Boosting Your Restaurant/Bar Business with Community Involvement

Sponsorships. Free dinners or drinks. School nights out. Restaurants and bars are largely dependent on patrons from the surrounding area, so it’s natural to feel pressured to jump into the middle of every community event that comes your way. Don’t get overwhelmed by all the options. Losing focus on your brand or stretching yourself too thin can actually hurt your business instead of helping it. Follow this simple guide advice from industry pros to get more than brownie points from your good deeds.

Know Yourself, Know Your Customer

The true success of any community event is dependent on its fit with your business and goals.

Bars, casual and family-style restaurants often sponsor sports teams from the local neighborhood. This is a great way to get your name in front of your target audience week after week, year after year. “We’re located right near the ball fields, so the teams we sponsor come to us after their games,” explains Trish Varner, assistant manager at Duffy’s Tavern & Grille in Chicago. “We offer free T-shirts and discounts on bar items for the teams we sponsor. They’re like walking billboards.”

High-end restaurants find a fit sponsoring more formal charity events to enhance restaurant community involvement. Logan’s Roadhouse, a Nashville-based chain of family restaurants, has a “Raise the Steaks” fundraising program, from which it donates a percentage of participating guests’ checks (before taxes) to a featured organization. “The better we know our community, the more we can tailor our promotions to our local customers,” explains Bob Kim, Logan’s vice president of marketing. For instance, a slow economy and high unemployment rate prompted the Flint, MI, location to host a “Fill the Bus” event in which 20 percent discounts were given to customers in exchange for the donations of school supplies.

Events like these can entice your regulars to come in for an additional meal and draw first-timers who want to support the cause. The key is to turn these new diners into repeat diners. “As local organizations leave our restaurant satisfied with great food and service at their fundraising event, they are more likely to dine with us again,” says Kim.

Spend Wisely

While you want to be generous with community support, you don’t want to overdo it. Don’t offer more than you can afford to, whether that’s time or money.

Maria Pierson, partner with Pierson Grant Public Relations/a> in Fort Lauderdale, FL, recommends allocating as much as 20 percent of your overall marketing budget to community events. That may seem like a lot, but good deeds drive good business. “Studies have shown that consumers are more inclined to frequent a local restaurant or bar that makes an effort to give back to the local community,” she notes.

Don’t be deterred if you simply don’t have a ton of cash on hand. “If we can help an organization and showcase our product at the same time, it’s a win-win,” says executive chef Paola Bottero, owner of Paola’s Restaurant in New York. She donates lunches to local organizations or offers a chef’s dinner for 10 to fundraiser auctions. “The chef’s dinner can bring in as much as $5,000 for the charity or group,” she says. “It’s a good feeling to make that happen for them, and the good will towards Paola’s is tremendous.” Hint: Don’t scrimp on the dinner, but mind the food costs so the event remains a good business development tool.

Another option: Periodically helping out organizations that serve or deliver meals to the homeless, elderly and ill to make restaurant community involvement happen. Whether it’s working the line at a soup kitchen or donating packaged meals, this kind effort is always appreciated by the beneficiaries and the charities’ supporters.

Make your Investment Pay Off

It can be pretty hard to come up with a quantifiable return on investment (ROI) for community involvement for restaurants. But Pierson offers some metrics to track for events you host, sponsor or contribute to:

  • Number of customers who attend the event
  • Media coverage of the event that mentions you
  • Sales during the event compared to the same timeframe before and after
  • Customer and employee feedback
  • Social media engagement on your channels before, during and after the event
  • Sign-ups for customer loyalty program or email lists

For example, Varner analyzed sales on nights when Duffy’s sponsored teams were in action. “We really see it in the numbers when there’s a game on what’s traditionally a slow night,” she says.

Kim takes a less quantitative view. “ROI for community events is immeasurable because we’re building relationships and trust as a good neighbor,” explains Kim. “The ROI over time will be more visits from customers in the community who value their relationship with Logan’s.”

Donate Time & Expertise

If donating product or offering deals gives you heartburn, consider donating your time and expertise to local boards and committees. Town or city government advisory boards and task forces often meet monthly, reducing the time you have to spend away from the business. Plus you can have a voice in decisions that affect your restaurant and your neighborhood.

Nonprofits and other charitable organizations also welcome involvement and insights from business owners. Find a cause that you really care about and invest by serving on a committee or advocating for the organization. The promotional value of this kind of involvement is less, but its impact on your community is greater over time.

Community engagement wins hearts and minds — and more business. Use these ideas to brainstorm how your restaurant or bar can make more money by making a difference.

After a session of reading insightful cocktail napkins, Carolyn Evans decided to leverage her experience with start-up companies and financial institutions to build a career as a retail consultant for independent stores and young gift and apparel manufacturers across the Southeast. She is a graduate of University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication, and resides in Chapin, SC. Follow Carolyn on Google+.

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