February 28 2013 issue
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ROUNDTABLE Restaurant Marketing David Vogels, CWP
For Sommelier Journal’s annual Special Issue Roundtable, we recruited four professionals from around the country with a particular expertise in marketing. The group met in the conference room at Cakebread Cellars in Rutherford, Calif., on a rainy late-November morning following SJ’s two-day editorial-board meeting in Napa Valley.
Our panel included Sondra Bernstein, who celebrated the 15th anniversary of her groundbreaking Sonoma restaurant, the girl & the fig, last summer. Her original location in Glen Ellen, Calif., was converted to the fig café and winebar when the main restaurant relocated to the historic Sonoma Hotel in 2000. A Philadelphia native who got her start managing restaurants there before moving to California, Bernstein has also written two cookbooks and sells a line of girl & the fig gourmet-food products. In 2012, she and her executive chef, John Toulze, were named Persons of the Year by the Hospice du Rhône in honor of their all-Rhône-varieties wine list.
Tim McDonald, CSW, has worked in public relations for 25 years, including positions in marketing and communications with E. & J. Gallo, Peak Wines, Trinchero Family Estates, and Heublein Wines. He established his own Napa-based consulting company, Wine Spoken Here, in 2006, and now serves a number of clients in the wine industry. He is a Certified Sommelier and an active judge of wine and spirits competitions.
Marnie Old is a Contributing Editor of Sommelier Journal. Her most recent books are Wine Simplified (Inkling, 2012) and Wine Secrets (Quirk, 2009); she is also co-author of He Said Beer, She Said Wine with Sam Calagione of Dogfish Head Craft Brewery. A veteran Philadelphia sommelier and restaurant manager and former director of wine studies at New York City’s French Culinary Institute, she now runs a consulting company, Old Wines, that advises restaurants, retailers, and trade associations.
Timothy L. O’Neal, who has worked for two decades in the restaurant industry, is currently wine director of Avenues Bistro in Kansas City, Mo. For the past three years, he has been named among the top five sommeliers in the area by Kansas City Magazine, earning the magazine’s Sommelier of the Year award in 2012. A member of the Sommelier Journal Editorial Advisory Board, he won a gold medal at the most recent FOLIO: Magazine’s Eddie Awards for his Feb. 28, 2012, article, "Revisionist Theory: Experimenting with the Wine List for Fun and Profit."
I began our discussion by asking the group what the concept of marketing means to a restaurateur.
David Vogels, CWP
Vogels: What’s your basic philosophy of restaurant marketing?
Old: Let me start by saying I am not a restaurant owner. But what I’ve observed after working in restaurants for a number of years and then consulting for and writing about them in the 10 years since is that we don’t pay enough attention to marketing, in the sense that we’re not thinking about the right criteria. I’ve had so many conversations with the owners of new restaurants who say they’re not busy enough because they didn’t do enough advertising, but my feeling has always been that you don’t need to advertise restaurants the way that you advertise breakfast cereal or batteries. When you talk to people about why they’ve come to your restaurant, they’re not going to tell you that they saw an ad on the back cover of a glossy magazine. That just isn’t the way that you get new butts in seats. So much of our business is driven by personal interaction, and I’ve always felt that restaurants need to focus more on boosting word of mouth through the customers they already have—whether it’s directly, with great service, great product, and great events, or indirectly, by going out and finding some way to touch people even when they’re not in your restaurant. Restaurant marketing needs to be people centered, because that really is how we get every new customer—it’s a concierge or a friend or a brother, a connection who is sending someone into our restaurant, not an ad.
O’Neal: Most of what I think of as restaurant marketing actually happens inside the restaurant as opposed to outside. That may be different for chains or multi-unit operators, which can absorb the expenses of advertising. But mom-and-pop places and single units like my restaurant don’t have the ability to do huge campaigns. So it starts with the staff and segues into the quality of the product, which is marketing in and of itself.
Bernstein: Marketing has evolved over the past 15 years, and my strategies have changed quite a bit. There’s so much competition that there’s a need to go, "Look at me, I’m here," but you can’t do that as a gimmick; you have to be promoting something that’s good quality, that’s real, that people can get excited about. What model you use to attract people—and do it differently from your next-door neighbor, even as people get more and more tech savvy and food media have changed everything dramatically—is important. But trying to figure out the right one for your business is hard. I feel fortunate that I have a very large staff; there’s no way I could do what I do for marketing if I were on the line or the floor every day. It’s all trial and error—you’ve got to try stuff and really have your staff be aware of what’s working. I find that I like to do all the creative aspects of it; I’m really bad at the return-on-investment analysis of what works the best. It’s a huge subject, and I think that building your client base so that you’re actually talking to the right people is fun. Fun and overwhelming.
If you’re not part of a multi-unit chain where you have a VP of marketing, then who is in charge of the marketing at your restaurant?
Old: It depends on the restaurant, but it’s usually not the chef; it’s either the owner or the manager. Occasionally, if there happens to be an events staff that books weddings and that kind of thing, those people often have ups and downs in their schedule where they can handle some kind of marketing and PR. It’s really who understands it, who gets it, who has the time. And if the owner isn’t willing to pay someone else, it’s going to be the owner.
O’Neal: I agree that it falls on the owner. But we get people coming in all the time who are trying to pitch this or that: "We have a new service and we want you to market with us." The GM can assess it; as the sommelier and wine director, sometimes I field those pitches. I do think that listening to the staff’s ideas helps; sometimes they can come up with really innovative marketing concepts. Maybe we can find ways to set up incentive programs that build business at hours where it typically struggles. Instead of thinking about the broad aspects of a marketing plan, I look at it this way: we’re open almost every day of the year, and each of those days we’re doing two seatings—sometimes three, because we serve brunch. We know we’re going to be busy on Valentine’s Day, so we don’t have to put forth any marketing effort there. Instead, I focus on those early weekdays where it’s like, "OK, what are we going to do, in a marketing sense, to increase sales when they are normally sluggish?"
Sondra, have you tried to hire someone to take on the PR role?
Bernstein: I’ve done a newsletter since day one that was printed and made available to guests in the restaurant as well as by mail, until e-mail became a much more affordable option. We never really used an outside agency until my first book came out, when I hired a PR firm specifically to generate some motion around that. For one of our restaurants, we hired someone on a year-long contract, and it generated a huge amount of publicity—so much that keeping up with her was a full-time job; I’d need to answer some question, or the chef had to stop what he was doing to participate. At the girl & the fig, I don’t need to do that, except maybe 2-4 in the afternoon or 10-11 at night. I don’t take that for granted, because the shoe could drop any day; the next great new place could open. So for the most part I do the marketing. My director of human relations was the one who set up our Facebook account, because she was motivated and understood how it worked. She would post, I have one manager who posts, and the catering-event team posts occasionally. We don’t get a lot of input from the staff—we’ve had a few issues with staff posting on Facebook inappropriately. Not on purpose, but we’ve come to realize how far that stuff can go.
Marnie, when you go in to consult, how do you convince the top people that they need to do marketing?
Old: My consulting almost always focuses on wine programs, beverage programs, training, and service. For me, marketing starts there. A lot of restaurateurs don’t understand how important it is to have everything in their restaurant reinforce the brand that they’re trying to put out there. Your best salespeople are already on the floor; you don’t really need a marketing person, even if you’re a brand-new place, when you’ve got those ambassadors. But if you don’t give them the tools, if you don’t give them the language and the skills that they need to go out there and be able to sell your place, then you’re missing an opportunity for marketing in house.
I think you’re accurate, Timothy, in saying that so much of marketing is what happens within the four walls as opposed to outside. The most obvious thing to me is restaurant wine lists. I can’t tell you how many times I go into a restaurant and I see a beautiful logo, a nice design, a lovely menu, and then you open the wine list and it’s in Times New Roman, it’s squished and cramped, with no negative space, because somebody was trying to fit as many wines as possible on a letter-size sheet of paper. That’s just such an incredible disconnect. We have very few means to sell our beverages. We know what a huge chunk of our sales they represent, how central they are to profitability, so the idea of not taking our beverage menus seriously as billboards, as advertising, is just a shame. It’s within our control to fix, yet because we see it every day, we look past it. People do not like to look at densely packed text; it hurts your brain. And when you’re trying to maintain a conversation with three people at the table and order a bottle and get the meal started, it’s enough to make you order a rum and Coke. You default to the simple when you are faced with overwhelming written materials, with things that are not designed for ease of use but rather for ease of the manager’s job.
O’Neal: We’ve learned that older clientele have difficulty seeing the menu, which is essentially the biggest marketing piece of what you do. You need to take a look at your marketing materials—which are all your menus—and make sure that they’re legible and well laid out.
So marketing starts with the concept of the restaurant? Just the name of Sondra’s restaurant—the girl & the fig—is brilliant, and doesn’t it all flow from that?
Bernstein: Thank you. Marnie, you would probably cringe if you saw my wine list—we print the menus on large-format paper, and our rule is you can only have as many wines as will fit on that. You can’t have more anyway, because storage is an issue. But with our particular wine list, which offers a "Rhône alone" experience, we spend so much time explaining to our staff that they need to be prepared to be proactive at the table when people are looking at the wine list. We don’t go in assuming that people know nothing, but five out of 10 are saying, "Where are the Chardonnays, where are the Cabernets?" Instead of, "I’m sorry, we don’t have that," it needs to be a discussion about marketing Rhône wines, not just the girl & the fig: "Let me bring you a taste; we serve some local things, we serve some things from France." We have to come at it from such a different angle.
McDonald: I remember when Sondra first opened, and this Rhône-only proposition was unique. It wasn’t Sonoma based, it was variety based, which complemented the kinds of foods that her restaurant was going to serve. So from day one, they didn’t need any advice—they had the right idea; they had a USP, or "unique selling proposition." And when certain owners have a reputation that precedes them, the locals who might be guests are going to be curious when they open a new place. Ifyou don’t have a reputation to start with, then you have to kind of search out what you want to be when you open the door.
It’s not enough to say, "I’m going to open a restaurant that serves French food."
O’Neal: Deciding what you’re going to open where is the biggest marketing decision you’re going to make. In my experience, failures can lead to later success. For example, in St. Louis, there was a restaurant that I worked at, a small place in a blue-collar neighborhood that was making the most outrageously good food I’ve ever had, with prices to match—$30 appetizers and so forth. We were open one year, and then we just took a nosedive because the concept of the restaurant didn’t fit the location and its populace. You’ve got a 1-mile radius, maybe a mile and a half, and the people who live there are pretty much the ones who are coming to your place, unless you’re a destination point; maybe Napa’s a little different. But seeing that kind of a failure would make me think twice from a marketing perspective if I were trying to open up a new concept. Once you have the concept and you’ve signed the lease and opened the doors, you can’t really go back.
Old: I’ve helped open 15 restaurants and been involved in many others, and what you’re saying rings true to me in the sense that when I’ve seen restaurants fail, two factors tend to be the leaders. One is location issues: wrong place. And the other is service issues: wrong people. Unfortunately, in the restaurant business, you’ll be busy for a year before you find out that those issues exist and that you’re going to fail. There are plenty of people who want to try you once, but one visit is not enough. Our industry is absolutely driven by return business. If they don’t want to come back, you’re screwed. If they don’t want to tell all their friends to go, you’re screwed. That’s what I meant about word of mouth being, in many ways, the most important aspect of marketing. But Sondra, you also have an amazing location, not just in wine country but in the town of Sonoma, which reinforces your position over 15 years in that community as well.
Bernstein: We actually first opened in Glen Ellen, in the middle of nowhere. But when we were able to take the lease in Sonoma, we followed a series of restaurants that couldn’t make it in that space. People went, "Oh, you’ll never make it there; it’s haunted, it’s jinxed." I attribute our success to cutting a hole in the wall and changing the way the space flowed. I’m not being humble about all the other great qualities of our restaurant, our people, and everything that we do, but that really made it more guest accessible, more friendly. People didn’t have to walk all the way around the bar to get to their table.
Location is still really important. When Estate was open, four blocks away from the fig—we closed it at the end of September, not because of business, but because the property was sold and we decided to leave—we’d have an hour-long wait at the fig and train our staff to say, "Let me find out if we have a table at our restaurant a few blocks up the street; there’s parking," and people would say, "No, no, we’re going to wait." And for the life of me, I can’t explain it. I didn’t open for lunch there because I knew we wouldn’t get the foot traffic. I agree that service is important, too. We’ve got people who’ve been coming for 10 years and always ask for the same server. That’s a huge compliment. That says more about that person than what we’re doing as a restaurant.
Old: We all know that there’s an expectation of excellent food, excellent product, and that the environment also has to meet certain standards for a place to be a success. But service is the element that’s most likely to turn on or turn off your customer. This is true not just in restaurants; it’s true in dry cleaners and every other kind of business. People will return to a business for an iffy product if the service is good enough, but they won’t return to a business for an excellent product if the service is rude or difficult or apathetic. I remember a company I used to work for would get the service survey that American Express puts out every year. The answers were all fascinating, because they showed that you can screw up—there’s a piece of metal in somebody’s salad, you poured coffee down the back of a white dress—but if you fix it the right way, you have a chance to make an even better customer connection and earn a return guest than if nothing went wrong and everything was just normal. It’s in those extreme circumstances that your staff shows whether they care or don’t care—whether they’re putting the guest first or not. That’s something I’ve tried to make my consulting clients understand: what you’re doing needs to be guest-centric, if for no other reason than that’s how you get return business and improve your bottom line.
McDonald: This goes to the level of training and having the right individuals in place from the beginning. Even before the Internet, there was a buzz about Sondra’s place and how friendly it was. We all know there are lots of choices you can make, and I want to go to a place where there’s a level of "hugging" or appreciation of guests. Another good example here in Napa is Oenotri. Before you know it, [beverage director] Sur Lucero will come over and introduce you to an entirely Italian wine list in the heart of Napa and fix you up with something you’ve never had before, maybe even from a region that you’ve never explored. When the food comes, it all fits. And I’m going to tell people about this place. I tend to go to restaurants in the first week or two of their opening, and I remember thinking, "Wow, I’ve got to call [San Francisco Chronicle restaurant critic] Michael Bauer and let him know this is here." Even though Oenotri is in kind of a funny spot, the way that you were handled by the front of the house right off the bat made it work.
O’Neal: When we’re talking about internal marketing, staff morale is huge. I’ve been in restaurants where you could feel that the staff just wasn’t there—they weren’t happy. We would have an annual employee party, maybe during the Super Bowl or sometime when we just weren’t going to do any business, and one year it was cancelled. And that crushed morale not that week, not that month, but beyond. It was an awful decision. You need to support your staff; they have to be happy, because they’re your beacons of marketing. Let’s say you have some new event that’s coming up, you’re trying to fill one of those days that isn’t looking so hot—it’s an effort for them to promote that. If they’re there to serve the table, take the tip, and go home, there’s not a lot of incentive for them to say, "Hey, I think you should come in for the Saturday $5.99 lunch-brunch thing we’ve got going on."
Bernstein: If our staff is only focused on today, then they’re not going to make it with us. And they know this. They have to look at the big picture of their success over six months, eight months, one year if they’re going to get a shift next week. Yes, meanwhile, they’re paying their rent, but they can either move to one restaurant, then in six months go to another, go to another, go to another—or they can be here, be supported, be educated, have family meal, go to parties.
Old: There’s another aspect to it. I know the way you run your restaurant, and it’s really laudable, but there are a lot of places that don’t understand that if you don’t walk the walk, you can’t talk the talk. You can’t be the kind of ownership or management team that says, "Do this, do this, do this, but then I’m going to step away and break the rules. You’re not allowed to drink your glass of water in the side kitchen, but I can." That kind of separation between the leadership and the foot soldiers is so destructive. I used to work for one restaurant where they deliberately fed us such disgusting food that we servers took turns and went out and bought staff meal from a different take-out place every day. That’s not a way to get everybody on board. Later on, when I was with that group of five restaurants, I was the beverage director and the leader of training, but really, my primary role was chief cheerleader. And at any point, the empowerment of the staff had to come first. I learned this lesson the hard way when I came on board with Striped Bass. Their wine cabinet for bottle service was immediately adjacent to the back door, with no security. When you have a situation where anybody can grab a $300 bottle and put it into a bag or a trash can and walk it out the back, you have to have people in your corner. So at first I was not thinking about this as altruistically as I am now, but I realized once I went down that road that everybody has to be on my team. And if they’re not, we have to get them out of this restaurant as quickly as possible.
O’Neal: This is as internal as it gets. Restaurateurs and managers need to know that’s where it starts. I wouldn’t hire a person who isn’t going to do all this other stuff that we’re going to ask, in addition to just waiting a table and taking a tip. But once you can gather a whole team of cheerleaders, then you’re really making internal marketing happen.
McDonald: It sounds like common sense, but you do have to create ambassadors or cheerleaders out of your staff, so that your guests feel they’re being treated specially. They need to be authentic, to be down to earth, and to care about what they’re doing. I think internal marketing is critical when you talk about morale, and a big part of it is that you want people to be excited about being there and serving their shift time and making as much money as they can while they’re there. If they’re like that, they’re entrepreneurs who just happen to be working for somebody else.
Old: And that’s also why I’ve always said I’d rather hire for attitude than for experience. I don’t care that you know your Bordeaux from your Burgundies; that’s not terribly helpful to me if you’re also a jaded, bitter person. I would rather start with somebody who’s curious about the world, who likes people, and who knows how to smile. I’ll teach you what you need to know about Burgundy if that’s part of the job.
Bernstein: You also say to the staff, "Just be here, be present. You’re going to mess up, but show some empathy, show that you’re actually here. Say, ‘I’m so sorry, how can we fix this? How can we make it right?’" Some servers get nervous about telling the manager if there’s a problem; they think they’ll get in trouble. But it’s like, no, get the manager involved, take care of the guest with conversation and interaction—you’re going to get a better tip. It’s not that hard.
Old: Here’s a little example that shows what staff can do. One of the restaurants that I was doing a beverage program for was Avenue B in Philadelphia—a well-intentioned restaurant whose location was an issue. It was adjacent to the Kimmel Center [for the Performing Arts], and the owners really thought that was going to be a bigger draw than it was. They had a huge space they paid way too much money for and went all out to doll it up—it was gorgeous. We had an interesting, Italy-centric wine list and menu whose covers were all printed up, and they decided to print up on similar material what they thought would be check presenters. But they didn’t work very well, because when they got moist sitting on the bar, they curled up. I was looking at boxes of hundreds of these beautiful check presenters, branded with our logo, and wondering, "What could we do with these? There’s got to be something." So what we did was print up an insert, adding a band of elastic to turn it into a little booklet that provided Italian wine information. One page was a little map with the regions, one was a vintage chart for recent years, and one had a glossary of common terms. And on the back was a space where you could write down the wine that people loved so they would remember it. In Pennsylvania, everything is centralized, so I could even give them the phone number of the distributor or the code if it was on the shelf in a store nearby. We got more crazy return thank-yous for that. It was going one step beyond what is necessary, yet it wasn’t terribly difficult.
Bernstein: If customers love a cheese they’ve never had before, servers can say, "This is what you just ate." Those little things go so far.
Timothy, do you have a way of getting the servers to obtain feedback from customers and let management know what they’re thinking?
O’Neal: Here’s something that I wish our restaurant would do: in a different restaurant I worked at, when you would sign the credit-card receipt—and granted, this might be too corporate for some—at the bottom was "Service, Food, Ambiance" with the numbers 1 through 5, and guests could just circle their ratings. It was awesome, because if there was a server who was underperforming, or if food was all of a sudden being given a 3, 2, or 1, we could go, "OK, wait a second, what are we serving, where’s the problem?" A lot of times, the servers don’t want to come tell you if there’s an issue at the table. Feedback is spotty.
Old: When you hear it from the servers, it’s often framed a little differently: "There was a problem guest."
O’Neal: There are all sorts of ways to get around things in restaurants; we know how that goes. But I thought it was a fairly effective way to get information: "Let’s see if they’re all 5s this week."
McDonald: It’s a focus group that can be put in a place for a short amount of time, and you can discover something new.
Bernstein: Training is important, too—teaching staff to pick up the signs that somebody’s upset. Because people generally don’t want to embarrass a server at the table; they don’t want to appear to be that problem guest.
How do you measure the effectiveness of your marketing in this digital age?
McDonald: That’s the challenging part. If the restaurant’s full, you feel good, and everything’s working the way it’s supposed to work, it’s kind of hard to connect the dots. But in the past, before the "Yelpification" of our on-premise trade, you didn’t know that you had disgruntled or unhappy guests. They just went out and told a lot of people that they’d had a lousy time at your venue. At least now, with the Internet, there is a way to monitor reactions that might give you a clue.
O’Neal: It can happen awfully quickly in your restaurant. I got a call from a social-media company that we’d been working with, and they said, "Hey, we just happened to see your Twitter feed, and someone’s in your restaurant right now, tweeting, ‘We are having a bad experience.’" So first we had to figure out who it was, what table they were at, and then how we were going to fix it without them knowing that I knew. That’s not easy. But it was fun to turn the table around and see the tweets get better. It’s amazing how fast it’s happening and how social media is bringing its own little set of challenges into the restaurant.
Bernstein: We use Yelp to a degree; I don’t read everything any more, because it makes me really nauseous, but I do use it to note trends. And the same thing goes for TripAdvisor and all the other places—I think they’re telling on average. I have my TweetDeck, OpenTable access, the Facebook feed. When time permits, I’lldo a search for girl & the figand find people saying, "We’re going to the restaurant," and I’ll reach out and say, "Oh, when’s your reservation? What’s the reservation under?" Then I go to the reservation book and put in, "Please send out a cheese course, VIP social media." And how great is that? They come in, sit down, and all of a sudden they’re treated like VIPs. On the cautious side, I also tell the staff that when you’re doing that, you have to be aware of the people around them. People love being treated like VIPs; people hate being treated like they’re not. I have to caution myself, even walking through the tables, if I say hello to this person, I have to turn around and acknowledge that these other people are there, because otherwise I can do as much harm as good.
McDonald: Social media is not going away, and you either embrace it and get on the train or get left behind. Though it’s called free, it certainly isn’t, because you have to spend a lot of time on it. And it’s just going to continue to get bigger; people are taking pictures of plates when they come out, pictures of wine labels, and throwing them up on Facebook and making some sort of comment.
Bernstein: Do you know about Forkly? They have come so far so quickly; they’ve done a phenomenal job. (See "Social Media: A Primer for Restaurants," p. 76.) Basically people post pictures of food, where they are, rate it, and tag it—it’s incredible. It’s kind of like what TasteSpotting was, but this is more serious. A lot of wine labels, a lot of drinks, a lot of cocktails. The interaction, too, is important—engaging in conversation in any kind of a marketing context.
Is this the way marketing is going, or is there still a place for traditional print advertising and mass media?
Bernstein: We do next to none. However, we just had an opportunity to be part of a co-op ad in a newspaper insert. I’d said, "If it looks like an ad, I will not do it. If it looks like an advertorial or an article, I would be happy to do it." And it turned out really nice; it was expensive, but it was a good use of dollars. I wouldn’t do it in our local paper, though. I feel sometimes compelled to take out some online ads just to support them as a business in town, but I don’t see the value of having an ad in print that goes away in a day.
Old: I see more of a role for print advertising when you’re a new business—when people don’t know your name yet, they haven’t seen your logo yet, they don’t know your address and phone number. When people are already buzzing about a new restaurant, there’s a place for print advertising, so they can go, "Oh, that’s the place that Tim was telling me about!" It’s really more to reinforce the existing word of mouth that’s happening. The girl & the fig’s at a stage now where I don’t see it doing any good. You’d be better off doing print advertising in travel publications, targeting tourists rather than locals.
McDonald: I totally agree. I think that in the beginning it’s important, because it supports the buzz. But if you’ve already got a reputation, it’s more important to allocate that kind of budget to what I consider to be the new advertising—you’ve got to support social media. You have to spend some time on it to retain your reputation. There’s something going on with thumbs in every restaurant, every day, and if you’re able to monitor it, all the better for getting repeat business.
O’Neal: My advice to anyone considering social media as a restaurant-marketing platform is that you should not spend a lot of money. If anything, you spend a bit to get things established and then get out. Do not sign a long-term contract; it is not a good idea.
Bernstein: The other big part of our marketing budget is community charity. Many of these organizations directly contribute to the well being of our staff and community, and if they’re doing a good job with their auction or whatever it is, you get a little bit of advertising, too. It is also a way to thank our guests for their patronage of these charities, which is as important as the potential marketing value.
Old: It’s like using trade to pay for advertising instead of dollars. I also think it’s important to participate in events where you can get someone who might not have been in one of your restaurants to taste your food. There’s a temptation among small, independent restaurants not to participate in those things, because you have to pay three people for the day and you have to prepare 100 hors d’oeuvres or whatever. But I see more marketing value in those events than in more traditional advertising channels.
Bernstein: And they are fun, most of the time. You get to connect with people.
What about marketing special events, such as one-time wine dinners? Do you take an individual approach to them, or is it more of an ongoing effort?
O’Neal: Don’t discount your bathroom as prime advertising space for anything you’re doing in your restaurant. You see it in bars all the time, but you can make it look really nice even in the finest of dining venues. We had great success with a clever poster for the Iron Sommelier series that we’ve done for quite some time. Guests would see it and come out and ask their server, "What’s going on with that?" So it doesn’t matter what event you have, whether it’s a wine dinner or anything else—use any space where someone has to stay put and look at something. It’s unavoidable marketing.
McDonald: And every guest is likely to be in that space.
O’Neal: Yes, and table tents are kind of cheesy. They can be overwhelming; I mean, how many specials do you need to advertise?
Old: I don’t recommend table tents; I do recommend putting things in check presenters and using space in your bathrooms. I’ve also found those postcard racks that people provide for you to put next to the coatroom to be really handy; you can end up using three or four of those slots for your own events. There are plenty of good ways to capitalize on those unused spaces in your restaurant.
What kinds of digital marketing can you do for special events?
O’Neal: I’ve tried to give things away on Facebook with the most outrageous posts: "Come down right now and basically drink for free." And the answer is zero. The more friends you have on Facebook, the more your feed gets crammed. And Facebook isn’t stupid: they’re now charging for promoting posts—five bucks each time, and some things are $10, so I don’t like that very much. We’ve had the most success with e-mail; we send out 18,000 e-mail newsletters for a 100-seat restaurant. That’s a lot. Maybe 14,000 people don’t open them, but 4,000 people do. And when the deal’s a $9.99 brunch on a Fourth of July Sunday, we have 350 people who are waiting to come in.
Old: I don’t know if this is true elsewhere in the country, but localwineevents.com has been hugely helpful to me in filling seats at East Coast events. It’s a very smart, free model; you can add bells and whistles if you want to pay for them, but you don’t have to. When you have an educational opportunity or visiting winemaker or whatever kind of special, beverage-centric event you’re doing, it seems to be a very good resource for that.
O’Neal: I’ve used it for some of our wine events, and it’s had a minimal effect. Some people have great success with it; what annoys me, I suppose, is that some restaurants will list every single tasting—12 of basically the same thing at the same place—and so mine gets kind of lost. But because it’s free, I put it there anyway.
Can you get press coverage for these events?
O’Neal: Yes, when we decided we wanted to donate an entire day’s worth of sales to those suffering on the East Coast after Hurricane Sandy, I went on the radio for that. When you talk about charities—it’s important for restaurants to embrace them, in my view. When you’re looking for press and want to do something really great for a charity, people respond to that.
McDonald: In most markets, there’s somebody looking for someone to tell them that there’s a cool event coming up. Unfortunately, the time span is about a week or so. But local writers are interested in filling in that white space in their column or blog, so reaching out to them is what you have to do. You have to call up and say, "Hey, I’m having a festival" or a fundraiser, or whatever it is.
Bernstein: There’s a company in Chicago called RIA, Restaurant Intelligence Agency, that runs Spoonfeed; it’s an interesting model that I tried to get involved with, but right now it’s Chicago-centric. The website has three components: it’s got all this content that chefs are giving them for free; there’s this part where the press can go in and say, "I’m working on this story and I need 10 quick answers," and it automatically goes to all these people, and then if a reporter wants to talk further, they’ve got the contact; and then there’s a directory of all the restaurants that are members. They also do a daily e-mail blast, a weekly blast—it’s an interesting program. I think it’s a model they’d probably like to take all over the country.
Do loyalty programs help in your internal-marketing efforts?
O’Neal: We have a points-based rewards program through Aloha, and we’re very aggressive about doing a free entrée for your birthday and your anniversary. People think it’s very attractive. And when they sign up, we ask for their e-mail. If you’re really good, and you’ve got a party of six: "That’s a large party. We’d like to send a confirmation e-mail to you." Are they going to mind getting an e-mail once a month? Probably not; we don’t overdo it. We did have an emergency situation last month with our Superstorm Sandy event. OK, that’s a quality e-mail; we can now afford the second blast of the month.
We also created Club Bistro, which is basically, "Hey, when we send an e-mail to you, there’s going to be a serious discount for your next visit—it could be free dessert or something else worthwhile. It won’t just be fluff in your e-mail." And then you put it on your servers to promote; I do a month-long contest for getting Club Bistro members, and I’ll be sitting with 500 new e-mail addresses at the end of the month. Does a server want a $100 or $200 gift card for winning? Because 500 new e-mails are extremely valuable; they serve us really well.
Bernstein: We have a card for people to fill out, but we’re not really offering anything. I’ve gone back and forth with loyalty programs, and I think it’s too much for us to track—too much paperwork. But people are into it.
O’Neal: It is a certain amount of work, but we have people who have thousands of dollars on their cards. They want to see how much they can accumulate, and then they could have a huge party. It’s not for everyone, but for us it’s been really good marketing wise.
Old: And there are a lot of people now who are just as happy to do their reservation confirmations by e-mail rather than by phone.
Bernstein: Oh, do you want to talk about OpenTable? I spend around $36,000 a year on OpenTable. A third of that goes through our website, which just costs a quarter per booking. But if they make reservations directly on OpenTable, it’s a dollar. Six people costs $6 per table. It’s just unbelievable.
Old: They’re in a monopoly situation at this point; there’s really not anybody who’s offering anything comparable.
Bernstein: There’s SeatMe (www.seatme.com), which is relatively new—$99 a month, flat rate. It’s a different model; table maintenance is on an iPad. Granted, they’re not going to market you the way OpenTable does, but this company is trying to drive people back to your website. There are a lot of things they need to fix, but $1,200 a year versus $36,000 a year? I could hire two more hostesses or really do something extra for that. Anotherservice called CityEats (www.cityeats.com) has been launched by the Food Network in a few cities, and we will be trying out this program as well; it’s more costly than SeatMe but much less than OpenTable.
Old: There are customers attached to that $36,000 that you’re paying. And how many of them would have taken a different path to a reservation?
O’Neal: And as if life couldn’t get even more challenging, we’ve realized that some of the most successful restaurants in our community—the long-standing and still most popular places in Kansas City—are doing Groupon. We thought Groupon was something for businesses that were struggling, or maybe for new restaurants to raise awareness, but our business was declining because there are so many Groupon users in our area. So we put out one offer, and we sold 2,300 Groupons for a three-month period of time. I believe you can negotiate with them now so that these numbers are a little more favorable to you. The hope is that these customers overspend; otherwise, you’re going to be in big trouble. There are also a lot of people who buy them and never use them. I was completely and vehemently against it, but in our particular demographic, it is outrageously popular. That was this year’s most painful marketing decision: doing Groupon.
Bernstein: We did Bloomspot once, which is similar. We created a deal at a price; we said, "OK, you’re going to get a four-course meal for this much money," which was less money than it would have been if you’d gone into the restaurant. They knew it was a discount because it was coming from a discount site, but it wasn’t marketed as a two for one. We sold $13,000 in gift cards in 24 hours; they expired in a year. And the only way we broke even was the people who never used them. We did not see any of these people as repeat guests. Bloomspot’s a little bit higher class than Groupon, in my personal opinion, but these people rarely overspent. Servers hated it because they weren’t getting tipped properly. I couldn’t wait until the date was over, and the staff couldn’t wait until the date was over. They would fight to not get the Bloomspot tables.
O’Neal: We have seen some Groupon customers who are sensitive to the fact that they’re getting a deal; they tip the server just fine, and they purposely overspend. So if that trend continues, then maybe it’s OK. But certainly at the beginning, a couple of years ago, you’d hear these horror stories of restaurants attracting the cheapest possible people. What happened to just going to a restaurant, getting the menu, and ordering? When they ask for the check, I’m like, "Well, how much do I make it out to you for?"
What else can you do to make guests feel that they’re getting a deal without hurting tips and revenue?
Bernstein: When the girl & the fig moved to Sonoma from Glen Ellen, the old space became the fig café, 45-50 seats. Monday night we did comp-corkage night, and we were packed—busier than Saturday night. And I’m like, are you kidding me? If this is what it’s going to take, I’m going to comp corkage every night. All my restaurant friends wanted to kill me, but it was my survival! Here in wine country, a lot of the tasting-room personnel get perks, where they go home with a bottle every day, and people who live here buy cases. Our corkage fee was only $7 anyway—I thought, there’s no way anything will happen because we’re giving up $7. But this changed everything; it’s psychological. At the café, we have maybe one or two wines over $40. It’s spillover from the list at the fig, so we don’t have administrative dollars going to tasting and searching—it’s just the bottles that are at the right price point. Comped corkage fills the seats, but we have to make smarter decisions on our food costs and our labor and all those other things. At the girl & the fig, too, if someone is bringing in a 1970 or a 1980 vintage, we comp the corkage. The fact that they’re bringing one of their prized possessions into the restaurant, and they want to eat our food with this special wine—acknowledge them and thank them for that.
Old: In Philadelphia, the BYO scene is madness, in part because restaurants pay almost retail for wine and spirits. We get only 10% off shelf pricing; there’s no volume discount, no delivery, or any of those things. So it’s administratively difficult to run beverage programs, and a little mom-and-pop operation is better off opening without a wine list. What that means is that licensed restaurants’ direct competitors are BYO restaurants, where there’s no corkage fee—you bring what you want, you drink what you want. In the licensed restaurants, like Striped Bass, I had knock-down, drag-out fights with the owners to convince them to let people bring in wine. When I finally got them to agree, what we did was not corkage; what we said was, "You can bring a bottle for every bottle you buy. If you buy a bottle of Prosecco, you can open your bottle of Bordeaux." It made it equitable, it seemed to make sense to people, and it was a way to build the check to a point where at least the gratuity was keeping step with what was served. Because the problem with corkage is that the $7 fee is not replacing the tip on the $40 sale. So it was a question of how do we make it so that the server and the restaurant and the guest all end up with a win-win situation?
Bernstein: Interestingly, at the fig café, they tip more—I think because it’s wine country. Also because they feel like they’re getting something for free, so they give it to the servers. I don’t know that it would be like that everywhere.
McDonald: And I would imagine that the tourist doesn’t tip more.
Bernstein: Probably not. But they’re less likely to bring their own wine, unless they were at a winery that day that told them, "Oh, you’re going to get free corkage if you take this to the fig café."
O’Neal: We’ve also had some success in working with retail shops, sometimes piggybacking on other people’s newsletters.
McDonald: I think off trade is important—working with popular wine stores that have good employees, who’ve been there a long time and know their inventory very well, and who will get asked those questions: "I’m not from around here; in a radius of x, what’s the best restaurant?" That’s the true meaning of social media: before we were able to just type our thoughts to the world, people talked to each other. They talked to servers and to folks in the store.
O’Neal: Guests will say, "Thanks for the bottle recommendation; it’s really nice." "Oh, well, here’s where you can buy that wine." And someone will be in the shop: "Where should I go to dinner?" "Well, you should probably go to Avenues Bistro."
What about offering specials on the wine list, such as 50% off one day a week?
Old: I’ve seen places do it; I don’t know how effective it is because I haven’t been behind the scenes to see their numbers. But it never really seems to be as effective as they want it to be. I think part of it is that the minute you do 50% off anything, you’re discounting yourself to a degree. Free corkage is a little different from half off, which draws attention to the fact that your markup has to be more than 50%. It’s bringing up math in a way that is not helpful. I’d rather give them something free than give them percentages off.
McDonald: When the economy tanked andeverybody was challenged, restaurantshad to figure out ways to bring more people in. Here in Napa, Bistro Don Giovanni did a very clever wine-list page that had 29 wines for $29. It was probably 50% off, but it was never voiced that way. You can’t be too desperate looking.
O’Neal: We’ve had incredible success with half off. However, we learned quickly that we couldn’t do it with the whole list, because if we did, we’d be paying the customer to drink. But on the lower end, for the value wines, we developed a separate half-off list. We offer it Friday and Saturday for those seated after 8:30 p.m. In our neighborhood, it’s the Millennials who are coming in then. They’re dining late, they don’t have a lot of money, and they’re coming to our place to have dinner and a bottle of wine before going down to the local pub to continue their night. They are new people in our restaurant, which is really neat. Typically I’m not a big fan of half-off wines. That tells me as a consumer, "Well, when it’s not half off, you must really be ripping me off." But in this case, it’s a special list, maybe 20-25 wines, and it’s offered at an inconvenient time. We don’t have a lot of late-night diners; we suffered for years trying to figure out how to get people to walk into our restaurant at 8:30 or 9. Now this is one marketing aspect that’s working for us quite well.
Is it less important now to cultivate restaurant writers and reviewers?
McDonald: I think it’s just as big as it ever was. The difference is that there’s this added noise in social media, so everybody’s a critic. But I didn’t drink the social-media Kool-aid; I like wine writers, I like food writers, I like restaurant reviewers, and I think traditional media’s still king in that realm. So I believe in reaching out to the local restaurant reviewers; they’re going to come anyway if you’re new. People may not buy that newspaper or magazine any more, but they go online to see those professional reviews in addition to going to places where they might find the amateur recommendations. I don’t think that the role of the critic has ended—it’s just been made more complex.
Bernstein: But you don’t get regular coverage from critics. I mean, Michael Bauer has reviewed us maybe two or three times over 15 years. Yes, they’re powerful, but it’s not like a gossip column where you could appear every week.
O’Neal: A lot of the marketing we’ve talked about depends on your demographic and your understanding of where you are and what the people are like. What may not work for me and my restaurant may be fabulous for somebody else. So trial and error’s probably a good thing.
Old: I think there’s a flip side to that, too—and I’ve seen a lot of this in wine-program design right now—in that people tend to look at what’s hot, what’s newsworthy, what works in New York. But the reality is that New York is such an exception; I’ve had more disagreements with New York sommeliers about this than anything else—they think their reality is my reality, and it isn’t. Generally speaking, in my market, 20% of the population is made up of what I think of as the "diners," and the rest are the bread-and-butter customers—the "eaters." They’re looking for different things. The media critics—whether they’re professionals or amateurs doesn’t matter—are part of that 20% that’s up on trends and knows the names and watches the TV shows. They’re the people who are extremely fussy about what you put in front of them, they’re the ones who are chatting with you when you come to the table, and they’re the most vocal about their likes and dislikes. So because we hear from those people most, and because we’re watching their blogs and trying to figure out what they’re thinking, we tend to think of them as our audience, when in reality, the vast majority is silent. They’re not telling you what they’re thinking. They’re not telling their server what they’re thinking. And they’re not going home and tweeting about their experiences. So I often have to explain to people that it’s fine to please the diners, but if you’re doing it at the expense of the bread-and-butter customers, you’re not going to be here in two years.
There’s a way to put together a wine list that provides adventure for the adventurous and familiarity for those who are not ready for that.
Bernstein: Of course, our wine list is completely Rhône—no Chard, no Zin, nothing.
Old: But you can say, "If you like Cabernet, you’ll love Syrah." So part of it is education and training. I did work with a restaurant for a number of years that had only Italian products, but we made sure that it included Italian Chardonnay, Italian Cabernet, Italian Pinot Noir. And we had a whole section at the back of the list that literally was a cheat sheet; it said, "If you like Cabernet Sauvignon, if you like Chardonnay, these are the grapes and styles. Flip to page 5." But the thing that makes the difference is empathy—caring enough to get that message across.
McDonald: I remember coming in to the girl & the fig about a year ago and sitting at the bar; I was with a wine writer, and I said, "What’s really hot?" And the bartender said, "Well, we’ve got this white Grenache, and they only made two barrels of it." And I said, "Give me a glass!" But I’m in that diner crowd, I’m not in the eater crowd. Another diner might have said, "What’s white Grenache?" I think it’s true that you have to care about those folks that don’t want adventure in their lives.
Old: You’re in wine country; you’re in a different demographic, so you have people who have curiosity about wines beyond the everyday. That concept would not fly in Kansas City. This goes back to knowing your audience and figuring out who they are and how to give them what they want. Often restaurant owners don’t feel confident enough about their own beverage knowledge to be able to provide adequate supervision and boundaries. We’re so focused on training the staff about wine data, so focused on that pile of information, that we tend to forget about the marketing side, the service side, the profitability side, waste management, theft management—all of these things that are so critical to running our businesses. We forget that the person in that position was the waiter last year! What are we doing to give them the tools for their new job? Are we just teaching knowledge, or are we also teaching skills? Those skills, I think, are where we need the most work.
Bernstein: All of our management team gets sales-based bonuses. Over the past couple of years, we’ve added all this peripheral stuff, because you could have great sales, but we’re very focused on inventory and wine turnover and balance and guest feedback, and everything’s costed out. I think it’s so important for the whole staff to know all that.
Old: I’ve said to a few consulting clients that I think they’re spending too much time reading their point-of-sale reports, because so often, the only number that sommeliers are accountable for is their wine costs, their liquor costs. Everything they’re doing is boiled down to one number. And as you know, there are many ways to manipulate that number that aren’t helping long-term business; people aren’t recognizing the difference between the ways that are healthy and the ones that are not healthy.
So is marketing cost effective?
Old: I think much of what we’ve been talking about today is the difference between marketing that’s paid for and marketing that you invest time in. I mean, clearly there are different kinds of spending—spending time, spending effort, or paying somebody else.
Bernstein: I don’t put myself in my budget. I should, but I don’t. But even comping a cheese plate or a drink—the servers have to ring everything up.
Old: And what I think I’ve been hearing so far today is that there are situations where the traditional paid-advertising and marketing model makes sense or is even essential, depending on where you are and what kind of a place you have, whether you’re brand new or whether you’ve been around—but that the most valuable and essential forms of marketing are the ones that happen in house.
What about award programs like Wine Spectator’s? Are they helpful?
O’Neal: I can’t say that I’ve ever had a diner, in five years, come into our restaurant and say that they were there because we’d won a particular award. So we stopped worrying about that.
Old: Every year, Philadelphia magazine does a "Best of Philly," and the best new chef and best new restaurant see a lot of business from that. But it’s because it’s so hyperrelevant and so hyperlocal.
McDonald: I think in most metro cities, there is a traditional outlet for the top 100 restaurants or favorites of the year.
Bernstein: We’ve never been on San Francisco’s list, but I have friends who are on it, and they freak out when they get off it. Zagat scores are the same thing—I think they’re ridiculous. Apples are apples and oranges are oranges.
McDonald: In the beginning, it was kind of interesting. You think about the Michelin guide—granted, it’s a bitch when you get one of your stars taken away, but it creates buzz within that small group of diners. And because I’ve lived here for 20 years, I’ve seen everything from bistros that fail to high popularity for restaurants that I don’t quite get—that are full all the time and you can’t get in—and that’s part of the magic. Visitors, the tourist trade, they’ve heard from somebody—it might not be a critic; it might have been social media—that if they’re going to Sonoma, they have to try the girl & the fig. There are restaurants that get talked about. And all anybody wants to figure out is how to market themselves to be in that circle of conversation.
So how do you differentiate yourself from your competitors? How do you stand out in the crowd?
Bernstein: I’m not always worried about what everybody else is doing. I have to worry about what’s happening in our house and ensuring that we’re doing the best that we can. Things are going by so fast, and there’s so much out there, that it has to have some substance. When I wrote the second book, it was more about needing a different project, but it’s marketing, and even the fig’sfood product is marketing, too. If someone uses it in the restaurant and then buys our jam, it means they had a good experience and they want to take it home. If they’re in Dean & Deluca in New York and see it on the shelf, I’m hoping they’re going to say, "Oh, my God, remember when we were there? It was so awesome."
We’ve also had two huge marketing things in our restaurant that have happened in the past year. One had nothing to do with me, and that was Lady Gaga coming to visit with her entourage. That was the craziest social-media thing I’ve ever seen. The other was that we did The Bachelor—the first time we’ve ever done an in-restaurant shoot. I was like, "Am I really going to sell my soul to this?" But it was huge exposure. From that, I really grasped the notion of stepping out of my own reality.
McDonald: This idea of marketing that is not planned or that falls out of the sky—I think you just have to be there with a glove on to catch it, and then make it a bigger deal. You don’t plan it, you don’t have it in your budget, but it could happen more often if you’re paying attention. When Lady Gaga was here, there were a handful of places that got some pretty good buzz off that. And her fans do not care if this vineyard has a certain clone or a certain kind of terroir or if the fish in that restaurant is from the East Coast, not Sonoma. They’re the eaters.
Old: That’s what I mean. There are only a handful of restaurants like The French Laundry that can live off the diner segment. In New York, every restaurant on the block can live off that; you only need a few eater restaurants in Times Square. But everywhere else in the country, you have to figure out who your customers are and what works for you. At Striped Bass, we were doing very high-end food, high-end service, but we were not turning off that standard steakhouse customer; we weren’t alienating that crowd. The key is that when people go out to dine, it’s not a whole table of eaters or a whole table of foodies; it’s mixed. So the question is whether can you be that restaurant where both the adventurous and the non-adventurous feel comfortable.
Bernstein: It’s so cheesy, but I tell my staff, "Every day, we’re creating memories for people."Some people just want to eat their food, but for the most part, I want them to leave happy and I want them to tell more people about us.I also like to recommend other restaurants in our neighborhood; I try to support them and foster a community. If they come to me one time on their trip, I’m thrilled. In this area, we have a responsibility to give tourists really good information that is going to make their whole trip fabulous. If you see someone taking a picture, grab the camera and say, "Let me take a picture of you. Where are you going next?" Engage the guest.
Old: At the end of the day, the simplest definition of service is anticipating need. We have a tendency to stop at the table; we think about the needs that involve bread plates and water glasses and silverware. But there are far more needs that are obvious to our servers in the course of day-to-day interactions. You have to become an ambassador to your region, and having more restaurants on the block is not a bad thing. Nobody eats at the same restaurant every day. You want to promote the other restaurants in your neighborhood because you want that neighborhood to be the place to be.
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