It’s easy to forget when they’re filling up our streetfronts and Instagram feeds, but even some of our most high-profile restaurants are still just small businesses. Even Ben Shewry, whose Ripponlea restaurant Attica is consistently ranked among the World’s 50 Best, is at pains to point out he’s a small business owner obliged to save and borrow like everyone else. “We haven't had any massive capital behind us,” he told me recently. “It's kind of a family affair.”
So how is it that – apart from being really good – restaurateurs like Shewry manage to break through into public consciousness?
Christian Blair, who runs thriving Sydney wine bar and fine-diner Annata, is convinced clever marketing is the key to a successful restaurant. “Especially since it’s so competitive,” he says. “But it can be challenging because the people opening restaurants – waiters, chefs or bartenders – aren’t necessarily marketing gurus.”
For most owner-operators, buying a billboard is out of the question; as, for many others, is hiring a professional marketing agency. But that doesn’t mean restaurants with a story to tell can’t get their message out there.
It pays to be social
For longstanding Melbourne icon, Movida, a simple marketing strategy managed in-house has been a cornerstone of their continued success. “Like most restaurants, we’re not big corporations with million-dollar marketing budgets,” says co-owner Andy McMahon. “Social media is really the only way to do it. When it first came on the scene, I wasn’t the biggest fan. But it’s now the major part of marketing and promotion for us. It’s quick and it’s relevant because the people following have already shown interest.”
McMahon’s approach to social is lo-fi: he asks chefs and wait staff for photos of produce, new dishes or specials, and posts them to Instagram and Facebook himself, three to five times a week. “It’s important someone in the business is running it,” he says, “so you can control the style of the message. I don’t know whether a third party is going to get it right.”
For Blair at Annata, employing a social media specialist was a way to bring focus to their strategy. “Social media is one area we’ve decided to engage some professionals,” he says. “We try to be consistent, post maybe once a day – unless there’s something special going on – with something simple, like a nice image. Then we have a rest day so people don’t feel like they’re being overwhelmed.”
Take great photos
Hiring a professional photographer to shoot and style images is another way Blair decided to help them stand out. “There are some places that do really well off that iPhone photography thing,” he says. “But we’ve engaged a professional photographer to have a suite of shots we can rotate through.” Blair also takes “on the fly” images himself, something that McMahon agrees is consistent with his ethos at Movida.
“It suits our business,” says McMahon. “It’s all very organic, and we’ve done it internally. There’s no great strategy to it other than just trying to promote what we’re about – honest food and great service in a bistro setting. Everything we’ve tried to market has been along that theme.”
Know what you stand for
Deciding on an identity is one thing that can’t be taught. But having a strong sense of what your business stands for is crucial. “I think branding is something that happens organically,” says Blair, “but at the same time you need to decide on your identity. It helps people decide whether or not they’re aligned with you as a business. ”
When they do, it’s your job to keep them. Convincing someone to come back to your venue is much easier than convincing a new guest to come in.
Use technology to your advantage
Some point-of-sale systems by tech companies such as Impos, give restaurateurs an unprecedented ability to track a customer’s experience. This allows them to tailor that customer’s next experience. “Direct marketing is really big for us,” says Blair. “It means we can control what we market and to whom. We have people in our database who we know are more interested in wine, and people who are definitely more interested in food. It’s about putting the right opportunities in front of them at the right time.”
For Movida, the custom-designed POS system also allows the team to judge the efficacy of its promotional events. “You can see pretty quickly whether an event’s been successful or not,” says McMahon. “The business management side of things has probably been our biggest improvement. Just counting money at the end of the day used to be the barometer of success. But you’ve got to manage your costs tightly, it comes in the door pretty quickly, but it can leave just as quick.”
The best tool is a great experience
But the most important lure any restaurant can have is the simplest: show your diners a great time. Technology helps – by tracking food and drink preferences, likes and aversions, even information about careers and personalities, restaurateurs can customise their diner’s experiences with microscopic precision. And make them better.
“There’s a level of integration with our bookings system happening where it can automatically track the things that guests have done in the past,” says Blair. “When they came in last, what their bill was like. Through that, we can go through the system and see what wine they drank, and where they sat in the restaurant.”
It might initially sound overbearing, but such attention to detail is crucial in a crowded marketplace. “We’re a neighbourhood restaurant so [we don’t have] an infinite amount of people coming through for the first time,” says Blair. “If we can’t secure those repeat guests and give them reasons to return, that’s going to make it very challenging for us to be sustainable. So it’s about knowing how to provide a consistent product, which comes back to do what you do every day.”
This article is presented in partnership with Impos.