Black Friday is the day for big box stores and national restaurant chains, making it hard for smaller restaurants to compete on the same level. Luckily, there’s the Small Business Saturday movement, perfect for restaurant owners to capitalize on the exciting start of the holiday season.

American Express first started promoting the Saturday after Thanksgiving as Small Business Saturday in 2010. It’s a day geared at encouraging communities to support local, independently-owned small businesses. Over the years, the movement has gained traction, even including getting the U.S. Senate to declare Small Business Saturday a nationally recognized day.

In 2017, an estimated 108 million consumers reported shopping or dining at local independently-owned businesses on Small Business Saturday, generating roughly $12 billion in reported spend. More and more local businesses are literally “championing” the cause: 7,200 individuals and organizations across all 50 states signed up as Neighborhood Champions last year to rally their communities with events and activities on Small Business Saturday.

Small Business Saturday may have had its roots in retail, but local restaurants are very much a driver of the movement, as well. And there’s still time to participate this year. Here are some ways that restaurants can embrace the movement and use it as a catalyst to bring in new patrons, increase engagement, and boost future business.

server tips and tricks for serving groups

Get Creative With Small Business Saturday Offers

Come up with a menu special that you can offer just on this day. Maybe it’s a prix-fixe lunch special for those shoppers needing to refuel, or a special signature cocktail at the bar during happy hour. Try to incorporate the spirit of the day by using only local ingredients or working with independent suppliers in your local community.

Host an event. What can you do that’s special for the day, and compliments all the happenings in your neighborhood? Can you host a pop-up event by teaming up with a local bakery and letting them sell their pastries? Can you host a happy hour with a local microbrewery and have craft beer flights for weary shoppers? Or, you can run a special deal on your restaurant gift certificates for people who dine and buy on that day. After all, gift cards make great stocking stuffers.

Have a tasting. These events are growing in popularity and are a great way to engage with potential new customers. Set up an area for people to enjoy a small sample of one of your popular dishes, and perhaps hand out coupons for 10 percent off or free appetizer during a future visit, or a flyer about upcoming events like your live music series.

Team up with neighbors. The best part about Small Business Saturday is the community spirit that spreads throughout the neighborhood. Meet with other like-minded, but non-competitive, local businesses to see how you can cross-promote each other. If a local gift shop is having an event, you can contribute a coupon for a free glass of wine to their goodie bag. Or maybe you can give a drink special to everyone with a receipt from participating stores. The idea is for each business to encourage visits to other local participants by working together.

Become a Neighborhood Champion. If you have a highly involved community, you might even become the organizer yourself. You can turn the day into a neighborhood shopping crawl of sorts, in which guests can win an array of prizes if they visit a certain number of participating shops. Make it fun by adding a trivia component, and having patrons get a card stamped or punched. A completed card puts them into drawings for prizes (and allows each business to expand their contact lists!).

Give the other shop owners a deal, too. Offer other business owners a way to unwind after what could be their busiest sales day of the year. You could offer a specialty cocktail or menu item for fellow merchants as a day-of promotion, for instance.

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Asking restaurant guests questions in a restaurant

Start Promoting ASAP

To really make the most of Small Business Saturday, take advantage of the resources available to you, and combine them with your own social media and old school promotion strategies.

Register with American Express. They do a huge social media campaign around the event, so be sure you register. Doing so will let you access downloadable materials that can be customized very easily with your own business name, so you can use them for Facebook and Instagram, on your blog, and elsewhere. You can also create some signage for your storefront if you’re in an area with a lot of foot traffic. And, if you use the official hashtags #SmallBizSat and #ShopSmall, your business will be searchable on the American Express website, allowing you to reach a whole new audience.

Reconnect with your loyal customers. This is a great time to reach out to members of your loyalty program with a quick email blast to keep them updated on events and specials. Plus, including an exclusive offer to those receiving the email can help with customer retention and show appreciation to guests who believe in supporting small businesses.

Maximize the Day

Get your staff psyched up. Nothing sells your business better than the excitement and passion of your employees, so if you want Small Business Saturday to be a hit, get them in the spirit. Consider a friendly internal competition, in which employees receive prizes for selling the most gift cards, collecting the most loyalty card sign-ups, or even just displaying the most holiday cheer.

Think long-term. Small Business Saturday is the perfect day to forge new relationships. Look for ways to extend the holiday by promoting gift cards and other holiday gift ideas with in-store signage and mentions from your servers. You’ll not only drive sales day-of, but you’ll also get the chance to impress even more diners who come in to cash in their gift cards after the holidays.

Encourage social media posts. Make sure patrons know about hashtags for your business and your neighborhood event. Set up a selfie station with some props that complement your restaurant and encourage customers to share photos on social media and tag your business with the hashtag #shopsmall. 

Small Business Saturday can help kick off the holiday season in your neighborhood with a genuine sense of fun and community. Get organized, have fun, and start the holiday season off with an amazing day.

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Kristin lives on the West Side of Providence with her wine blogger husband. When she's not co-hosting their monthly wine tastings, she's planning her next travel adventure and daydreaming about Spanish jamón. She can often be found pouring over travel guides at her favorite neighborhood spot, Nick's on Broadway.