marketing strategy

The ultimate guide to restaurant marketing

From “word-of-mouth” to “word-of-mouse,” here’s how to get people talking about your business

By Toan Dinh

Great food and great service are the most essential elements of any successful marketing campaign. Why? Because a great dining experience – with superb food, service, ambience and price – results in excellent word-of-mouth. And word-of-mouth continues to be the most powerful factor when it comes to consumer choices.

A research study of 30,000 consumers conducted in 2015 by Nielsen found that 83 per cent of people trust recommendations from people they know, over all other forms of advertising. However, over the last several years, word-of-mouth has taken on an entirely new dimension. The study showed 66 per cent of consumers trust opinions posted online from people they do not know. The same percentage trust editorial content, such as a news article they read online, about where they should buy.

Look who’s talking

This is great news for restaurateurs. A positive word-of-mouth review can be read by exponentially more “strangers” – on social media such as Facebook, Yelp, and Trip Advisor, or in one of the local online lifestyle or newspaper reviews – than any individual could possibly convey to others, in-person, during the same period of time.

Online presence has become an essential marketing element in other ways, as well. The Nielsen survey found that 70 per cent of consumers trust company websites and 56 per cent trust emails they signed up to receive. Plus, increasingly more people are researching menus online before choosing a place to dine, or checking email coupons before making their final decision.

So while no marketing campaign can ever replace great food and great service, there are now many more communications channels to influence potential new and repeat customers with those vital word-of-mouth recommendations about how great your restaurant is.


Every successful business has something that sets it apart from other similar businesses. This may include a unique value that customers want to buy, or an entire personality connected to that unique value. This is your brand, and it goes way beyond just the type of ethnic food you serve. Your brand is way more than just a slogan or a name.

All restaurateurs, including those contemplating opening a restaurant or those who are already well-established, have an idea of what kind of food they want to serve – pizza, steaks, Chinese, Indian, tapas, or fusion to name a few. Most probably know whether they want an elegant venue, or someplace homey where they personally schmooze with their diners, or a venue designed to move high volumes of customers rapidly through a line. Here are some other considerations:

Who is Your Potential Customer? Are you in the middle of a busy urban financial district where business people stop in for a fast, high quality lunch, but then vacate the area at dinner time? Or are you next to a college campus, or in a nice suburban community? Age, income levels, education, and job types, marital status, size of household, housing and renting prices, and other local businesses are all factors that drive the spending and eating habits of your potential customers.

Who are Your Competitors? It’s important to see what competitors are doing and how your prospective customers respond to the other choices they have. Visit the competitors personally. Eat their food. Take home a menu and thoroughly check it out for variety, specials, and pricing. See who is dining there and when they have most of the traffic. Get a feel for the ambiance of the venue. Look at their online presence.

What Will Make your Restaurant Special? Is your cuisine hearty and rich, light and healthy, or exotic with a fusion twist? Is the environment cozy and friendly, elegant and romantic, or fast tableside and bar service so customers make it to their game on-time? And most importantly, how is that different (and better) from the restaurant serving similar fare not too far away?

Everything from the restaurant name and menu items to pricing, décor, staff and uniforms they wear, your website, and even the type of community sponsorships you chose, should all reflect the unique personality of your brand. Even for the established restaurant, it is good to review these factors regularly; this will help to keep your venue current with your established patrons, as well as the ever-changing new patrons you want to entice.

Brand visibility and digital marketing

Reputable studies abound on how many people research restaurants online, with survey results quoting from 40-83 per cent. Obviously the parameters set for each of the surveys greatly affect the statistics reported, but one thing can be said consistently – a lot of people are using the Internet and mobile apps to figure out where they are going to dine out.

Restaurant website

The most basic element of an online presence is a restaurant website. Even a simple website can increase the restaurant’s reach with local residents, enticing more new customers and reminding old customers how great their last experience was.

The must-have elements to include in any restaurant website are:

  1. Menu
  2. Hours of Operation
  3. Location
  4. Phone Number

Google my business

In addition to your website, you can put your restaurant on Google My Business free of charge. This complements your existing website by giving your business a presence on Google, the world’s most popular search engine. This will help get your restaurant, business hours, phone number and directions to come up on Google Search and Maps when people are looking for a place to dine out locally. Customers can write reviews on this page, and you track how people found you online to help with your other online marketing strategies.


Yelp is another popular online site where customers search for local restaurants and other businesses. It is also free to open an account for your restaurant. Whether you sign up for a free Yelp account or not, your restaurant can be reviewed by customers, so it is best to set it up with your branding. You can include photos, hours of operations, a menu, link to your website, a map and phone number in your account.

Other hot mobile apps for Canadian restaurants

  • JustEat helps restaurants implement online ordering quickly, listing menu items, processing orders and accepting cash or credit card payments from customers.
  • Zomato is an online and mobile app for diners to order and make reservations at restaurants. It is free for restaurants to register.
  • Foursquare is a mobile app that provides recommendations of restaurants and other places to go near a user’s current location.
  • Zagat publishes restaurant reviews and ratings. Zagat editors decide the businesses they will review in Toronto and Vancouver, as well as around the world.

Search engine optimization (SEO)

Search engine optimization is about things that you do to be found more often by your target audience in search engines like Google or Bing. In other words, when someone searches for a restaurant that serves the kind of cuisine you offer in your geographic area, with great SEO, your restaurant will come up on the top of the search results list rather than on page seven which no one ever sees.

SEO can be challenging if you don’t have a good grasp on the latest SEO best practices which are often suggested by the search engines and by industry experts. In addition, Google and other search engines are changing their algorithms frequently, making it difficult to keep up.

At the end of the day you really have two main options. The first is to do it yourself and the second is to hire someone or an agency to help you. There are hundreds of do-it-yourself resources manuals and advice articles on how to improve your SEO results. If you are tech savvy and have a great sense of curiosity, it is very possible to learn SEO on your own and get better at it overtime. If you want to skip the learning curve and potentially get faster results, then hiring an SEO agency is also a good option. In short, there is no right or wrong choice. You simply need to be educated on the benefits of SEO and how you get results is up to you.

Email marketing

Relatively easy to do, at almost no cost when compared to the printing and postage of bulk mailings through the post office, email is a great way to get coupons, specials and other promotions out to customers.

Just like traditional promotional mailings, a mailing list of email addresses is needed for people willing to receive promotions. Unlike bulk mailings, those recipients must “Opt-In” to receive emails from your restaurant. Opt-in means the customer has given permission before any email is sent to them. In Canada, the fines are very stiff for any business violating this rule. Opt-Out and Request Off regulations must also be carefully followed.

Email addresses can be gathered from willing diners when they visit the restaurant, from online visitors, or by purchasing them from a credible list company that guarantees all the emails are opt-in and have procedures in place to remove any Request Offs.

Social media to increase online “word-of-mouth”

While less than one in 10 restaurant patrons provide a restaurant review on a website or mobile app according to a 2015 research report published by Mintel, people still talk about their restaurant experiences in a less formal manner on various social networks, including Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest and Snapchat.

If a patron’s experience is positive, expect them to share photos of their food, check-in to your restaurant, and gush about all aspects of their meal. If the experience is negative, they will give a detailed account of what went wrong or what they didn’t like, and will also warn members of their social networks to stay away. Without question, do not underestimate the power of word-of-mouth – especial on social media.

According to the digital marketing team at Toronto-based Boulevard Public Relations, having a presence on social networks means more than just broadcasting information about your restaurant. It requires thoughtful consideration, and demands that you monitor conversations both on your social media accounts, as well as those that take place outside of your owned channels.

When creating content to share, think like your patrons and use a tone that resonates with them. Visuals also go a long way in enticing people to not only visit your restaurant, but also amplify your reach. Make personal connections with your patrons via social channels by sharing photos of your team, and offering up the backstory about their passion for the food industry, or the work they do. And of course, take advantage of the cover images that are highly visible on your social media accounts to attract greater interest.

Regardless of which social media channels you decide on for your restaurant, the key is to be responsive to your community. Expect patrons to comment – both good and bad – on their experience at your restaurant.

Traditional marketing – has it gone away?

Despite all the buzz about how important digital media is to reach Millennials, a study conducted by Canada Post, in partnership with leading neuromarketing research and strategy firm True Impact Marketing, found the highest response to direct mail and lowest response to digital media was with 30-49 year olds, followed by 18 to 29 year olds (Millennials), and last by 50 to 64 year olds.

So the message is, don’t throw out the proven traditional methods such as direct mail because of all the hype about replacing them with the best digital marketing channels, especially for Millennials. No two people, even in the same demographic group, prefer to receive communications exactly the same way. The more communications methods you use, the more people you will reach and be able to entice into dining at your restaurant.

Proven promotions still work

Whether delivered by snail mail, email, mobile app or posted online, most time-tested traditional promotions are familiar to restaurateurs, such as:

  • Loyalty programs
  • Coupons
  • Weekly or daily specials
  • Kids-eat-free
  • Team sponsorship
  • Community service sponsorship
  • Senior discounts
  • Sponsored social events like karaoke, trivia night, or the big game
  • Reviews by local newspaper restaurant columnists
  • Printed menus and discounts published in neighborhood value saver booklets

It is good to take a fresh look, on a regular basis, to see if now is a good time to implement or re-implement one of the tried-and-proven promotional methods.


The last thing a restaurateur wants is to be the best kept secret in town. It is true that great service and great food are the most essential elements of any successful marketing campaign. The next most essential element is communication. It takes a tremendous volume of thoughtful communication across multiple media channels – traditional, online and digital – to cut through all the noise from other restaurants that are also trying to entice your customer. Your most effective and cost-efficient marketing plans will be based on a solid understanding of your brand as this will define your customers and what they like, and will help determine the best channels to reach them. Then communicate, communicate, communicate on multiple channels, and leverage social media to increase the benefits of word-of-mouth.

About the author:

Toan Dinh, Chief Marketing Officer of TouchBistro, has a decade of marketing experience, successfully helping companies grow through traditional, online, and digital marketing strategies. Since 2013, Toan has worked exclusively with restaurants to improve efficiency and expansion as they implement the TouchBistro iPad POS solution. For more information, please click here.