When you’re a small, independent restaurant, it can be easy to feel discouraged. After all, if there are big franchises down every block, how can you compete? Especially in a year that’s seeing a 2 percent crunch on the number of independent restaurants in the market.
The good news is that your restaurant’s status as a small business isn’t a flaw — it’s a feature. Despite the unit decline, researchers at Pentallect Inc. are estimating revenue for independent restaurants will grow about 5 percent in the next five years. Customers want to frequent restaurants they can trust to have a unique point of view and place within the community. As a result, authenticity should be a core element to your branding and point of view as a business.
It’s true: being a locally-owned business can actually give you an edge in the market that other restaurants lack. It’s all about honing that edge by following a few simple ideas.
Find your niche.
For the independent restaurant owner, the instinct can often be to “go big or go home” by offering a huge range of dishes to their customers. The problem with that line of thinking is that you simply can’t be all things to all people.
While some big chain businesses can offer everything and see a profit, small businesses can’t afford to be mid-market without that “it” factor. The lack of “it” can kill your independent restaurant. When there are so many other restaurants out there for your potential guests to choose, your menu and overall brand needs to clearly make a statement. Offering every food under the sun in an attempt to appeal to everyone will only tell would-be customers that you don’t know what you want to be.
The solution is finding a niche and sticking to it. Niche is a crucial element in the success of the independently owned restaurant. It’s about finding the specialty your restaurant provides and then getting really good at it. If you offer authentic, fresh Chinese cuisine, don’t dilute your brand by including pizza or hamburgers as part of your menu.
Streamline your menu to focus on your expertise so your guests see you as a cuisine expert. But niche doesn’t have to mean cuisine exclusively! It could also mean an extremely efficient fast casual service, or a vegan-friendly menu, or a unique line of cocktails. It just needs to be something you do well and people want.
Learn from the experience of independent bookstores. While Amazon.com is still a challenge for the “Mom and Pop” bookstores out in the world, the storefronts that thrives aren’t trying to be Amazon. They’re trying to be the best version of their niche in the bookselling world. And their customers come to them specifically for that special expertise their shop can provide that Amazon just can’t.
So the question for your business is: what experience do your diners want to have? And how can you make that experience as real as possible?
Leverage the “buy local” movement.
In recent years, the push to support locally-owned restaurants has only grown stronger. People want to support their neighbors. It should be your goal to show your customers through your marketing that you’re part of the community — and then bring that level of service to the dining experience. Adopt “dining local” as your rallying cry.
Events focused on supporting small businesses are becoming more and more common across the country. Just last year, an estimated 112 million shoppers and diners (13% more than the year prior) used “Small Business Saturday” as an opportunity to support the local independent restaurant or store, putting money back into their community. Look for similar events, as well as local food festivals, throughout the year in your area that your restaurant can participate in.
Getting involved with your community can be a great way not only to get your name out there, but to connect with the community in a way bigger businesses can’t easily do. Look for community initiatives that align with your brand and help support them. Join your local Chamber of Commerce. Donate to local charitable organizations or schools.
Team up with another independent restaurant.
Part of connecting with your community as a local business is recognizing that your small business competitors are your allies. Build relationships with the other restaurants in your area. Once you have those healthy business connections, you can learn from each other’s experiences.
More than that, you have the potential to team up with another independent restaurant. If you can’t find a food festival or small business weekend event in your area, consider getting the business down your street to help you organize a weekend street festival. Consumers can dine and shop local, maybe even trying an independent restaurant they’ve never been to before.
Be prepared to change.
Part of thriving in the food industry is becoming an innovator in your own business. Independent restaurants do best when they stay close to their niche, but still keep an attitude of embracing innovation and change where it makes sense. If you aren’t making changes from year to year, chances are you’re going to be left behind by competitors more willing to look to the future. From new service-focused technology to incorporating local vendors and updating your menu, customers expect you to keep up with the current trends.
Get found online.
Part of keeping with the current trends is having a presence on social media. While it’s not going to be your only connection to your community, setting up social media accounts and keeping them up-to-date ensures potential customers can find you when searching online.
It also allows you to show off what’s happening in your business, including your role in community events, team-building days with your staff, or your new seasonal dish. Don’t think about social media as a way to get “fans” — use it as an advertising medium to solidify what your restaurant is about to potential new guests.
Some small restaurants (in particular, those who participate in lots of community events) have found success offering customers an email newsletter. Just make sure you keep the newsletter simple, especially if you only have a small amount of subscribers. Make sure you’re not putting so much time and effort trying to make something only a couple dozen of consumers will read when that time could be best spent on other parts of operating or improving your restaurant.
Beyond that, it’s so important for your basic information to be consistent throughout your entire online presence, including social media accounts, Yelp, and your website. That means maintaining a consistent listing of hours, address, contact information, and menu across the board. Your independent restaurant can’t afford to not have that information quickly and consistently available online.
More than anything, don’t shy away from your identity as a locally-owned small business – embracing it could easily be the cornerstone to your business thriving for years to come.
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