4 Ways Independent Restaurants Can Outfox Big Chains

By: Donald Burns

5 Minute Read

Apr 24, 2016

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The chains are coming! The chains are coming! Okay, take a deep breath, it’s not that bad. Many independent restaurants look at a major food chain coming into their market with fear and panic. Instead, they should look at it as an opportunity to market their differences from the big corporations.

While the chains have the upper hand when it comes to a big marketing budget, there are some clever ways to negate that. You have to play to your strengths. Showcase the things that make you different. Chain restaurants have a complex system for change that is their Achilles’ heel. The battle between chains and independent restaurants can be compared to the epic story of David versus Goliath.

Here are four key ways for independent chains outfox the corporate giants:

1. Play the local card.

Unless the corporate chain was founded in your town, this is a huge advantage. It’s one you should play every day. You're local, they’re not. There is a huge trend, or should I say more like a demand, for restaurants to utilize local ingredients. That philosophy should be taken further for communities to support local restaurants.

Local economies thrive when revenues are produced and spent in the same community. That is a sustainable economic structure. Use that to your advantage.

Also, being a smaller operation allows you to make changes much faster than the big corporations. Is there a hot trend out there that you see as having potential in your market? Jump on that! As an independent you do not need to wait on a board of directors or committee to implement changes. Do it now before the chains can. Once a trend has hit the chains, it’s usually saturated in the market. Also, it makes you look like a trendsetter and them a trend follower. Always better to be the leader in your market.

2. Find a charity to support.

Another way to stand out in your market is to find a local charity to stand beside. Now, many big chains also support charities… big charities. Your local softball team, food bank, and animal shelter are hometown organizations looking for support from their community. Step up and become their fan and the community will in turn support your restaurant.

It’s rather shocking at times to hear that local restaurants get upset from lack of support from the people in their community, yet they have done nothing to give back to that same community. No relationship lasts very long if the giving is one-sided.

Pick a cause that you can really get behind and support. Just remember to look at community-based organizations and not ones that focus on religion or moral compass deviations. Your views are your views and those should remain your private views. We have all seen the backlash on the internet for restaurants that refuse to bake a cake for a gay couple (one in Indianapolis closed their doors and one in Oregon has been ordered by a court to pay $135,000 in damages). Remember with the internet, word of mouth is now “world of mouth”. Not all PR is good PR.

3. Engage on social media.

Here is where you need to take a tip from the chains, because most monitor their social media platforms. So how do you outfox them at their own game? Simple, engage with your guests. You should get to know these people and know them well!

When guests make a comment on one of your posts, say something! Follow them back on Instagram if they follow you and like some of their posts. Social media should follow an 80:20 rule. 80% of your activity should be commenting and sharing their posts. 20% should be about your restaurant.

There is a really hot new app out there that notifies you when a VIP guest is walking in your restaurant, and it’s called Wisley (www.getwisely.com). Imagine being notified when a guest walks through the front door. Now you can greet the guest by name or alert your staff to the guest’s arrival. You can build a preferred status tier, just like the airlines and hotels do. You can then offer exclusive benefits like priority seating, extended happy hours, complementary amuse bouche, and chef’s tasting menus.

Now that is hospitality.

4. Create a signature.

The last thing you want to do is compete head-to-head with a big chain on one of their signature items. Just because Buffalo Wild Wings rolls into town does not mean you now need chicken wings on your menu. Remember how earlier we spoke of their bigger-than-yours marketing budget? Yeah, they will kill your attempts to outperform them on the item that made their brand, so don’t even try.

Better to create signature items of your own. A good recipe for developing a signature item would look like this:

  • 1-part Brand Story - maybe a family recipe or something from your original menu.
  • 1-part Local - incorporate a local sourced ingredient or historical name/place.
  • 1-part Flavor - any signature item you create definitely has to deliver on taste.
  • Mix well and deliver through social media.

Post pictures of people enjoying your signature creation (that’s called social proof), get guests to write reviews, get out there and tell your community about it. When you have a winner, you want to brag about it.

Being an independent restaurant is your strength. Being flexible to make changes to the market is your secret weapon. Being local is your calling card. Creating signatures that no one else has is your ticket to outfox the big chains when they come calling to your market.

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