With no major holidays on the horizon until Valentine’s Day, and resolutioners looking to save money, lose weight, eat healthier, or give up going out, it’s a hard time for restaurants. To get through this celebration desert, eight restaurateurs share creative ways they battle the slow months and drive new guests to their restaurants.
A promotion isn’t always a discounted menu; it can also be classes, competitions, or live music. While some discounts are classics (50-cent wing night, anyone?), there are also more creative ways to get guests to your restaurant.
Katerina Coumbaros, owner of Tapa Toro, a Spanish tapas restaurant in Orlando, Florida, has found success with En La Cocina cooking classes she holds with Tapa Toro’s executive chef Wendy Lopez in the winter and spring months. The classes are marketed as a stocking stuffer pre-Christmas, or as a great date night activity. Cooking classes almost always sell out, she says, and Tapa Toro’s customers ask for them year-round.
“If you’ve got a kitchen and a chef, you can host a cooking class. It’s a chance to showcase your restaurant’s unique cuisine, and a chance for your regulars to try some off-the-menu specialties,” Coumbaros says. “Plus, cooking classes are easier to manage when it’s slower for the kitchen.”
Sammy Musovic, owner of New York City’s Mexican Selena Rosa, go-to date destination Sojourn and pizza and wine bar Vero, says promotions contribute to year-round business, and that all of his restaurants rely on a robust social media presence to advertise them. Last year, during the height of summer when many would-be guests were on vacation, he invited several Elvis impersonators to Selena Rosa on the 40th anniversary of the King’s death to perform a free outdoor concert.
Chris Bredesen, owner and partner of multiple restaurants in the South Bay area echoes the same sentiment.
“Run promotions before the slow season, to build a loyal following,” says Bredesen. “One of my restaurants, The Rockefeller, offers multiple deals throughout the week like Dollar Oyster Mondays and 99-cent gourmet burgers on Tuesdays. We have the same loyal customers come in week in and week out, no matter the time of year. Of course, many of them bring in new customers, so our flow is consistent, even if a few other days are a bit slower.”
But don’t think holding a promotion simply equals lowering prices.
“I would not suggest a focus on discounts,” says Laura Ambrose, co-owner of San Diego-based Woodstock’s Pizza. “With resolutioners already cutting back on money-spending, it’s best to capitalize on other non-monetary promotions to bring traffic to your restaurant. Continue to emphasize recurring in-store events such as trivia nights, pint nights, and local music nights, or start new creative event options to make your restaurant a social gathering space. In general, I think we’d suggest a focus on social media promotions and fun or interesting in-store events. Use social media as a platform to drive traffic to your weekly events or to bring awareness to new seasonal promotions.”
Work with Others
Across the country, food sales take a dip in January as guests take a break from spending. Use this time as a way to get creative and work with other people in the area to help sweeten the pot and convince guests to spend.
If you’ve got a kitchen and a chef, you can host a cooking class. It’s a chance to showcase your restaurant’s unique cuisine, and a chance for your regulars to try some off-the-menu specialties.
Coumbaros recommends partnering with local businesses and attractions: “Sometimes you’ve got to look beyond your restaurant for a promotion that will get people to dine out. Partnering with a nearby business or attraction can be mutually beneficial and can create a dining experience that’s greater than the sum of its parts.”
Tapa Toro introduced a Dine & Ride promotion with the nearby Orlando Eye attraction last winter that allows customers to order from a special prix fixe menu and get a ticket to ride the Orlando Eye with their meal for one all-inclusive price.
Kim VanGilder of Quarks, a fast casual clean-eating concept in St. Cloud, Minnesota, has used a similar approach.
“We’ve found that running joint promotions is an exceptional way to increase business – in the off-season or even during peak months,” VanGilder says. “For example, at the beginning of January, we offer many of the local health/fitness clubs a limited amount of free bowl (our main entrée) vouchers for them to put in their new members’ membership packets. While we recognize that we’re essentially giving away free food, we also understand that these type of clients are our target client.”
With resolutioners already cutting back on money-spending, it’s best to capitalize on other non-monetary promotions to bring traffic to your restaurant.
Ambrose also believes in cross-promotions.
“Restaurants can begin a possible partnership with a fitness center, a car dealership, a coffee shop, or another establishment for a unique approach to drawing in new customers that you might not have previously reached before,” she says.
Looking for findings on hot-button labor issues like employee turnover and tipping, as well as data-driven food trend predictions for 2018? You won't find them anywhere else but Upserve's State of the Industry.Download The Report
Delivery is Key
In much of the country, winter weather can keep guests from venturing out, so try to make it easier for them to enjoy your food by bringing it straight to them.
“Winter is a good time to emphasize delivery services,” says Ambrose. “For example, we often create a new specialty pizza for each major season or for upcoming events, such as the Super Bowl.”
Make a Play for Resolutioners
If you can’t beat them, join them. Scott Schwebel, vice president of retail for Colectivo, a cafe and coffee roasters group, says the group purposely released a new line of organic kombucha during the slow month of January.
“The strategy is to use the timing to introduce a product that takes advantage of people’s’ heightened awareness of health/wellness, not suffers from it,” he says. “We also release our annual limited edition ‘Resolution’ coffee blend to kick of the New Year, helping to create a little excitement in the cafes for the post-holiday hangover and show our customers something new with intentional energy.”
No new menu items? Make sure your guests know that you have great healthy offerings, even if you’re just packaging existing dishes in a new light. Davio’s Northern Italian Steakhouse owner Steve DiFillippo is aware of guests’ renewed healthy eating habits in January, so he focuses on increasing traffic by offering specials that appeal to resolution eaters. In addition to offering a healthy Power Lunch menu, Davio’s has developed the Antioxidant, a cocktail bursting with fresh citrus juices to boost vitamin C intake, and help start 2018 with some (healthy) hair of the dog.
Davio’s promotes its healthier fare during January and February, and typically sees an upswing in sales of à la carte “pesce” and “carni” dishes, as well as a bump in salad sales.
Want to try the Antioxidant for yourself? Here’s the recipe.
The Antioxidant: Aperol & Blood Orange Cocktail
1.5 oz. Tito’s Vodka
1 oz. freshly squeezed oranges
1 oz. freshly squeezed blood oranges
0.5 oz. Aperol
0.5 oz. fresh lime juice
Combine vodka, orange/blood orange juice, Aperol and lime juice in a cocktail shaker with ice and strain into glass. Garnish with orange or lemon peel.
Still out of Ideas?
In need of some more inspiration? Here’s how Franco Francese, owner of Chicago-based Mattone Restaurant and Bar, embraces the holidays as a way to drive traffic through the slower months: “At Mattone Restaurant, we have used a neat marketing strategy to keep customers coming in during the slow months. Because December is our busiest month, we take that opportunity to hand out envelopes to each customer that visits the restaurant. Inside the envelope, customers will find offers that are valid during the months of January through March.”
Examples of past offers include:
- Free appetizer when you purchase an entree.
- $10 off your dinner.
- Half off a bottle of wine.
The envelope does come with disclaimers:
- Bring this unopened envelope back to Mattone Restaurant next year from January through March.
- Your server will open your envelope and reveal your prize.
- Expiration date.
“The cost of a promotion like this is very small and it gets some folks to commit to return next year when the restaurant is slower,” Francese says. “However, if a restaurant didn’t get a chance to pass out offers during December, they can always advertise on their social media that customers coming in during the months of January through March will get the chance to pick an offer out of a bowl and apply it to their meal.”
How do you boost traffic during slow months at your restaurant? Tell us here!