How Can Small and Regional Restaurant Marketers Compete With Big Chains

Teenage friends having fun at the coffee shopHow a smaller restaurant can market in ways that are smarter, nimbler and break through the clutter of national chains.

In the cutthroat world of food service, there are so many factors in which you must compete: food quality, service, atmosphere, price, location and more. In many of these, the small restaurant group owner can compete with the big guys. They can control the quality of their dishes, the training of their staff, the look and feel of their restaurant and the value they provide.

However, there are two key areas where the small chain doesn’t stand a chance against the big guys – the sheer volume of menu innovations and sales promotions – both keys to getting butts in seats.

The bottom line is that the big chains are simply better funded and better structured to get the word out and implement both.

But how can a small group compete product by product and promo by promo? They can’t, so don’t.

Keep your menu innovations and promotions fewer and more considered. Being small may have its drawbacks, but it also has tremendous advantages. For one, it allows you to take full advantage of local culture and local agriculture.

Local Menu Innovations

For food innovations, it’s fairly obvious – take advantage of local crops and the times in which they’re freshest. For instance, a small chain of a half dozen full service restaurants in Colorado focuses its menu innovation around harvest time – in the late summer. They add items that include Rocky Ford melons from the eastern plains, Palisade peaches from the western slope and Olathe corn from the southwest.

These are opportunities that a Chili’s, TGI Fridays or Applebee’s could never compete with. It gives a small chain not only an opportunity to offer something completely different, it also reinforces the local nature in customers’ hearts. It reminds them that you are part of the community.

Meaningful Promotions

Your promotions can work in very much the same way. Recognize and celebrate the local flavor and culture in ways a chain cannot.

Run these promotions only a few times a year to make sure you can fully support them through both paid and unpaid media. And with both promotions and innovations, keep them consistent from year to year – it’s not about volume, it’s about building a relationship with your customers based on traditions and memories – like the Harvest Days promotion mentioned above, or an MLB Opening Day promotion that happens every Spring.

So perhaps forego Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day, Mother’s Day, National Sewing Machine Day, Old Rock Day and Static Electricity Day (you get the picture). Instead focus on holidays and times of year that are meaningful, memorable and, most of all, ownable.

So, it’s true that small restaurants can, indeed, compete with national chains. But they must do it on their terms and only with a sustained, consistent effort that leverages their natural and cultural advantages.

About Gina Lee De Freitas

Gina Lee De Freitas has 15+ years marketing the restaurant industry. She is the Chief Operating Officer/ Partner at IMM, a digital ad agency.
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