Good cooking, great service and a pleasant atmosphere. Those are the key components of a successful restaurant. But there's something even more important than that - getting the word out about these components.
That's right, there are some very empty restaurants out there serving good food. There are also some very crowded restaurants serving OK food. One explanation for that comes down to how these restaurants sell themselves - how they tell their story and explain why customers should give them a try. In this economy, especially, when families are cutting back on eating out, restaurants need to make their case - often, loudly and with creative ideas.
Marketing a restaurant is complicated. The best marketing ideas tell stories about the people who work there, about the food, the purveyors, the thinking behind the food. Like any good story, these are elements that help potential customers connect in some way with the business. Connecting equals likability.
There are other, more basic ways to connect - for instance, talking about quality and price, and what makes this restaurant stand out from all the others. One big mistake I occasionally see: restaurateurs making divisive political comments on Facebook or Twitter. You have the right to do it, sure. But it's incredibly dumb to slam Obama, Bush, Romney or others when it might alienate half your customer base.
Advertising is where chain restaurants beat locally owned restaurants pretty handily, mostly because the chains have the budgets to buy plenty of advertising. It's also because chains usually have a finely honed concept and plenty of fresh ideas about how to sell it.
But there are local places that are really doing well in this crucial part of doing business - and staying relevant. I was reminded of that when I recently received a detailed email from the Firehouse Restaurant in Old Sacramento. The reason? The executive chef, Deneb Williams, was rolling out an impressive new seasonal menu. The email explained what the restaurant was doing, the thinking behind the new menu and, finally, it provided the entire menu, which looks irresistible.
I was reminded in a different way when I drove by Fremont Park in midtown/downtown the other day. There was a lunchtime concert in the park - a wonderful idea by Hot Italian, the pizzeria that faces the park.
So I thought I would list some of the restaurants that are actively and aggressively promoting themselves. It's not a comprehensive list. But when the same restaurants keep popping up with good ideas and solid messages, it tells me they are working hard to tell their story.
1. Hot Italian
Andrea Lepore has so many good ideas that she puts her restaurant in a league of its own when it comes to marketing and promotion. Besides having very good pizza and a stylish, environmentally progressive building in which to enjoy it, Hot Italian plays host to all kinds of cool events - all the time. One night I go by and there are 50 Italian-made Ducati motorcycles parked out front, apparently a gathering of local Ducati owners. Another time, there's a bike-themed fashion show or a "Created in California" vendors night to promote local artisans and crafts people. I recently received an email about the pizzeria's grand opening in Emeryville - the event included partnering with a number of manufacturers, a Ruhstaller Beer tasting, even an organized bike ride. Some people might find all this confusing, odd or off message, but Lepore simply believes in what she is doing and it's great for business -- and the city. The park lunch concerts for instance, have made Fremont Park a much improved little park in the past three years.
2. The Firehouse and 1022
These two restaurants in Old Sacramento - one is a revered fine dining destination, the other a more casual eatery - consistently get the word out about upcoming events. If you think The Firehouse is old school, think again. It is active on Twitter, Facebook, email --whatever it takes. The promotions are always well thought out and provide plenty of details.
3. The Selland Group (Ella, The Kitchen, Selland's Market-CafÃ©)
These folks are very active on social media. It's a low-cost way to connect with customers, keep them informed, and make them feel they are appreciated. The Selland Group also keeps a close eye on local food bloggers and interacts with them. That's smart. Internet marketing is a numbers game and creating goodwill goes a long way. Bloggers can help spread the word to their regular readers if they have a positive experience.
4. CafÃ© Luna
This beloved Placerville restaurant is the most old-school on the list when it comes to marketing - by old-school, I'm referring to email. That's how CafÃ© Luna tells its story, via monthly emails to those who sign up. Thing is, it's the best email ever - funny, engaging, smart, informative - written by chef, raconteur and wit David Van Buskirk. The missive is also posted on a blog, http://www.cafelunatics.blogspot.com/. These days, that's also pretty old-school.
A farm-to-table staple for food-lovers and one of the best restaurants in town, Mulvaney's goes about marketing a little differently: it repeatedly emphasizes its commitment to what it is doing in the kitchen ("hand-crafted new American cuisine") and its commitment to the community it serves. No other restaurateur is as active and committed to community service than Patrick Mulvaney. It engenders plenty of goodwill. Being a good person is always good for business.
6. Vanilla Bean Bistro
Restaurateur Gonul Blum might win "most improved" when it comes to marketing and promoting. She is active online and sends regular emails about special events and other news, like the opening of her new restaurant, Trio, at 8th and J streets. The engaging Blum also conducts cooking classes at her restaurant. That's another great way to connect.
7. Magpie CafÃ©
Magpie doesn't do as much as the places at the top of this list, but just take a look at the food photos on its Facebook page. Enough said.
8. Red Rabbit Kitchen & Bar
This place continues to get lots of positive buzz online. It is active with social media and does plenty to earn the adulation it is getting.
There are several other restaurants doing a good job -- and many more I see that could be doing more. Not all restaurants fail because the food is bad, the rent is high, and the location is terrible. Sometimes, restaurants fail because they didn't say enough or do enough to get the word out. If a restaurant wants to improve in this area, it would do well to study what the restaurants on this list are doing and try to implement that in their own marketing strategy. You do have a marketing strategy, don't you?
Blair Anthony Robertson is The Bee's restaurant critic. Follow him on Twitter, @blarob.