It still amazes me how some eateries achieve a cult-like status with very little marketing. Places such as Chicago’s Doughnut Vault or San Francisco’s Tartine Bakery are able to draw lines of people who are willing to wait for hours. Many spots like these often end up on popular food shows such as “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” or “No Reservations.” But how do some small, no-name places quickly rise to the top, while other places with bigger names, bigger marketing budgets and bigger menus flounder? What do the little guys know that others don’t?
Agility and focus drive the experience
People frequent places for the food and the experience. For the single-location spot, that usually means a concentration on a few things that can be done really well. Places such as Chicago’s Hot Doug’s or Kuma’s Corner put a deeply creative spin on two foods sold at just about every intersection in America: hot dogs and hamburgers, respectively. But not only are their preparations wildly unusual (and delicious), they offer an experience you can’t get anywhere else. During Hot Doug’s limited hours of operation, Doug himself is at the register to take your order. And at Kuma’s, you can have your Slayer burger served with Anger while heavy metal music shakes the framed pin-up posters on the wall.
For these types of eateries, focused menus don’t translate to fatigue. Small restaurants are nimble enough to refresh and change offerings daily, based on foods in season or what’s trending. Chicago’s Doughnut Vault has a small handful of regular flavors but incorporates two seasonal doughnuts that change daily. Limited-edition specials keep things fresh to keep customers coming back.
The joy of food is a special, social affair. Keep it social.
The eateries I’ve mentioned do a great job at cultivating early adopters in their communities and turning them into major influencers. Foodies love the social experience of eating out. They also take great pride in being first to find that special, underground spot. That’s why marketing isn’t always high on the list of these restaurateurs. If you can gamble on social word-of-mouth and win, your cache rises and fierce loyalty ensues. Hot spots with this kind of cult following understand their communities well, and make it work to their advantage. How best to keep food social? By using social media.
Foodie loyalists and influencers love to share online, whether posting pictures of their food or writing a review on Yelp, TripAdvisor, Twitter or Facebook. Smart restaurants get into the conversation and make it easy for their influencers to sing their praises and share their content. These are great outlets to announce special flavors or dishes, or contests and experiences. Ultimately, social media presents the invaluable opportunity for restaurants to listen and share, address negative reviews, and create more loyalists. Social media allows for a level of conversation that keeps the restaurant-patron relationship personal.
Remember, you are part of something bigger
Any eatery, big or small, is part of a community. Restaurants can engage and gain visibility through grassroots efforts that fit their positioning. Local sponsorships, fairs, farmers markets and food festivals are great ways to show you have a vested interest in the community. It’s also a great way to bring your food experience to people, and win new loyalists. A farm-to-table restaurant called Bread and Wine in Chicago spent the summer before it opened manning a booth at its community farmers market. It offered samples, menus and homemade products, and invited passers-by to connect on Facebook. Its opening week brought a full house every night. On a recent trip to Washington, D.C., my colleagues and I had the fortune to try free treats from Georgetown Cupcakes at the airport during a WWII veterans tribute event. It was my first time experiencing what all the fuss was about, and I can tell you, I will be visiting the shop.
Bottom line: People love food, not marketing. And many love to eat something really special, with somebody really special. They like to socialize during and after, and share their experience with others. Popular eateries allow loyalists do the heavy lifting while they focus on making that eating experience something people want to talk about — and line up for.
Flora Caputo is a vice president and the executive creative director at Jacobs Agency, an award-winning Chicago agency that helps companies untangle their business problems through marketing communications. She is also a self-proclaimed foodie and writer behind popular food and lifestyle blog The Urban Domestic Diva.