I get a lot of restaurant owners asking about how best to market their businesses, and the answers typically boil down to two specific objective:

  1. Gain new customers
  2. Retain current customers

Below are a few starter concepts that every restaurant should employ on both counts. Most if not all can be executed with little to no out-of-pocket cost. Most are also focused on driving repeat business from existing clients, as your best marketing channel for incremental revenue as a restaurant are the folks walking into your door every day.

With each new diner, you have an opportunity to win their business again, and win their pass-along recommendation to countless other potential diners in their network.

These ideas are just the tip of the iceberg, but you’ve got to start somewhere.

Web Site
If for no other reason than to ensure prospective diners can find your contact information when searching for somewhere to eat tonight, you need a Web site. If you don’t have one today, you can register a domain with GoDaddy.com for eight bucks a year, and use their WebSite Tonight tool to put something up with basic information, a phone number, your hours, and even a menu.

Better yet, add online ordering and reservations to the site. There are companies like ClickEats that will do this for you quickly and inexpensively. The more you can help prospective customers not only learn more about you, but also immediately engage, the more likely they are to come for a visit.

Testimonials and user reviews are the lifeblood of good restaurant marketing. Sure, your menu looks good. But what have others said that have already tried it? Sites like Yelp make it easy for customers to review and rate restaurants, but don’t count solely on third parties to control and aggregate your testimonials.

Ask your happy customers for a simple sentence or two after they’re done dining. Put those testimonials near the front door (along with their picture would be a nice touch), and add them to your Web site as well. There are countless ways to collect and leverage testimonials, but if you’re not asking for them today, get started now.

Come Back Coupons
You want that first-time diner to come back, right? Why not give them a simple coupon offering something discounted or free on their next visit? Put it underneath their receipt when they leave, or simply stamp a message right on their take-home receipt as a reminder.

This in-person coupon distribution is extremely cost-effective and will drive both direct and pass-along new business (do you really care if those diners give the coupons to someone else? In fact, that’s even better!)

Free Samples
When diners sit down for a meal, why not give them a sample of either an appetizer or dessert? It’s unexpected, appreciated, and a great way to start the experience on the right foot. Plus, it will likely drive more diners to purchase those appetizers and desserts to increase their overall ticket.

Take it a step further and give them a sample to-go when they leave – either something new to the menu or something you think they might like next time based on what they ordered today. Again, unexpected and appreciated – and I guarantee it’ll help them remember you and want to come back.

Collect Email Addresses
Email addresses collected with permission of your customers is one of the best ways to maintain an ongoing conversation with them between visits (and to encourage more visit frequency and pass-along to their friends as well). When collecting email from customers, make it worth their while – offer a free dessert, or drawing for a free lunch, in exchange for their contact information. Also be clear what the benefit is of being on your list – exclusive offers, birthday and anniversary surprises, new menu additions, etc.

With that email address, collect special event dates as well – birthdays, anniversaries, and even preferences on food & drink. When customers volunteer this information, they’re more likely to respond when you come back with related special offers and invitations.

There’s much more to do here, simple & easy things every restaurant owner can do to accelerate customers and revenue with little to no out-of-pocket cost. I’ll post more ideas soon.