Get Noticed

Get Noticed 1

The 'Great American Restaurant Browse' tests the effectiveness of restaurants' first impressions.

By Charlie Hopper

A few years back I wrote about our nation’s annual summer feeding ritual: vacationers choosing unfamiliar restaurants in unfamiliar destinations.

It’s the Great American Restaurant Browse. And each year it’s probably the purest test of the effectiveness of first-impression-based restaurant marketing.

Couples at leisure or entire hungry families leave their comfort zones for a week or so. Strike out. Abandon their habits. Choose one unknown restaurant over another, based on – what? Based on something. What is that thing? Here are some possible things.

1. Your excellent mobile site.

Oh. Your mobile site falls a notch short of “excellent?” Optimize your mobile experience! Optimize your mobile experience! Not the catchiest chant, but I’m chanting it. Whether you had a major design firm or a friend-of-a-friend put together your website, I’m suspicious that they just threw the mobile version together at the last minute. Does your site work decently on laptops but less-than-decently on phones? Try it right now and report back. We’ll wait. Pick up your phone (I know it’s right there) and click around on your site.

[whistling and looking around, waiting for you to return] [well, actually, looking at my own phone]

Welcome back. How was it? In a 2018 report, Google Consumer Insights tells us 48 percent of smartphone users “are comfortable researching, booking and planning their entire trip to a new travel destination using only a mobile device.” Their entire trip. That includes you.

From my personal travel experience this summer, I can tell you that there are lots o’ restaurants whose mobile experience is unwieldy, often with big blocks of unnavigable text and photos that don’t help me get to the information I’m looking for.

I want menu, hours, an address to punch for directions. I want to know if they’ll let our little dog on the patio.

I didn’t plan ahead very well, so I want to know immediately, before my family gets irritated with me staring into my iPhone screen with furrowed brow.

Sometimes it seems like a site’s priority is to suggest the experience I can expect, which isn’t bad, but if I’m searching on mobile I’m probably looking for a specific bit of information. Make sure I can find it fast.

2. Your deviously well-managed SEO.

Oh. You’re not sure if your SEO is managed at all, much less deviously?

Get Noticed 2Quick background: “Search Engine Optimization” is simply GAHAPOTFPOGR, or “Getting As High As Possible On The First Page of Google Results.” Or Safari. Or Bing. Or Ask Jeeves. Or, y’know, here in 2018, probably mainly Google.

Category, specialties, general theme, good reviews – what do you offer that deserves to be one of the first results in a search? “Best shrimp fresh NAME OF AREA” “kid friendly restaurant skyline view NAME OF AREA” “patio seating dogs allowed NAME OF AREA.”

Newcomers don’t know. They rely on their phones to tell them. And those phones rely on search engines, which rely heavily on what “other users” think. You can buy an ad at the top of a search page, but you can’t just force a natural search to start with you.

Travelers often take extra care to check with Google when planning. Be devious. Win the Google game.

3. Your fabulously conversational-sounding web presence.

Oh. You’re not sure why that matters?

For one thing, it helps your SEO. You sound less like a fake-bot type site if you write like a person. For another, a lot of vacationers will be searching by voice. “Siri, does BeachBummers have outdoor seating where dogs are allowed?”

In 2017, Google/Phocuswright reported “70 percent of requests to Google Assistant are expressed in natural language.” People talk to Siri or Alexa like they talk to each other. Your restaurant’s online presence should join that conversation – on your site, your Instagram, that blog you’ve been meaning to update. Go online and use conversational language that mentions – frequently, naturally – what you want to be known for.

Um, what do you want to be known for? See how often marketing comes back to determining why your restaurant exists?

4. Your wonderful staff, which makes every interaction positive.

Oh. You’re so hard up for help that you can’t be sure every face is always going to be friendly?

Here’s some applied psychology: people aren’t happy when they don’t have control of a situation. Maybe encourage servers and cashiers to make good decisions of their own?

Help employees understand the restaurant concept and your company values, and encourage them to participate in it.

Anecdote time. On vacation this summer, our family went for ice cream several evenings. We gravitated toward one shop in particular, partly because the staff didn’t make us feel like just-another-buncha-feckless-tourists-to-be-dealt-with. On the third visit, they offered a punch card toward free ice cream.

“Ah, we’re out-of-state. We couldn’t fill it up.”

At that point, the lady behind the counter casually had a brilliant instinct. “Well, take it anyway and give it to somebody.”

Of course! We left it in the condo for the next people – guess which ice cream place they’re going to try first? I don’t know why having guests pass their punch cards along strikes me as a new, simple idea, but it does. Normally I jealously hold onto rewards program benefits for myself, but on vacation that does me no good. I’m happy to help this place we liked – and they didn’t care who the punches were from, as long as it brought business.

All because one clever scooper-lady had a momentary brainstorm. She felt it was her job to help the business. You work so hard to make your restaurant great. Help people spread your news to other guests. Curate your online presence. Make it a policy to be welcoming, not worrying-about-being-taken-advantage-of.

Give guests a happy memory to report instead of the experience of watching your cashier penuriously decipher the precise regulations of your restaurant’s legal responsibilities based on a coupon clipped off an old tourist map. It’s okay! Hospitality first, right?

In summer, wherever you are, you’re probably part of someone’s vacation. Approach it well and you might wind up a highlight of the story told as the answer to, “How was your trip?”

Charlie Hopper, principal/writer of ad agency Young & Laramore, shares views on restaurant marketing at SellingEating.com, as well as in recently published books “Nuggets, Nibbles, Morsels, Crumbs: Selected Restaurant Marketing Columns from Food & Drink International,” and “Selling Eating: Restaurant Marketing Beyond the Word Delicious.” Hopper is known for his unique and witty perspective on food and restaurant brands and is a regular contributor to Food & Drink International. 

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