You already know that your customers are the bedrock of your business. Everyone who visits — from regulars who know every staff member's name to out-of-towners who stop in for the wifi and end up thrilled with your food and hospitality — are what push your business forward.
That's why restaurant marketing is so crucial: it helps you find new customers, expand your community, and make regulars out of your drop-in guests. And the COVID-19 pandemic has made this even more important. Guest expectations have changed, making it more difficult to compete with restaurants that have successfully pivoted and adapted operations to increase safety, contactless experiences, and digital ordering.
Creating strong customer relationships and providing an extraordinary dining experience will set you apart from the competition, and the best place to start is developing your restaurant marketing strategies. Effective marketing, through digital channels, email campaigns, advertising, and more make all the difference in bringing guests back again and again.
Let's start with the basics.
What is restaurant marketing?
Marketing a restaurant is the act of showcasing your restaurant or foodservice concept and offering your services to the general public to win their business. It's a large part of what builds up a restaurant brand.
Broken down, marketing is the strategy behind how you engage with your customer base. There is no single way to do this, but instead a sequence of actions taken across multiple channels to holistically reach your audience.
Why should I market my restaurant?
There’s not a lot of elbow room in the restaurant industry in the U.S. Restaurant marketing has gone from nice-to-have to necessary as business owners from coast to coast try to stand out from the field.
Though best thought of as a tool to drive your business forward, marketing your restaurant is all about connecting with your customers wherever they are and fostering strong relationships. As a restaurant owner, you know full well the transformative power of hospitality; restaurant marketing allows you to show genuine hospitality to your guests when they’re not within the four walls of your restaurant.
The most obvious benefit of restaurant marketing is that it grows revenue by increasing both foot and online traffic to your business. Other benefits of restaurant marketing include:
It supports your customer retention and increases customer lifetime value.
It attracts new staff members.
It gets the word out about your restaurant’s mission, vision, and purpose.
It increases brand awareness.
It introduces you to new audiences and markets.
It helps you build connections within your local restaurant community.
It opens you to new business partnerships and collaborations.
It creates new opportunities with distributors and vendors.
How much should I spend on restaurant marketing?
As with many of the facets involved in restaurant operations, there's no one-size-fits-all approach to restaurant marketing, nor is there a magic number when it comes to how much you should spend on restaurant marketing.
Some marketing, like social media, can be completely free. Restaurant digital marketing and social media marketing is divided into organic (or free) posting and paid posting. Organic posting doesn’t cost anything – you can post photos, videos, and messages on your social sites without putting any money behind it. However, allocating a small budget towards boosting and promoting your posts can be hugely impactful on your audience reach.
To decide if paid posting is right for your restaurant, you’ll want to consider your audience size and reach, the frequency of posting and promotion, and the quality of your content.
For most restaurants, the range for spend on marketing typically spans anywhere from 3–10% of sales. On the subject of establishing a marketing budget for your business, here’s what The U.S Small Business Administration recommends:
"Many businesses allocate a percentage of actual or projected gross revenues – usually between 2-3% for run-rate marketing and up to 3-5% for start-up marketing. But the allocation actually depends on several factors: the industry you’re in, the size of your business, and its growth stage. For example, during the early brand-building years, retail businesses spend much more than other businesses on marketing — up to 20% of sales. As a general rule, small businesses with revenues less than $5 million should allocate 7-8% of their revenues to marketing. This budget should be split between 1) brand development costs (which includes all the channels you use to promote your brand, such as your website, sales collateral, etc.), and 2) the costs of promoting your business (campaigns, advertising, events, etc.). This percentage also assumes you have margins in the range of 10-12% (after you’ve covered your other expenses, including marketing)."
Read more about creating your restaurant marketing budget here.
Low-budget restaurant marketing ideas
Getting started with marketing doesn’t have to be expensive. There are many ways to get started with a very low budget but still yield strong results. Here are a few ideas to get you started:
Organic social media: Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and TikTok are all free to set up accounts and start posting. While paid social advertising can definitely help grow your accounts faster, organic social growth is just as important to communicating with guests and building relationships.
Website and search optimization: Updating your Google My Business profile, including specific keywords on your website, and prominently displaying your hours, location, menu and online ordering platform on your website and google profile are all easy and free ways to up your online presence.
Email marketing: While not completely free, email marketing is an inexpensive and incredibly impactful way to reach and engage with your audience. Learn more about email marketing here.
When you’re ready to up your marketing game and spend a little more, here’s how to calculate what, and where, to spend.
How do I calculate the right restaurant marketing budget for my business?
Before we get started calculating the proper restaurant marketing budget for your specific concept, you’ll need to pull the following metrics:
Revenue by month
Your restaurant’s profit margin. To calculate your restaurant’s profit margin, simply subtract your annual operating costs from gross revenue. Per the above advice, if your restaurant is not operating with a 10–12% profit margin, consider spending time evaluating your menu, inventory purchasing decisions, and how you’re maximizing product usage to decrease sitting inventory.
And compile the following stats about your business:
Your restaurant’s age
Your restaurant’s market share. To calculate your restaurant’s market share, divide your restaurant’s sales by your local restaurant market’s sales within a given fiscal period. Reach out to your state’s restaurant association for granular market insights about sales, demographics represented, churn, and more.
Your restaurant's average customer acquisition cost.
Now that you’ve settled on how much budget you can allocate to cover your restaurant marketing initiatives, it’s time to develop a well-rounded restaurant marketing strategy to help you accomplish your restaurant marketing goals.
Planning your restaurant promotions with a budget in mind will help streamline your success now, and later.
What Is a Restaurant Marketing Strategy?
A restaurant marketing strategy refers to the collective marketing efforts or activities — also known as marketing campaigns — made by a restaurant over a year, typically organized and tracked in a restaurant marketing plan pdf.
The first step in creating a restaurant marketing plan is identifying your restaurant’s target customer or target market, a subset or cohort of the general population whose business you hope to earn because their behaviors, preferences, and values align with your business’ brand, mission, vision, and purpose.
Next, you'll want to develop buyer personas: A buyer persona is a model of who you think your most common customer is. Businesses often have more than one buyer persona.
How to Create a Buyer Persona
To create buyer personas of your customer base, you’ll first need to identify and outline your most frequent clusters of guests. Here are a few different strategies you can use:
Have the manager-on-duty record a daily summary of the types of guests they saw come in during their shift; do this each day for a month in your manager logbook.
If you host a restaurant loyalty/rewards program for guests, try sending out a survey to participants via your restaurant's CRM solution. Offer a promotional discount to everyone who participates as well as the chance to win a gift card to your restaurant.
Pull rich sales reporting from your restaurant point-of-sale system. One of the benefits of Toast’s point-of-sale technology is the robust customer report feature: Restaurant owners and operators can isolate customers who visited during a given period then drill down and learn more about each customer’s unique behavior while in your restaurant.When it comes to developing buyer personas around common customer types, the frequent visitors report from Toast will undoubtedly be your strongest source of data. This report isolates your most frequent visitors and compiles valuable data about their preferences and behavior all in one place. Analyzing and finding commonalities amongst this set — from popular menu items, time of visit, total spend, and valuable demographic data like age, gender, and address — will set your buyer persona development off on the right foot.
After you’ve zeroed in on your customer clusters, it’s time to turn them into buyer personas. For each cluster of customers you’ve identified who share 5+ commonalities, you’ll want to create a persona. As previously stated, it’s common for businesses to have multiple buyer personas.
When building out a profile for a buyer persona, you’ll want to:
Give each buyer persona a name and a photo — For the visual learners on your team, this will help them memorize each persona’s qualities and how to spot them. Use a site like Unsplash to find great free images.
Outline high-level identifiers — Examples include age, gender identity, generation, etc.
Highlight average spend
Number of visits per [insert time period here]
Include a buying behavior summary — This section should outline the analysis you did into what this type of buyer likes to order, how much, favorite wine/beer brands, etc.
Outline their likes — This doesn’t just apply to preferences within your restaurant. A customer is first and foremost a person and they have a life outside the hour or two they’re visiting your restaurant. By understanding their whole personality, not just as it pertains to your restaurant, you’ll find it easier to entice and engage them to enter your restaurant.
Outline their dislikes — Same approach as likes section, but, like, negative.
What marketing channels to use to reach this persona — If you’re targeting Gen Z, TikTok or Instagram will be your go-to, whereas a Boomer is more likely to read a magazine or engage with your brand on Facebook. Keep an eye on trends to make sure your strategy stays current.
Here's an example of buyer persona Penny Professional:
Restaurant Concept: Southern-inspired tapas and cocktail bar downtown
Persona A: Penny Professional
Gender Identity: Woman, She/Her pronouns
Profession: Manager-level professional, industry non-specific.
Average Spend: $35 or less
Number of Visits: 1 per week, 4-5 per month
Buying Behavior: Typically comes in with her co-workers or meets up with friends after work for a round of drinks. Visits for large group birthdays, engagements, going-away parties, and other special occasions. Tends to stick to happy hour menu, house wine selection, or a craft beer.
Best Channels to Use to Reach Them: Instagram, TikTok, Pinterest, VSCO, Facebook.
Buyer personas aren't just helpful for marketing your business, they're also an incredibly useful sales tool for your restaurant staff. Train your front-of-house staff how to recognize and sell to each buyer persona you identify. For example, Penny Professional would likely not be too interested in your top-shelf bourbon, but she'd be interested in a sweet, very Instagrammable cocktail.
Once you have identified who you're marketing to, the next step is to decide how you're going to entice them to visit your business and what promotion, discount, or incentive you are going to use.
Together, the how and the what combine to make a restaurant marketing plan.
What makes a great restaurant marketing plan?
A restaurant marketing plan is a chronological timeline of a restaurant’s intended marketing activities, across all marketing channels, for the upcoming calendar year.
An effective restaurant marketing plan will provide an at-a-glance view of past, present, and upcoming marketing campaigns with important marketing campaign data included, like:
Campaign goals: What you are trying to accomplish by conducting this campaign? Are you trying to increase your social follower count? Sell more of a certain menu item? Drive sign-ups to your loyalty program? It’s vital to the success of your campaign to have a goal outlined from its inception.
Campaign duration: How long will this campaign be live? E.g. a discount that is redeemable for the next two weeks or a radio ad that will air once a day for the next 10 days.
Intended marketing channel: Where will you be conducting this campaign? E.g. on social media, via your loyalty/rewards program, on a discount/promotion site like Groupon, etc.
Budget and spend: How much money will you devote to this campaign? For example, if you’re planning to sponsor a local little league team (and get your name on their jerseys) it may cost you a few hundred dollars, whereas an ad on YouTube will cost you per click.
Key performance indicators (KPIs): KPIs are metrics used to gauge the success of a marketing campaign. Examples of marketing performance metrics include sales/revenue increase/decrease, total tickets, loyalty/rewards sign-ups, or social follower increase.
Target audience: Targeting the right audience is crucial to restaurant marketing success. Be really thoughtful in developing your buyer personas: the more accurate you are, the more likely you are to reach the right guests and turn them into repeat customers.
What are the best restaurant marketing strategies?
These are 30 of the most common restaurant marketing channels and why they’re worth including in your restaurant marketing strategy.
- Optimizing Your Restaurant's Website: Making sure your information is up to date, keeping your hours, menu and location front and center, and highlighting your online ordering can make a huge difference in attracting visitors. Check out some examples here.
- Restaurant Social Media Marketing: Your customers are on social media, so you should be too. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok all have massive audiences and are a great place to start on your social journey.
- Restaurant Email Marketing: Effective email marketing can help drive guest engagement, increase sales and announce important updates, specials, and promotions to customers.
- Google My Business: Keeping your Google my Business page up to date is one of the simplest things you can do to increase your traffic. In the restaurant industry, around 30% of searches convert into paying customers immediately, 60% convert within an hour, and 80% convert eventually (according to this Google study).
- Search Engine Ads: Consumers rely on search to find restaurants. Research has shown that 81% of consumers have searched for a restaurant on a mobile app and 92% through a web browser in the last six months, so ads can make a huge difference in reaching a larger customer base.
- Review Sites (Yelp, TripAdvisor): Yelp and TripAdvisor also have huge audiences, and many guests use them to discover new restaurants. For these sites, it’s important to make sure your profile is fully filled out and looks enticing, and that you respond to and handle any potential negative comments.
- Sponsorship and Events: Sponsoring local groups and events, as well as hosting your own, are great ways to get your name out there and build excitement for your restaurant. Learn more about how to do this and budget for it here.
- Email Newsletters: One of the most powerful ways to ensure your most loyal customers get information is through restaurant newsletters. The newsletter can be focused on anything you’d like, but are a great way to share information, give updates, and let your guests know about promotions and discounts.
- Discount and Promotion Sites (Groupon, RetailMeNot): Everyone loves discounts! If it's in your budget, try offering a short-term discount on these popular coupon sites. It can be a great way to reach new audiences and entice new customers.
- Direct Mail: Though direct mail might not seem as popular anymore, studies have shown that direct mail recipients purchase 28% more items and spend 28% more money than those who do not get that same piece of mail. A small direct mail campaign can make a huge impact, so it’s worth trying out.
- User-Generated Content: Are your customers creating and tagging you in great content on Instagram and Facebook? Take advantage of this by encouraging the use of your custom hashtag, create Instagrammable moments, and repost on your own social pages.
- Video (Youtube, Vimeo, Facebook Live, Instagram Live): Video is a great opportunity to give behind the scenes looks into your restaurant, keep up with internet trends, and connect with the younger generation. Learn more about creating video content for your concept here.
- Food Festivals, Farmers Markets, and Food Halls with rotating vendors: These are all great ways to expand your customer base. Working these festivals and markets are awesome networking opportunities to help build guest relationships.
- Influencer Marketing: Pulling in local influencers is a relatively easy and inexpensive way to reach a larger social audience. Influencers will visit and promote your brand in exchange for a posting fee, or even just a free meal, depending on their reach and requirements.
- Restaurant Critic Reviews: Great reviews by well-respected people in the industry can certainly give you a boost in popularity. Here’s how to get your restaurant reviewed by bloggers and critics.
- Responding to Guest Feedback: Whether positive or negative, it's important to listen to, respond well to, and implement guest feedback. You don’t want to have a guest leave with a negative perception of your restaurant, and often a simple apology or gift card is enough to make it up to them.
Here are some lesser-known restaurant marketing channels and restaurant promotion ideas worth exploring:
- Menu optimization
- Third-party delivery sites with a discovery tool (UberEats, Doordash, Grubhub)
- A loyalty/rewards program
- One-time-use ride-share codes (Uber, Lyft, Bird, Lime)
- Cars, buses, trains, pedicabs, etc.
- Overhead ad space on public transit
- Mall and shopping center directories
- ‘Welcome to the Neighborhood!’ coupon books for new residents
- Light-Up/neon host stands
- Podcast sponsorship
- Low-cost wearables, like sunglasses, hats, koozies, etc.
- Branded coasters
- Entering a cooking competition
- Transforming your staff into brand advocates
Phew, that was a long list. So, how do you decide which of these restaurant marketing channels are right to reach your target customers? Lean on the research and analysis you and your team put toward developing your restaurant’s buyer personas. As we said at the beginning of this guide, restaurant marketing is all about meeting your customers where they are.
For example, if you own or operate a sports bar and want to attract the younger game-day crowd, your target demographic is likely men between the ages of 25 and 45 who follow social media accounts like Barstool Sports or Bleacher Report, participate in fantasy leagues, send their friends funny memes on Instagram, and love beer — both craft and domestic.
Connect with your distributor and run a Sunday game-day promotion with a well-known beer brand — like Bud Light or Coors Light — where guests are given freebies and swag. Advertise this promotion on your Instagram account, as well as via Instagram ads using the logo and beer's branding.
After tracking your collective restaurant marketing initiatives in your restaurant marketing plan, you need to analyze the success of your campaigns.
Calculating the ROI of Your Restaurant Marketing Efforts
Driving attention and foot traffic to your business through restaurant marketing is essential to the survival of your concept, but you want to be sure that your restaurant marketing campaigns and activities are earning you money, not costing you money.
After one of your restaurant’s marketing campaigns, you must calculate the ROI (return on investment) of said campaign using this formula:
The insights you gain from understanding what worked about your restaurant marketing campaign from a revenue perspective will influence how you approach restaurant marketing in the future.
Ready to add some restaurant marketing campaigns to the calendar? Keep reading for some restaurant marketing ideas that will boost brand recognition and drive foot traffic to your concept.
Track the ROI of your restaurant marketing campaigns with the restaurant metrics calculator.
The Restaurant Numbers & Metrics Calculator
Calculate the key restaurant metrics needed to understand the health of your business.
Restaurant Marketing Ideas Worth Trying
Below are some more resources on creative restaurant marketing ideas from real restaurants, restaurant consultants, and restaurant industry experts:
Make the most of your grand opening
Read more: 7 Restaurant Grand Opening Ideas that Actually Work
Provide a discount or promotional code
Read more: 10 Restaurant Promotions You Wish You Had Thought of Earlier
Run an LTO (limited-time offer)
Read more: Restaurant Discounts to Start Offering This Month
Read more: How To Price a Menu for Restaurant Events
Run ads on your target customers’ preferred social media platform
Read more: 10 Examples of Awesome Restaurant Social Media Marketing
Host a loyalty/rewards program for your guests
Read more: The Magic of Credit Card Linked Restaurant Loyalty Programs
Do contests and giveaways
Read more: 7 Effective Restaurant Contest Ideas Your Guests Will Love
Come up with an amazing slogan:
Read more: How to Choose the Right Restaurant Slogan
Make gift cards available for purchase (or give a pre-loaded gift cards to a loyal customer!)
Read more: How to Sell More Restaurant Gift Cards
Give a customer a shoutout on your social media page
Read more: 20 Customer Appreciation Ideas For Your Restaurant
Celebrate national food and drink holidays
Read more: National Food Holidays For Restaurants
Advertise your restaurant in local magazines, weeklies, circulars, or on local TV/Radio stations
Read more: Restaurant Advertising: 10 Creative Ideas for Your Restaurant Ads, The 10 Best Restaurant Ads of All Time
Inspired? Grab a copy of your customizable restaurant marketing plan below and get started.