top of page
  • Writer's pictureDavid B Townsend

Branding is just the first step in Marketing a Restaurant

Let us assume you have a solid concept, choice locale, and adequate financing to start a restaurant. You've got a business plan, worked out loans and secured your location. Now, comes the fine tuning of the process, to engage everyone involved to pull the project together. What I've outlined is how everything from this moment forward is interrelated to your concept through a visual approach to marketing. As we have become so absorbed with visuals in social and other broadcast media I use the term 'visual marketing' to illustrate the need to think of your concepts like the stylist or scene designer does when approaching the look of a movie. Like a good movie, the director works with dozens of people to bring about the final cut.

For a Restaurateur, this visual approach involves numerous choices. Font styles, colors, uniforms, menu format, as well as plate presentations. Together they'll represent your vision. It is also essential to define your 'style of service.' And herein lie some of the 'service attributes' you will need to address. Continuing the entertainment metaphor service is a dance performed with grace and well-practiced skill by your staff. All these factors and impressions play into the concept. They need to be well thought out and designed into the operation and staff training.

During my career in San Francisco and the Monterey Peninsula I spent many hours during the opening weeks of a new operation directing and managing the hurdles which come from every direction. To get a head start on setting a standard of service, in the weeks prior to opening, I would request servers to spend at least one full shift in the kitchen. This insight gave them the knowledge as to the process of how the food comes into the building and how it transforms into a sauce or entree and what it takes to make a great meal.

To continue the thought, you also need to know the sauce is made; and in this case, how to execute the vision through a series of stylistic decisions. You need to visualize everything from the use of excellent photography, the graphics and logo to the finished look of the plated entree. All these parts of the scene define you and project your concept, and become a BRAND.

I give you a top-ten list you need to consider as part of this planning. Mostly there are in the realm of marketing, but also touch on related issues which could impact marketing success, such as food safety. Marketing today involves technology awareness and savvy; not only in social media but in its use for ordering, bookkeeping, and having systems to maintain customer preferences and knowledge on your part to take advantage of the information.

1 BRANDING- Define your CONCEPT and STYLE with daily specials and signature items. Maybe you have a killer recipe for Roast Chicken, House Stew, a Shepard's Pie, or dishes the Chef has a passion for cooking. These become your signature and the 'go-to' items for locals seeking out classic comfort foods. Having notable side dishes like Polenta that you serve the most entrees, Crispy Kale or house-made Kimchee also help define your Brand. If local veggies are prominent and you can request a grower to supply them you create a brand of sorts where regulars always know whatever is fresh in season you will have to enjoy. Also, change your basic menu, weekly, or bi-monthly. Give guests a feeling that they need to come back and try newer items. Keep a basic 8-10 standards on the menu, but add another 3- 5 items every few weeks. Photograph dishes and push them out on social media.

2- POS System is critical - FIND ONE that is specific to restaurants and has sales and marketing tools like CRM* and email marketing. A good system with help you generate repeat visits and grow your customer base. Do NOT buy a 'retail' terminal! You need a 'restaurant' specific POS to expedite orders, control costs, track inventories, and help with marketing. Here is just a handful of ways a restaurant POS will work:

1- Table management, order items are sent to the kitchen, seating order of guests, splitting checks, and more.

2-Inventory controls to keep you aware of supplies and prevent out-of-stocks. Enables you to track employee performance through check averages.

3-Integrated accounting & monitor costs and sales.

4-Sales and marketing tools like *Customer Relationship Marketing (CRM); email marketing and customer data to help you generate incentives for repeat visits and grow your loyalty programs.

As of this writing, the top 5 system recommendations from are 1] TouchBistro 2] Revel Systems POS 3] Toast POS 4] Lightspeed Restaurant 5] NCR Silver. There are dozens of systems, and they can range from under a thousand dollars to tens-of-thousands. You need to research and find one that does not only what you need to start, but can grow with and add modules as needed. Most now are cloud-based systems with growth and advancement available as you need them.

3- DONT WORRY ABOUT FOOD COST - at first. For the first four to six months allow food cost to be high. Instead of trying to get a 28-32% let it approach 40%. Aim for a full dining room with competitive pricing. It will keep people coming in the door and make them feel they can try new items over and over without the perception that you are a 'special occasion' restaurant. As you develop more specials, refine the purchasing process and negotiate better costs, you start to add higher profit items you eventually will get to a stable food cost. Cash flow is more critical than profits in your first year of operation. Keeping the Dining Room full of paying guests at fair pricing is more valued than a half-full room of high check averages.

Here's an example: Let's take an entree with an $18 menu price, at 30% cost.

20 dinners at $18, 30% basic food cost- meal cost $5.4 (360-108= $252)

30 dinners at $15, 36% basic food cost- meal cost $5.4 (450-162= $288)

In this example- your profit difference is negligible, but your cash flow is nearly $100 greater, and with only ten more meals, you won't need any additional staffing to accomplish ten more meals for the night.

4- DEVELOP A GREAT GUEST SERVICE TRAINING PROGRAM- From the start of the hiring process to on-going daily reviews of specials, and monthly wine tastings servers need numerous hours of training. They need to know basic sauces, some basic cooking techniques, and most important- table etiquette. Have them opt for working a kitchen shift or require it based on the skill level or your community of available workers. This effort gives them some knowledge of what grilling 'rare' means, how a sauce is made, and how to the whole process works from backdoor to tabletop. If you serve a Chipotle Aioli, your server better know what ingredients make up the sauce. The training is best headed up by the Dining Room Manager or a Consultant's input helping get ready for opening. And in most communities, you probably need to start looking for good people as soon as you have a place to interview and can set aside a few hours each week.

5- BUILD A TEAM- You need players who will commit to success: chef, dining room manager, cooks, bookkeeper, and a marketing person. Building a team entails relaying your vision and how their role plays into that vision. If you take the term literally, you are going into the 'food SERVICE business,' and everyone needs to understand how that plays out. The kitchen staff cannot fight or blame a server if the guest doesn't like a dish- JUST REDO IT. A bookkeeper answering the phone needs to be polite and help someone who may call about a transaction. The principles below apply not only to the serving staff and dining room but to all in the organization

1] Attitude- Treat the guest with dignity and respect. Suggests items based on what they are already ordering.

2] Aptitude- Know the menu- period. For cooks and others, know your job thoroughly. Aptitude requires you know that great service comes from sincere desire to help someone enjoy a night out.

3] Anticipation- Knowing the next steps in the service sequence. Stay ahead of the game.

4] Grace -Possible the most important attribute of a great server. It's about being in a graceful, rehearsed dance. For the kitchen, again, it means being humble in that sometimes things go bad and you need to make things right to please the guest.

6- YOU MUST HAVE A RETAIL AREA FOR TO-GO AND PICK-UP - the Amazon/whole foods concept will be the business model of the future. The idea needs to be planned into the entryway or a common area. Set up a refrigerated display of items for locals to drop in and get a packaged meal ready to reheat at home. Salads, simple entrees, that are always in stock - Chicken Alfredo, Half-Roast Chicken, House Stew- all in packaging that can be reheated in an oven, or microwave. Also sides of potato salad, mixed greens, house dressings, etc. This to-go concept will add hundreds of dollar per day if you keep up rotations and stock. It becomes a separate revenue source with little-added labor costs. A long-time friend and Chef Mitch Davis, who runs the kitchen at Il Fornaio in Mid-Town Sacramento does nearly $2000 a week in 'to go meals' and coffee from a side counter off the main dining room. Most major grocery stores have now embraced this 'to-go' concept.

7- SOCIAL MEDIA PROGRAM- every plate is 'styled' to be photographed. Have a staging area to shoot photos and promote specials or new items. Put someone in charge. Tie this to the Catering Manager or Dining Room Managers job description. When you do on-site or off-site catered events- take lots of pictures to post on Instagram, Facebook, etc. to constantly promote your 'special events' venue. If not doing banquets/events- have the Dining room manager take photos of daily specials for posting. You may want to consider a small area of the kitchen or bussing area where you can permanently install high-quality lighting to have an instant place to take photos of plated items. Don't just use a tablet or phone, buy a decent DSL and lens to get great close-ups.

8- FINE TUNE YOUR BAR / STYLE - homemade mixes, or quality purchasing, style of bartending- signature drinks, The resurgence of 'fine-art cocktails' has made its way into every high-end restaurant concept. Some bars make their infusions of vodka and mixes. If you utilize your bar for the higher profits, as is the norm, you need to decide if you can make in-house 'simple-syrup', 'Sweet N Sour' and other bar-mixes. If you don't take on DIY mixes, find a good boutique brand you can buy for consistency in flavoring. There is a lot of new brands of high-end bar mixes on the market. Look to brands like Tomr's Tonics, Fee Brothers Bitters, and check out sites like Kegworks for distribution of all kinds of bar supplies. One of my discoveries early in my restaurant career was Bossiere Dry Vermouth. Not only does it make one of the best Martini's but also makes for a great addition to the kitchen for a herbaceous reduction with a filet of sole or other lightly sauteed fish. I proved the merits of Bossiere while bartending at the Hotel Majestic in the mid 80's with Herb Caen hosting a martini tasting with about 10 of his 'Caenian friends'. They named the Bombay Gin-Bossiere Vermouth 6:1 'best Martini' of the night. * SF Chronicle April 24, 1986. *

Food Service at the Bar? If you are going to provide food services like small plates, appetizers, or tapas, it will require a busser assigned and other factors for food delivery so as not to intrude on the bartenders being away from the bar.

9- An on-going cleaning and food-safety program. One 'perceived' unsafe meal and your days could be numbered. Keep staff off-duty any time they are sick. One minor stomach bug, inadvertently transmitted by a server handling glassware while setting the table could come back to haunt you with a guests perception of 'food poisoning'. Remember what happened at Chipotle? They had some significant issues, but they also had a bank-vault of money to fix the problem. You likely don't have that luxury.

10- FIND AN ADVISOR / MENTOR, OR CONSIDER HIRING A CONSULTANT. A consultant can help overcome some of the hidden pitfalls of opening with great reviews from the public. You only get one, maybe two chances to impress a new customer. Your mentor/consultant can train staff for the opening add set up standards and procedures. They can also help your Chef style plate presentations and photograph items to use in your initial marketing and social media. Unless you have a proven record in the Food Service business, you would be best to spend a few thousand dollars on a Food Specialty Consultant in order to stay on track and get everything right from the start.

Finally: There are hundreds of articles available online to examine the various steps to opening a new restaurant. Many, I found, delve into the steps you need have accomplished well before anything I've spoken here. My hope is you realize after all the hard work and financial investment you take the marketing beyond traditionally thought as paid advertising and Public Relations. In today's visual world of Instagram, Facebook, and others the approach you take to marketing is reflected in every plate, every servers appearance, every menu you hand out. It has got to be a Visual representative of your Concept, your Story, your Brand.

6 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page