According to an Ohio State University study on failed restaurants, 60 percent do not make it past the first year, and 80 percent go under in five years. Why is the restaurant business so tough?
“So many of the restaurants that I save on ‘Restaurant: Impossible’ are in their current situation because of inexperienced, but well-meaning, owners,” said celebrity chef Robert Irvine. Irvine is the host of the business make-over show ‘Restaurant: Impossible.’ “Potential restaurateurs do not realize or appreciate the specific set of demands that come along with owning and running a restaurant. Once realized, it is often way too late.”
“The issue is further compounded,” he continues, “by trying to fix this situation by bringing in someone with experience to save the sinking ship and ebb the money loss. This can be effective, but it also adds more of a financial burden to the bottom line by bringing in someone who expects to be paid relative to their experience.”
Other problems Irvine cites include inexperience, bad people-management skills, a lack of good accounting skills, and spotty customer service.
I’d add bad PR to the list of reasons restaurants don’t survive.
Why? Because most restaurants only push hard to get in the news the first six months they are open. And I never understand that, because a press release to one local publication can be enough to get all the media outlets in town coming through the door. The reason is simple: Everyone loves a new thing.
Six months later, though, the story is different. You are no longer the new kid on the block. And unless you do something really amazing — like win Best Burger in town, as did Richmond’s Brux’l Cafe — or there’s a fire in the kitchen — you likely aren’t going to make the news more than once.
So how do you keep the people coming through the door?
Try the 8 Steps to PR Success
1. Create a stunning website. This is your door opener, and if your site isn’t full of delicious photos of your food — how will patrons who haven’t been to your place know what they are in for? Make their mouths water before they even make a reservation. And use the homepage to share specials, awards, and honors, and anything else that’s fun and interesting enough to draw them in.
2. Develop an explosive PR campaign. Easier said than done? Being strategic makes it easier. Social media is free, but it is time-consuming to feed that monster every day. So assign one of your team members who can write, and has a sense of what your customers want to know, to the task. They also can create a simple, single-article news blast that goes out once a week and features specials, events, and other temptations that will get customers through the door.
3. Make a splash in the news. As you now know, after that initial rush of interest, it’s tough to get reporters to care about your restaurant — after all, there are likely hundreds of competitors in your town. So take the bull by the horns — and advertise. Create a reasonable budget ($1,000-$2,500/month for a small business). Placing small ads in a lot of local publications is often a good option. Radio and TV are even better. And, most TV stations feature cooking segments on their noon shows. Call the producer to get on the roster and volunteer to appear. Also invest in creating a good video (it will cost you about $5,000) to show off your chef. Post it on your website, social media pages, and YouTube. Remember this aphorism: If you can’t bring Muhammad to the mountain, bring the mountain to Muhammad.
4. Write a column in a magazine or host a radio show. Here again, this is a great — free — way to spread the word. Contact local publications and see if you can offer a recipe of the day / week / month. Tie them to the holidays and other occasions that will inspire readers to prepare your dish at home, or even better to come in to the restaurant for a taste. If you have a lot of fun customers, think about hosting a radio show and interview them. Get creative. Be humorous. Have fun! It’ll set you up as a mini-celebrity, and that always makes curious people more likely to flock into your establishment see what all the laughing is about.
5. Network! The one thing I hear from all of my beloved restaurant-owner friends is that they have no time to do anything but run their restaurant. Fair enough. It’s an arduous business that can suck the life out of you. But don’t let that reality stop you from getting creative. Find two or three good networking groups in town and attend an event at least once a month. Bring your business cards and offer a free dessert or drink; and maybe bring a new dish from the menu to serve. Everyone loves trying new things, and feeling special when they go out. Once they meet you, the restaurateur, it’ll sweeten the pot.
6. Join a speakers bureau. While getting paid the big bucks to speak is usually reserved for seasoned celebrity chefs and restaurateurs — especially those with new books — that doesn’t mean you can’t volunteer to go in and do a cooking demonstration for local groups. Think about it. Who in town should be your customers, and where are they hanging out? The Rotary Club? BNI (Business Network International) groups? The Scouts (when their parents are at the meeting)?
7. Write a book. If you are in the restaurant business, you likely have fantasized about writing a cookbook. It’s not as hard as you think — just be sure you connect with a great food photographer to capture the beauty of your meals. One way to get started is to create a calendar of your favorite dishes and give it away to customers at holiday time. That limits you to just 12 recipes, which is a good way to test the waters. If done well, customers will see your food year-round, tempting them daily to come in for a meal. Pretty brilliant marketing, huh?
8. Pay it forward. There is probably no small business that gets hit up more for donations than restaurants. You can’t say yes to everyone — but you can pick a charity that touches your heart and focus all of your donation efforts there. If you are struggling with cash flow, and can barely get through the day given your to-do list, offer something besides money or your time. For instance, consider shining a light on the work of a local nonprofit by hanging art on the walls by kids staying at the local Ronald McDonald House. Or do a cooking demonstration in the restaurant during slow hours to help raise funds to feed the homeless — which could also bring in potential new customers in. As Winston Churchill said: “We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give.”
Here’s to your incredible, indelible, Inkandescent success! — Hope Katz Gibbs and Kathleen McCarthy, authors, PR Rules: The Playbook.