By Patricia Nicholson
Many in the foodservice industry begin the New Year recovering from a hectic holiday season and contemplating the long Canadian winter ahead of them. This phenomenon elicits a couple of different responses from restaurateurs: lie low and keep costs down, or get out there and drum up new business while competitors hibernate.
Reza Alavie, professor of advertising at Seneca at York University’s School of Communication Arts and founder of the Small Business Advertising Company, says there is only so much you can do to lower your operating costs.
“Once you’re in this business, you’ve got a certain amount of overhead,” he says. But there are some things that can help keep customers at your tables.
“During slow times, I would sing to the choir,” he says. That means going out of your way to make sure your regular customers are happy enough to spread the word.
Alavie suggests making take-out available, and communicating the advantages of your restaurant over the alternatives, such as frozen supermarket fare or time-consuming home cooking.
With the exception of Valentine’s Day and some key sporting matches, major calendar events are scarce between Christmas and Easter, but that doesn’t preclude special occasions.
“When the calendar is not co-operating, you can create your own events,” Alavie says. Some restaurants are known for an annual party that is either all their own – a fanciful theme, a mascot’s birthday, a celebration of a local legend – or linked to an event that is well-suited to the restaurant: perhaps Robbie Burns Day, or Groundhog Day, or Mardi Gras.
Professor Carmen Mok of George Brown College’s School of Hospitality and Tourism says that taking part in local events can have a big payoff, but that restaurateurs must choose which events or occasions are appropriate for their business. For example, holding a SuperBowl party won’t work if your clientele doesn’t follow sports. But Mok recommends getting involved in festivals such as Toronto’s Winterlicious that offer extra value in terms of marketing.
Winterlicious was launched after SARS took a bite out of Toronto’s hospitality industry, Mok says. It targeted local customers, and offered participating restaurants plenty of exposure through the city’s marketing efforts, as well as the opportunity to keep costs predictable with prix fixe menus.
Restaurants can also look around their neighbourhoods for potential cross-marketing opportunities. Some chains situated near multiplexes have joined forces with a cinema to offer “dinner and a movie” deals, Mok says. Other restaurants take advantage of slow periods to seek out corporate business for training events, banquets and corporate events.
Alavie points out that although restaurateurs are often not natural marketers or communicators, they talk passionately about their food and understandably
proud of their operations. He suggests finding ways to communicate this enthusiasm to their customers.
• Ask your guests how they would like to be contacted about events and specials: email, text messaging, a newsletter, telephone. Then keep them informed. Have a website, and keep it up to date.
• If you offer weekly or daily specials or seasonal menus, it’s worth the effort to put them on your website. Alavie says some restaurants are now text messaging daily lunch specials to locals and regulars.
• Although many independent restaurants do not have the budget to hire a communications company, they may be able to pool budgets with other restaurateurs. Three or four independents may be able to band together to collectively hire a communications firm that can offer ideas that may benefit all of them.
• Talk to your Sysco Marketing Associate about ways to draw new business to your operation or special menus that could be created for your special events.
It’s worth the effort to keep your regulars coming back, because the best promotion of all is customers in your restaurant.
“People are like magnets for other people,” Alavie says.
There’s always something to celebrate. Don’t overlook events in your city or community, such as the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival in Vancouver from January 10 to February 4, or Carnaval de Quebec from January 26 to February 11.
Here are a few ideas about special events that your operation can tap into.
Robbie Burns Day January 25 –
Commemorate the great Scot
Winterlicious January 26-February 8 –
Toronto’s culinary celebration
La Fête des Neiges de Montreal –
January 27-February 11 Annual winter festival
Carnaval de Quebec
January 26-February 11 – One of the world’s most famous winter carnivals
Groundhog Day February 2
Will winter end soon or it will it drag on for another six weeks?
Winterlude weekends February 2-18 –
Ottawa and Gatineau’s annual winter festival
Super Bowl February 4
Being held in Miami, Florida
Calgary Winterfest February 9-19
Calgary’s annual winter festival
Chinese New Year February 18 –
Introducing the Year of the Pig
Mardi Gras February 20 – also called Fat Tuesday, Shrove Tuesday or Pancake Tuesday
St. Patrick’s Day March 17
Celebrated worldwide by Irish people and increasingly by many of non-Irish descent.
First day of Spring March 21
Baseball season opens April 1