Stealth marketing: Restaurants work cost-effective online tools to grow business

“Few industries are more dynamic and competitive than the foodservice business. In order to survive and thrive, restaurateurs and those in related businesses turn to a combination of alternative methods to market their business, reach new customers and retain and increase the frequency of their existing customer base. This article will explore some of these strategies that are used locally and beyond. At the end of the day, it’s all about some form of networking on a personal or electronic level.

Internet as an option

Let’s start with the Internet. It’s increasingly critical for any business of any kind to have a Web site and/or ways for consumers to learn about what it has to offer and services it provides. Even without a Web site, there are ways to reach potential customers via the Internet. Last fall, a friend invited me to dinner at a nice Louisville establishment, Azalea Restaurant on Brownsboro Road. I accepted her invitation, and to my surprise, the next day I received an “e-card” via e-mail from, confirming the reservations and providing other details. It was a very nice touch, and it added to the whole experience! This is a concept that is used in many larger cities, including Louisville, and it has some participation in Lexington, which I predict will increase. Another service is, an online gift certificate service with members locally and nationwide. Some national pizza chains like Papa John’s and Pizza Hut have online delivery and pick-up ordering capability from their corporate Web sites. There are fads, and there are trends. This is a fast evolving trend in my opinion. Additionally, there are many Internet sites to educate tourists and others about a locality, and restaurants need to be aware of those and ascertain how to be included. Another emerging Internet-enabled marketing opportunity is e-mail marketing programs. An operator may want to design his or her own with a local IT professional or use a national group like FishBowl Marketing (www.fishbowl .com).

Barter networks

Now let’s touch on something unique — barter networks. Barter networks are businesses that facilitate the trading of goods and services between businesses and individuals. Central Kentucky has an excellent one in Genesis Trade Exchange (, which has numerous restaurants and catering companies that do business with the over 325 members of the network. A restaurant that joins a barter network is embarking on a “B-to-B,” or business-to-business, strategy. Most restaurants have consumer strategies, but not a business-to-business strategy. By being a member of a barter network, a restaurant can grow its business by trading excess capacity for barter dollars from other members. The restaurant can then use those dollars to conserve cash by buying marketing, advertising and other professional services. Some especially good examples of this include member companies using restaurant members for catering events or to acquire gift certificates to reward employees or valued clients. One example of a business that has benefited from this type of membership is the Blimpie Sub and Salad shop in the Palomar Shopping Center on Harrodsburg Road.

Networking groups

Another approach is for a foodservice operation to join various networking groups. These groups vary in structure and formality. Some meet in the morning and some at lunch, which may pose a problem for certain operators, depending on their concept and business model. One of the more formally structured groups is BNI, or Business Networking International ( For certain foodservice and related businesses, this is a unique way to grow your business. Brenda Travis, owner of Bake My Day Comfort Food and Casual Catering, is a member of the Thoroughbred Referrals Chapter of BNI here in Lexington, and her membership has had a very positive impact on her business. It’s a way to reach a new customer, and once that new customer has a good experience with the restaurant or caterer, then you can count on repeat business. Additional business prospects can come from the word-of-mouth referrals they will provide. From there, it’s a domino effect!

Customer frequency and coupon programs offer more avenues for growth. Some are as simple as punch cards, and on the tenth punch, you get a free meal as a frequency generator. A new and unique player on the local coupon scene is SuddenValues (www.sudden, which combines a structured coupon service with an e-mail marketing program. Providing coupons or gift certificates to radio stations for giveaways is another way to get the name of a business out there.

Finally, never underestimate the power of public relations. This could be as simple as press releases for changes to your concept or special events. Or it could mean involvement in community events to get your name out. All of these things are part of a potentially powerful mix of approaches for the restaurateur to survive and thrive.

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