August 3, 2012
Restaurants and marketing part III: The Eatery in West Sac

Jess Milboujrn.jpg

My look at how restaurants market and promote themselves is turning into an ongoing series. That's because it's a huge part of the business, and because I am fascinated by how busy restaurants stay busy. If you think it's all about the food, you're wrong.

Getting the attention of the consumer - connecting with newcomers, making friends with regulars - is a way to build a restaurant that has staying power.

I'm writing this just after I received a long, sincere email from a reader responding to my recent review of Erawan Thai Restaurant, in which I take the business to task for not doing enough to attract attention, fill the seats and, thus, make dining there a lively, entertaining experience. Every time I visited, the place was a ghost town.

The emailer states, "The owners establish a strong base with the customers that do come in and as a result we become loyal customers. If you are a Buddhist customer with strong spiritual ties, the atmosphere is very pleasing and peaceful."

As longtime readers of my reviews may know by now, not only am I heartless and soulless, I have incredibly weak spiritual ties. Thus, empty restaurants, to me, are neither tranquil retreats nor pleasing and peaceful - they're just boring. Thankfully, Erawan's business is picking up. The food is, indeed, consistently good, and I'm glad people are finding it. Let's see if the restaurant can use that momentum to build a broader customer base.

Which leads us to our focus today - The Eatery in West Sacramento. It's a newcomer on the culinary scene that has made its mark and is beginning to carve out its identity as a place with seriously good food that doesn't take itself too seriously.

When I reviewed The Eatery (very favorably) eight months ago, marveling at one point about the size of the double burger and the now-famous (or infamous) "Disco Fries Ryan," the owners responded by offering to create a wall of fame for anyone who ate the double burger and fries in a single sitting. Not only was the contest fun (and potentially life-threatening), it led to more positive publicity. I ended up interviewing the first victor, Ryan Newbold, who turned out to be a great guy (who promptly went on a diet after his out-sized eating achievement).

The Eatery has been active on social media, connecting with customers in a variety of ways and, from the outset, telling the restaurant's story and explaining its values. But owner/chef Jess Milbourn told me they are taking a new look at how they approach marketing.

"It just kind of became stagnant where you end up with the same circle of people we were already reaching," Milbourn said. He was preaching to the choir. Regulars already got it. Yes, you have to keep them happy and pay attention to what they like (and don't like), but you constantly have to look at ways to bring in new people.

Milbourn says The Eatery is very strong at dinner and not as busy at lunch on weekdays. That's likely because it has connected with residents in the West Sac neighborhood, many of whom probably work elsewhere and aren't close by at lunch. Those working in the area - folks who may live miles away - hadn't gotten the message about the good cooking, the thoughtful selection of ingredients, the very good service. Milbourn is looking at ways to reach this audience, too. In the marketing game, you have to bring up your shortcomings without neglecting your strengths.

One thing The Eatery already does very well is foster relationships with food enthusiasts. Milbourn is very active on Twitter - I know, because he and I have exchanged numerous tweets (find him on Twitter @EateryChef). His restaurant has hosted dinners for bloggers. It recently welcomed a "Foodspotting" event where Milbourn rolled out new menu items, which led to more exposure on blogs and social media. The blog Munchie Musings wrote in part: "the lucky Foodspotters who attended had no idea they were about to be treated so well! Chef Jess Milbourn had decided to test new menu items and served five well received dishes." And The Eatery just held a "Paleo dinner" for those somewhat obsessive folks who follow the Paleo diet, which centers on meat and vegetables and eschews grains, legumes, sugar and processed foods. Paleo enthusiasts are obligated to wear loin cloths, grunt as they eat their food and act all scary-like (OK, no they're not).

All of these outreach efforts build a broader and more meaningful customer base. Liking the food is one thing. Liking the food, the folks at your restaurant and the thinking behind it is even better.

Milbourn's mission statement? "We want to produce great food and have great service. We really want to keep it fun and casual," he told me.

The more ways he can repeat that message and make it come to life for folks who dine there and for those yet to visit, the more effective his marketing strategy will be.

Here's one more cool thing Milbourn and company (his wife, Monda Korich, runs the front of the house) are doing to make connections. This summer, The Eatery started a bartering program in which customers are invited to bring in fruits and vegetables from their home gardens in exchange for vouchers to eat at the restaurant. What a great idea. The Eatery gets fresh produce and, more importantly, a chance to make new friends. The customers feel more connected to the restaurant - it's using their food, after all - they return for a meal with their voucher and, more than likely, becomes regulars.

If that's not smart and sincere marketing, I don't know what is. Milbourn tells me he has wound up with more peaches than he knows what to do with. But even if he has to make compote til the cows come home, it's tremendous low-cost advertising for the restaurant.

Blair Anthony Robertson is The Bee's restaurant critic. Follow him on Twitter, @blarob.

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