With a rapidly increasing number of Americans vaccinated and milder weather arriving in much of the country, people are finally ready to return full force to restaurants. The excitement around dining out again is palpable, and now is the time to capitalize on that pent-up demand. But the first order of business when it comes to bringing returning and new guests into your dining room is letting them know loud and clear you’re open for business.
Pre-pandemic, you might have hired a PR firm or invested significant money in advertising to promote your restaurant. Of course, times have changed. Thankfully, you don’t have to spend a lot of money on getting the word out that you’re open for business.
Here, we’ve compiled the most effective, low-cost ways to get yourself on the radar again (or for the first time). It’s a lot more doable than you might think.
Post a sign in your window
When you think of publicizing any aspect of your business, you may imagine a cute Instagram post you hope goes viral or growing your email list to thousands of subscribers. But before we get into the many ways you shout it from rooftops online, let’s start with a retro and affordable strategy: Put a big, bold sign in your window. This strategy has been used by Morton’s Steakhouse, a major industry player with plenty of resources, and if it can work for Morton’s it may work for you too. One of the best benefits of this simple strategy is that it’s most visible to the people who are most likely to become regulars—your neighbors.
Update your online business profiles
A lot has changed during the past year. Restaurants have done so many things to stay in the game, including becoming gourmet grocery stores, wine shops, or breaking into the frozen food business. Menus have tightened, and takeout and delivery have boomed. Hours of operation have shifted. As you decide what changes you’ll keep and what you’ll move on from, update your various online business profiles so people have updated and accurate information. You’ll want to make these updates to your listings on OpenTable, Google, Yelp, Facebook—wherever diners go looking for vital stats about your restaurants.
Spruce up your OpenTable profile
There’s one profile, in particular, you should pay attention to, and that’s your OpenTable profile. Make it feel current with recent photos (diners wearing masks or trees blooming on your patio, for example) and other current information. This can help people discover you when they’re searching on OpenTable and help turn people who are “just browsing” into people making plans and, crucially, reservations.
Get more active on social media
Just like the real world, the world of social media is starting to feel more normal again. People are looking not only for distraction but also for ideas about where to go. For example, 72% of Facebook users have made decisions about where to eat based on what they saw on the platform, according to ReviewTrackers. According to Targetable, 99% of millennials are more likely to rely on social media to make restaurant decisions. In addition to ramping up your posting schedule, you can use hashtags to publicize the fact that you’re open. Research the hashtags used in your area. Rosalie restaurant in Wayne, PA, used the popular hashtag #openinphl to tell the world they were open in the wake of the pandemic.
Bring back regulars
According to the economic theory known as the Pareto principle, 20% of most business’ customers account for 80% of revenue. This is a good reason to identify and focus on your highest-value diners—that 20% of your guests who spend the most with you.
Thanks to the rich data available through OpenTable, it’s easy to identify these VIPs. You can talk to them specifically with targeted, automated emails using OpenTable’s relationship management solution. This is the crowd you want to email about your wine dinners, tasting menu, and other big-ticket special events because they are most likely to buy.
It might be worth it to woo them with special offers just for them, like a complimentary dessert or VIPs-only amuse-bouche. You can also use these tools to send guests personalized messages ahead of their birthdays, anniversaries, or other special occasions.
Open your online availability so more people see you
Before the pandemic, you may have had a ratio of tables you made available for reservations versus tables left open for walk-ins set on autopilot. This is a good time to revisit how many tables you make available for OpenTable reservations according to your current seating chart in light of any current COVID restrictions. You definitely will want to maximize seating up to the allowable limit. Don’t forget to add any new outdoor seating to your OpenTable floor planning.
Remember, diner behavior has changed, and walk-in diners are less likely to stroll in off the street than they used to. After all, if your allocation of reservations has been snapped up and those walk-in tables stay empty, you aren’t making as much money as you could be. Plus, if there are no tables available for reservations, diners searching on OpenTable won’t see you. Adding available tables can boost your visibility.
Be everywhere diners are searching
Even though the situation is changing and improving, some diners are still hesitant to come out. These same diners are also sick and tired of cooking, and after a year of their old standbys on repeat, they are online searching for fresh takeout options. When you add takeout to your OpenTable profile, diners who are looking for pad thai, burgers, crab cakes, or your restaurant’s specialty to-go can find you. “Delivery and Takeout” is prominently displayed in the OpenTable app so this group of diners can easily find you.
Experiences offer another way to grab diners’ attention. You can let people know about your mimosa brunch, jazz Fridays, or truffle menu. Diners who are in the mood for something beyond a simple meal out can search Experiences specifically and find that your Retro Movie Sundays event is exactly their idea of a great time.
Make sure your website is SEO optimized
Search engine optimization is all about making sure your website surfaces in Google search results. You don’t have to go down an incredibly complex rabbit hole to get better SEO on your site. One of the primary ways to make your site more search-friendly is to organize it well. Create different pages of the site according to keywords. You’ll likely want one for “about,” one for “menu,” and one for “news” at a minimum. (For more on this topic, check out our article all about SEO for restaurants.)
Cross-promote with other local business
Get creative and work with your neighbors. Maybe there’s a yoga studio you can partner with to produce a ticketed or informal yoga and happy hour night out. Reach out to a farmer in your area to create a special farm dinner. Bower Cafe in Philadelphia created a retail section in the restaurant where the goods from local artisans, such as Poi Dog sauces, are displayed and sold. This helps draw new diners and creates the opportunity for you to be seen by another business’ audience on social media.
Use an OpenTable boost campaign
When someone goes on OpenTable looking for lasagna, they might search “Italian” and get a pretty long list of Italian restaurants in their area. You can use a boost campaign to get your restaurant at the top of this list, where diners will see it right away. The best part of boost campaigns is that you only pay for diners who are actually seated in your restaurant. Unlike many other marketing options, you’re not paying for impressions or clicks. With fees ranging from $3 to $5 per seated table, it’s a cost-effective way to get butts into seats during slow times or when you just want to maximize the number of guests you have on a given day.
Put your waitlist online
When you put your waitlist available online, diners can see you even if you’re fully booked at the moment. It clears up overcrowded entrance areas and heightens your visibility at the same time. With your waitlist online, someone who wants to make a reservation at your restaurant can see you even if you’re full at that exact moment. If this kind of diner knows they can get a table in a half hour—and they can wait at home or at a nearby bookstore or coffee shop—they may be more likely to join the waitlist. With an online waitlist, they’ll be updated on their status and notified when their table is ready. And even if an online browser doesn’t join the waitlist at the moment, they know about you now. Maybe they’ll make a reservation for next week.
Use bonus points
It’s not a secret that people love points. Beyond the fact that overtime points add up to dollars diner can spend at restaurants, people like the gamification of collecting points. So offering bonus points for whatever times you want to entice diners to come in can lead to the full dining room you want to see. Use bonus points to fill seats during those off-peak hours or slower days of the week. Some diners scan specifically for restaurants offering bonus points when choosing a place to eat, so you’re likely to attract new customers, too.
As you can see, there are plenty of ways to get the word out that you’re open without breaking the bank. All these small steps can help the diners who are out there searching for new restaurants to love, old favorites to come home to, perfect places for celebration, and the next spot they’ll be a regular at.