocols to demonstrate you’re keeping your guests’ health and wellbeing in mind.
3. Give back to the community
Restaurants are not the only ones hurting. We’ve seen healthcare workers put under tremendous strain. Some populations and industries have been disproportionately affected by job losses. There is some sector of your local community that could use a helping hand.
One restaurant marketing idea we love is doing something kind to give back to that community. Create a deal where diners can purchase a bonus meal for a healthcare worker when ordering online for themselves. Or offer to donate a percentage of your profits to the local food bank.
Doing so puts diners in a generous mindset and might inspire them to extend that generosity to you and your staff. Research shows that kindness and generosity beget more kindness and generosity, so why not get the ball rolling by giving to some deserving folks in your community?
4. Start a ghost kitchen concept
This is not as spooky as it sounds! Essentially, ghost kitchens are restaurants with no actual footprint. The food is prepared in an existing space with the intention of serving a delivery-only audience.
Some fine dining restaurants began a second, more casual ghost kitchen concept as a way to maximize returns on having the back of house team work during the pandemic.
Smillie Pizza operates out of the kitchen of il Buco Alimentari & Vineria in New York.
Other restaurants are leasing space in their kitchens to ghost franchises, like MrBeast Burger, the eponymous burger chain started by YouTuber Jimmy Donaldson, AKA MrBeast.
Either way, a ghost kitchen is a profitable idea to get the most out of your restaurant’s kitchen and add a new revenue stream to your mix.
5. Buddy up with other local businesses
Many local businesses are struggling, and there’s always safety in numbers. There are likely opportunities for you to join forces with another business owner and give each other a boost.
If you own a pizzeria, perhaps there’s a brewery down the street that could team up to do a pies and buds delivery deal.
Or if your menu features produce from local farms, consider offering a CSA this summer with goodies from those farmers and recipes created by your chefs that celebrate those seasonal ingredients.
Alternatively, you can partner with a bigger fish. American Express and Resy have created the Takeout Tuesday initiative to encourage diners to order out on Tuesdays, typically the slowest night for takeout business. Resy, now owned by American Express, began as a reservation-booking platform but started offering takeout services in response to the pandemic.
6. Get social
Is there anything better than free marketing for your restaurant? Investing in a social media strategy takes time, but it’s possible to make sizeable gains with an organic strategy on social.
Start by finding the right platform for your restaurant. Facebook allows you to share important business information, like your hours and location. Instagram is a particularly powerful place for restaurants—who can resist mouth-watering food photography?
When it comes to growing your organic reach, start with a smart hashtag strategy. Pay attention to hashtags used by other local businesses. Add them to your posts to get your restaurant in front of a wider, but still relevant, audience.
Sharing user-generated content is another way to boost your visibility. When guests take photos of your food and space, reshare those photos and thank them for the shout-out!
The magic of social media is in the ability to start a conversation with your diners. The more genuine personal interaction you can generate on social, the deeper your connections with your local community grow.
7. Take followers behind the scenes
When it comes to your social media presence, it’s about more than the food. Give your followers a chance to see what happens behind the scenes. Show off your dedicated staff. Give a mini cooking lesson or wine tasting.
Restaurants are filled with amazing people, many of whom are struggling financially after this past year. Highlight the skills of your incredible team. This humanizes your brand and makes your followers want to support not just your restaurant but the individuals who keep it running.
8. Lean on influencer marketing
Another way to get even more out of social media for your restaurant marketing is to tap into your local influencer network. Many individuals have built loyal followings for their food blogs or Instagram accounts. Reach out to those people, and invite them in to dine.
Don’t worry that you’ll have to shell out big bucks for a Kardashian-level influencer to talk up your restaurant. In fact, research has shown that so-called micro-influencers, those with fewer than 10,000 followers, actually net greater results for brands.
Because these individuals have already carved out their own niche, you’re able to tap into a very specific network in working with them. Kim K. has lots of followers who wouldn’t be interested in dining at your restaurant; your local food blogger has much more sway with a relevant audience.
9. Manage online reviews
Many diners haven’t been out to eat in months. When looking for a new restaurant to try in the post-pandemic world, the first place they’ll head is online review sites. That’s why it’s critical you have an approach to managing your online reviews.
Start by responding to all incoming reviews—good and bad. Thank loyal customers who are spreading the good word and take time to thoughtfully address the concerns of unhappy patrons.
While responding to negative reviews feels intimidating at first, doing so has the power to turn things around! Not only can you turn a sad customer into a happy customer, but others who watch you tactfully handle a negative review will appreciate how you treat every guest with respect.
It makes those unhappy customers more likely to give you a second chance and wins prospects over in the process.
Also, don’t forget to respond to positive reviews, too!
10. Focus on local SEO
When you run a local business, it’s important to focus on local SEO. Standing out in Google searches and on Maps results is imperative, so start with claiming and completing your Google My Business Profile.
Make sure your business information is consistent across the web and keep it up-to-date. Many restaurants have changed their hours, delivery policies, and more since COVID began. There’s nothing more frustrating to consumers than taking action based on something your online profile said only to find out upon arrival at your door that the information is incorrect.
11. Give geofencing a try
For restaurants looking to get a bit futuristic with their local marketing efforts, geofencing is an attractive tactic.
Geofencing allows you to establish a parameter around your restaurant. When consumers enter the bounds of this invisible fence, they receive a push notification with an offer from you.
By targeting nearby consumers with a discount or buy-one-get-one promotion, you have a greater chance of enticing them to give you a try.
And if you want to go Pinky and the Brain on your geofencing efforts, establish a geofence around a competitor’s location to draw business away from them and over to you.
12. Consider a customer loyalty program
This may not be the right fit for every restaurant, but showing some love to returning customers is one way to build a loyal following.
Remember, customer loyalty programs are about more than a free entree every 10th visit. The program should be about making repeat guests feel appreciated and well cared for.
Perhaps you can create a special wine tasting experience for fans. Or provide your guest with a tote, hat, or t-shirt that’s only available to loyalty program members. Or, like the example below, highlight a limited-time offer on your social platforms as a way to reward those fans who follow you.
Creating a sense of exclusivity in your offering makes these guests feel like VIPs. And that’s when they become more vocal advocates for your brand.
13. Promote your most profitable menu items and experiences
For most restaurants, margins on food items are incredibly thin. After a year of on-and-off in-person dining, many spots are feeling pressure to make up for lost profits.
Now’s the time to create and push higher-margin items. Alcoholic beverages are far more profitable than food sales. Consider creating food and beverage packages at a higher price point to encourage diners to go all-out. (Plus, many states now allow you to offer your alcohol as part of your carry-out menu!)
Additionally, many guests have been stuck inside cooking for themselves or eating takeout for a year. For those who are ready to splurge on a real dining experience, you can be the restaurant to give it to them.
This will not be the right choice for every restaurant, but for fine dining or trendy establishments, put together a VIP package (caviar, champagne, a tasting menu—the works!), and charge accordingly.
14. Don’t forget about local print advertising
At first blush, some write print advertising off as an outmoded tactic. But for restaurants looking to capture the eye of a local audience, marketing in local magazines and newspapers is highly effective.
15. Take advantage of email marketing
Every year someone comes out with an article proclaiming the death of email marketing. But the statistics never back up those claims. In 2021, email marketing remains as relevant and powerful as ever.
For restaurants, email marketing is a crucial tool in staying top-of-mind with diners. You can alert them to deals, invite them to download your first-party ordering app, give them a heads up about your new in-person hours, and remind them about upcoming holidays and special events.
No email list yet? It’s never too late to start! Create an option for folks to sign up for your mailing list when visiting your website or booking a reservation.
The beauty of email marketing is that it gives you access to that valuable first-party customer data. You have a list of consumers who are interested enough in your restaurant to request updates from your brand; use that list to the fullest!
Use these restaurant marketing ideas for success in 2021
Restaurants have undoubtedly had a challenging 15 months. But now we can see the light at the end of the tunnel. The great news is that many people are eager to get out there and support local businesses. For restaurants willing to experiment with new marketing ideas in 2021, there is ample opportunity to attract new diners and come back stronger than ever.
Here’s a recap of the restaurant marketing ideas you should try in 2021:
- Give your online presence a tune-up
- Address COVID fears
- Give back to the community
- Start a ghost kitchen concept
- Buddy up with other local businesses
- Get social
- Take followers behind the scenes
- Lean on influencer marketing
- Manage online reviews
- Focus on local SEO
- Give geofencing a try
- Consider a customer loyalty program
- Promote your most profitable menu items and experiences
- Don’t forget about local print advertising
- Take advantage of email marketing