Typically on Rock City Eats we talk about food. What food we are eating, the artistry a local is using, restaurant openings (or closings)… things like that. It is time to have a candid conversation about business however.
See, when I started Rock City Eats nearly a year ago it grew out of an overwhelming love of local businesses and the desire to see them succeed. I have spent over 12 years in the marketing world and through that got to know a lot of local business in all industries.
The restaurants we cover here are (mostly) small local businesses owned by people who, yes enjoy serving food, but mostly care very deeply about the community they serve. They both feed and employ our neighbors and have a massive cultural impact on the cities we live.
More than any manufacturing facility, non-profit, state agency, or financial institute based here in the city, local restaurants impact our lives.
So why the hell are our top grossing restaurants such an abomination of culinary culture? If the restaurants we visit have such an impact on our lives, what sort of culture are we creating when the places we visit (as a community, not readers of this blog) are Cheddars, Applebee’s, Red Lobster, Olive Garden, and any other gut churning, pre-fabricated excuse for a restaurant that makes up the top list.
In fact, on the list of top restaurants in Little Rock produced annual by Arkansas Business (sorry paid list, but ask and I’ll be happy to show you), there is not a single local owned place to be found in the top 20. If we want to change the culture of the city we have to change where the community spends their money.
Now, we are facing a lot of challenges with this. The biggest one is just getting people in the door to begin with. There is little argument that something like South on Main is far better food than Chili’s. No contest between On the Boarder and Local Lime. Completely embarrassing to think how bad Bruno’s blows Olive Garden out of the water. Additionally, oddly enough, the local places are not that much different in price than their chain competitors.
As I said earlier, I have 12+ years of marketing experience, so understand that is the lens that I see this from. If the challenge is getting people in the door, how can we do a better job at getting people to our locally owned establishments? We face two primary problems: having customers visit in the first place, and making sure they make a decision to come back. I am only going to deal with the first today.
The way I see it, we have a challenges. Both are hard to deal with as a small business.
Brand Recognition – When your average diner is looking to go out for the night, or say they are from south Arkansas and decide to venture to the big city, they need to pick somewhere to go. Now if that person does not know about your restaurant, does not see it in passing, or just forgets it exist, then that person is much more likely to pick a chain. Chains continuously throw themselves in front of customers so that when the point of decision comes up they are what people think of.
The challenge for a local restaurant revolves around collective buying power. See these chain restaurants have national partners. They have large in-house creative staff to make ads, and they can buy in bulk to place ads. That makes a big difference. I have bought and sold ads all my life, the buying power of a local restaurant is not enough to be seen.
Individually you may have the money to go buy 1 or 2 spots in a local publication for advertising. Heck lets say you are advertising on here and you can carve out of your very small profit margin $200 a month to spend on advertising. I am going to be able to put you in one of my ad blocks and have your ad display 25% of the time based on your buy. A large chain with money to spend would be able to come in and buy up 100% of my rotations, deliver multiple ads, and have me serve up ads geographically targeted to their store locations. Each location is paying a fraction of what your local restaurant is paying thanks in part to collective buying, targeted ads, and price breaks for larger quantities. Oh, and they build brand recognition because they are showing up 20,000 times a month in front of a captive audience compared to your 5,000 rotations.
See the problem? If people are not constantly reminded of your existence, or worse never know about your restaurant, they do not pick you. At the same time you cannot get in front of the people enough to build up recognition.
Knowledge of your Product – If you think the disparity behind brand recognition is bad, it actually gets worse and for even less money. This is not to pick on anyone, but go to Natchez’s menu site and then go to Applebees’ (horrible comparison btw).
See the problem? If I am trying to decide between the two I have one menu that gives me a plan text description of what I am getting, the other is full of professional photos (albeit misleading) showing a delicious looking dish along with a detailed description at how good this is going to taste in my mouth (again misleading).
So as a potential dinner guest at this point I can imagine myself eating a Bourbon Street chicken and shrimp. I think I have an idea of what I can getting. With Natchez I see a title “RABBIT GNOCCHI” and I might like it. I might not. I don’t really have an opinion because I feel no connection to the dish. (For the record, the rabbit gnocchi is awesome).
Compound this by the fact that Natchez, unlike roughly 60% of other local restaurants, actually has a website. They are likely in the top 10% of local restaurant websites and that is sad. Combine that with the fact that few local restaurant sites do any search engine optimization So when I am an out-of-town person searching for a place to eat, if I can actually manage to find your site I still have no clue that I want to eat there.
This is all marketing 101. Actually making a potential customer aware of who you are and what you have to offer them that is better than the competition. We are not even into the hard parts yet. Because local restaurants are at such a cashflow disadvantage from their chain competition, the gap is only going to widen unless we do something together. I for one am tired of seeing great local restaurants go under because local people decide to spend their money on generic options.
There is a big challenge and not many ways to get around it. I think the best chance at changing this dynamic is being a collective group and working together. I want to do a couple of things aimed at growing awareness and collectively increasing the amount of money generated into local restaurants at a lower cost per revenue generated than the chain restaurants can even pull off.
Collaborative marketing power – What if we as a food industry formed a small marketing team to collaboratively share resources to help each other. I would love to form groups of people interested in collective buying and build ad campaigns where several restaurants come together to increase the overall awareness of each other. If you are a restaurant and interested hit me up and I will share more of my idea, but mostly lets win back the eyes and thoughts of the community.
Web campaigns that fit a local restaurant budget – I build and promote websites for a living. At last count that was somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 websites in various capacities. The single largest barrier to a local business having quality information on the web is cost, yet in today’s world the first place a consumer looks for information and buying decision is on the web. Your average local web builder is going to charge you $5,000-10,000 and then you are responsible for keeping it up to date. If you go to a web firm it is going to be anywhere between $20-100,000. A local restaurant cannot afford to shell out $5k all at once to build a website. So they don’t or they find someone to do it poorly.
I want to start offering budget friendly web sites and ongoing basic maintenance in a way that is cost-effective for restaurants. No large upfront cost, instead smaller monthly fees that over the course of a contract cover the initial website build, updating critical areas, and hosting the site. The idea here again is if enough local restaurants buy into the concept it benefits everyone.
Food industry Alliance – Finally, I want to form a food industry alliance. A group of local restaurant owners, chefs, and local food producers committed to coming together to share knowledge and resources that advance the community as a whole.
To move forward we must realize we are all in this together and help one another.