The restaurant industry is, in many ways, a numbers game—more customers mean more sales and more sales lead to higher profits.
At the same time, the level of competition for the same set of diners is as high as it's ever been, and other industry pressures (price volatility, lingering supply chain hiccups, and an ongoing staffing shortage) add pressure to this sense of strong competition.
So what's the most effective way to get more diners to eat more of your food (and less of the competition's) this year?
Revamping your restaurant advertising and marketing efforts.
Modern restaurant guests are choosing where to dine in an increasingly varied set of ways: it's not all TV spots, billboards, and local mailers anymore (though each of these could still be worth pursuing depending on your size and budget!).
It's important to understand the ways consumers are learning about brands today—and to put yourself into the spaces that will most effectively put butts in seats.
On-site restaurant advertising ideas
A significant chunk of your restaurant's business comes from the people already eating there—a.k.a. your regulars.
Concentrating your marketing efforts on these loyal customers helps encourage them to come back more frequently. And this increased customer loyalty is one of the most direct ways to boost sales.
1. Maximize foot and car traffic
First, make sure you're getting the most out of the traffic passing by your restaurant by leveraging your real estate to get customers in the door.
Does your restaurant have a sign out front?
Is it easy for both motorists and pedestrians to see and read?
Is your restaurant's name on an awning or window?
If you answered "no" to any of these, they are a great place to start.
You want to make it as easy and obvious as possible for diners to know you exist (or to find you if they come looking specifically for your restaurant).
That's because, on some level, restaurant choice is reactive. If you're a Starbucks addict, seeing the green siren triggers something in your brain that makes you want coffee, even if you didn't want it 30 seconds ago. It sounds simplistic, but seeing your signage and logo is enough for some people to stop in and make a purchase. There's a reason McDonald's hoists the golden arches hundreds of feet in the air.
So make sure that passersby know that your restaurant exists with obvious signage that's both eye-catching and consistent with your brand.
Digital menus have one huge advantage over traditional printed signage: they can be changed. Price changes, new items, new deals, new hours—all of it can be adjusted as your restaurant grows.
They're also cost-effective in the long run since you won't have to print and distribute traditional menus whenever changes are necessary. And since many consumers look to support eco-friendly businesses, the sustainable aspect is a plus for your restaurant's image.
Old-school neon-style signage
Neon signage has been in style for decades for good reason—there's nothing quite like it. It's a bright, attractive way to grab attention for your restaurant. Neon signs beg to be photographed and can create a ton of free advertising from excited social media posters.
Similar to neon signs, large murals or banners can help your restaurant stand out among the crowd. Like neon, they beg to be photographed—likely by excited diners who will post them on Instagram.
Murals can also be a great way to involve the local community. At every Condado Tacos location, a hand-painted mural featuring a local artist hangs proudly.
2. Hang your restaurant's menu in the window
Some of the simplest advertising opportunities are the easiest to miss.
Display your restaurant's menu in the window by the front door or by the entrance of the restaurant. If people like what they see, they might just come in.
If potential diners are curious about your restaurant and don't know what you serve—but your menu isn't in the window—they'll be more likely to check out a neighboring restaurant with a menu on display rather than walking inside your restaurant to ask to see a menu.
3. Advertise specials in your windows
Use your immediate outdoor space and windows to promote specials.
If your restaurant is in an area with high foot traffic and a good number of locals, make a point to promote your list of specials on the door.
4. Take advantage of your sidewalk
If you have the space (and the right restaurant permit), sidewalk chalk signs are an affordable, fun, and effective way to advertise specials—and to make jokes to get the attention of passersby.
5. Maximize indoor real estate with signage
Use your restaurant's interior to upsell to customers, ask people to sign up for your email list, tell customers to follow your restaurant on social media, and more.
For casual establishments, consider putting promotional signs on the backs of bathroom stall doors and at the silverware stand. Restaurant table advertising, like tabletop signs or flyers, is also effective. For upscale establishments, be more subtle by placing promotional materials in the guest check holder.
More appropriate at fast food, quick-serve, and casual dining establishments, floor graphics use arrows and guides to bring people to the right place in your restaurant with creative floor signage. These could be directions to the bar to increase drink sales or to the dessert display, for example.
Decorate your windows with decals that evoke what your business is all about! Imagery appeals to some diners more than words, so these visuals will be more eye-catching than a menu or a clever chalkboard for them.
Another option well-suited for casual eateries, tabletop tents and displays highlight the specials, deals, and new menu items that restaurants want their guests to know about.
You have two options here. First is a display stand where you can swap out promotional designs printed on regular paper. Second is custom-printed, folded table tents. You can get these professionally designed and printed through sites like Primoprint.
6. Take social media offline with a selfie photo op
This tip straddles categories, pulling equal weight as an in-restaurant advertising idea and a restaurant digital marketing strategy.
Encourage customers to advertise your restaurant to their friends by creating a photo op for customers. Put up cool wall art and include your hashtags and social media account information so that users know what to tag.
Plenty of restaurants invest in social media marketing, but there's an inherent problem. Most of the time, unless you pay to turn a post into an ad, only your most devoted fans see your posts.
But when your customers willingly share your branded material, you gain access to those customers' entire social circles. That could amount to hundreds, even thousands, of potential customers that you'd never reach on social media another way.
So create the environment. Then sit back, relax, and watch the likes—and new customers—come rolling in.
Instagrammable restaurant examples
Over the past few years, we've seen restaurant interior design adapt to consider "Instagram-ability"—donut walls, bright lights, and bold, exciting feature walls or bathroom designs.
Why? Because the more there is to take a picture of, the greater the chances your customers will advertise your restaurant for free on social media.
For some inspiration, check out 12 of the restaurants doing the best work on social media in 2023.
7. Display your brand proudly
When customers leave your restaurant with a coffee cup with your restaurant's name on it, they become walking advertisements for your business. Try to feature your restaurant's name on takeout bags, coffee sleeves, plastic cups, and more.
Custom branding doesn't have to be expensive. Rather than ordering completely customized paper and plastic products, you can order a roll of stickers with your restaurant's logo on them and affix them to takeout containers, or use stamps to mark your logo on plain cups and bags.
Takeout cup design ideas
Do you want a customer to leave your restaurant with a to-go cup that's blank? Or one with a bold color or design that catches the eyes of others, making them ask, "Where's that from?" We guess the latter.
This tactic is so effective that, every year, fans eagerly await Starbucks' holiday cup design. Even when reactions are mixed, the commentary can be seen and heard around the world—for a cup design.
Takeout bags and boxes
Ditto goes for takeout bags and containers. Plastic or brown bags could have anything in them—but a bag that has your branding can only be yours. Plus, bags can be a great way to promote your menu to those who just ordered.
Notice how Steak 'n Shake highlights on their bags the many reasons one might order a milkshake next time they visit.
If someone lives near your restaurant (and we know they do!), they might be proud to share it with tote bags, t-shirts, hats, bandanas, and more. Restaurant merchandise allows your brand to be given as a gift—either to or on behalf of some of your restaurant's biggest fans.
Breweries are one of the biggest beneficiaries of the demand for merch. Pint glasses (like Kona Big Wave sells) make for a great souvenir. But it also keeps your brewery top-of-mind whenever a past patron reaches for a glass in their own home.
Merch can take any number of forms: many restaurants (from Chipotle to Taco Bell and everything in between) sell branded apparel, always a great way to get your logo and brand ID out into the world.
Then there's the esoteric approach, like Chipotle's branded in-car napkin holder or Chick-fil-A's somehow completely sold-out line of sauce packet-themed gear.
The truth is, there's nowhere to go wrong here: Any brand visibility is good brand visibility, so if there's something you can make and put out into the world, go for it!
8. Fishbowl business card giveaways
This restaurant marketing tactic is so common that you'll see it across many different establishments.
The fishbowl business card giveaway is simple: diners in the restaurant drop their business card into a giant fishbowl. Once every month, your restaurant picks one at random in a lottery-style drawing, where the winning entrant earns a prize from your business. It could be as large as office catering for 10 employees or as small as a free appetizer.
By limiting customers to one entry per visit, this tactic could incentivize repeat visitors who are eager to get their name drawn. Plus, the more people you include in the winnings, the more people will try your restaurant for the first time.
Online restaurant advertising ideas
With so many online advertising tactics at your disposal, it can be difficult to know where to start. Fortunately, you don't have to pick just one. The more digital marketing tactics you use—paired with offline advertising—the more effective your restaurant's marketing will be.
9. Scale up your social media presence and engagement
If your restaurant is already on social media (and you absolutely should be!), then take stock of what you are and aren't doing there. Having a presence is an important first step, but engaging your audience tends to generate far more results than a mere presence alone.
When you respond to comments and DMs, you create an image of a friendly, responsive, active business. And when you post new content, you remind your audience that you exist. Some of those people are already going out tonight or have plans to pick up takeout. Getting your brand in front of those people nudges them in your direction.
10. Run social media contests
Getting an organic audience on socials by posting nothing but food and staff pics can be tough. That's why some restaurants have embraced running contests to grow an engaged and interactive audience. The idea is to encourage existing followers to tag friends and share the page's content with them.
For example, Cambridge Brewing Company often hosts giveaways for free beer and merchandise on Instagram. To enter, people need to follow the page, like the post, tag a friend, and share the post on their own accounts. All of these actions help the account gain traction and get more eyeballs.
Need some other ideas for creating and running a social media contest? Here's a quick list:
- Local restaurants: Small ($5-10) gift card giveaway for customers who share a selfie at your restaurant using your branded hashtag.
- Sweepstakes drawing: Like, follow, and tag for a chance to win a larger prize.
- Review to win: Restaurants using certain loyalty programs/systems can track customers who leave reviews and select winners monthly.
- Naming contest: Invite your audience to comment on a picture of a new dish or drink with their preferred name. Tons of unique comments on a post gives you a big boost.
11. Embrace email marketing
Restaurant email marketing is one of the most reliable restaurant marketing strategies, and it goes hand-in-hand with a loyalty program. You can encourage guests to sign up for email notifications on your website and social media pages by promising initial and ongoing rewards for doing so, like a $10 credit for signing up.
Email is an assured way to reach your audience by offering coupons, automatically sending reorder emails, and reminding guests of upcoming events and specials.
Unlike social media posts, which won't reach all of your followers' feeds due to limiting algorithms, newsletters are guaranteed to make it into every subscriber's inbox.
Send updates to subscribers about specials, events, bestsellers, and more. Create newsletters on a regular basis, but avoid spamming customers. We recommend sending no more than one newsletter a week.
12. Create a Snapchat geo-filter
When customers share your restaurant on Snapchat, make sure their foodie friends know where the Snap was taken by creating a geo-filter for your restaurant.
Custom geo-filters are easy to make and surprisingly affordable. Use restaurant table advertising in the form of tabletop signage to encourage customers to Snap from your restaurant and use your custom geo-filter.
13. Reach new customers via social ads
Meta's advertising platform for Facebook and Instagram lets you target existing and potential customers based on behavior, location, and interests, making it a powerful restaurant advertising tool to showcase visuals and send people directly to your website, menu, or online ordering page.
Check out how Moe's entices Facebook users with tasty ads like this one.
Want to lure in your competitor's customers with a coupon? Serve ads to people who like your competitor on Facebook or follow them on Instagram. Facebook owns Instagram, so you can manage Facebook and Instagram ads from the same platform.
Facebook location ads
You can also target diners in your area with Facebook location-based ads. Since these ads are geographical, you'll be able to target those who are visiting your area, even if they don't fall into the criteria for your other ads.
Use high-quality food photos to entice potential diners with Instagram ads. Learn more from our guide to Instagram marketing.
Reach new customers via Google search ads
Google Ads can help your restaurant appear higher on search engine results pages, especially when competition is tough in your area. Going after words like "burrito" or "pizza" and setting strict geographical rules so that your results appear only to those in your local area can help your ads perform better.
TikTok is a full-fledged social media staple used by one billion people each month. That's a hard stat for restaurant owners to ignore, especially with food content blowing up on the platform. That's why major brands like McDonald's have hopped on the bandwagon.
TikTok can be used to showcase food challenges, highlight staff, promote menu items, and more in a minute or less. The visuals are key here—and if your restaurant has spectacular-looking food, not promoting it on TikTok is a missed opportunity.
Take Sally's Apizza, which has a fantastic TikTok presence. This New Haven, CT, original is expanding to numerous locations in Massachusetts and Connecticut. The brand uses TikTok (with almost 32,000 followers and counting) to rep its food and drink offerings in creative, entertaining ways.
14. Use influencers to maximize your reach
Do you want your restaurant business to reach cult status? Engage influencers (bloggers and social media users with large followings) to spread the word about your restaurant to their loyal followers.
You can find them by simply Googling "food bloggers near [city]" and seeing who pops up. Reaching out to these individuals and offering them a free meal when they review or post about your restaurant can expose your menu items to a wide and loyal audience.
Once you've made contact with an influencer, you could even offer them an exclusive preview of your new menu in exchange for coverage on their feeds. This guide to vetting influencers will help you identify what to look for in an influencer to increase your chances of a successful collaboration.
15. Optimize your presence on Google Maps (and other directories)
Your restaurant needs a local SEO presence on Google Maps so that anyone searching for your restaurant (or restaurants near you) can easily find your hours and location.
Ensuring your restaurant appears on Google Maps is actually quite simple using Google Business Profile (formerly called Google My Business). Check out the video below, or read more in this guide on optimizing your Google Maps presence.
Don't stop with Google Maps optimization, either. Other restaurant-forward directories, including Yelp and TripAdvisor, still matter. Your restaurant may already have auto-generated pages there.
Think of these as the marketing tools they are, and take control of these pages and optimize them so visitors know you're an active, responsive establishment.
We're not suggesting you go as far as the real New York restaurant that actually named itself Thai Food Near Me, but smaller adjustments can still make a big difference.
16. Create a great restaurant website and online menu
A website is the one thing your restaurant has complete control over online. When building a restaurant website, the key thing to keep in mind is online ordering, as a clear way to place an online order increases the chance that potential customers will do just that.
Notice how, on Pavement Coffeehouse's website, the primary actions on the page are to place an order or to order coffee beans to your door.
Related: 8 Ways to Get Control of Your Restaurant Labor Costs Today
17. Boost your restaurant's reach on food delivery apps
The topic of food delivery apps can generate some strong opinions in the restaurant industry, but for many restaurants, the market is too large to ignore. DoorDash is the biggest food delivery service in the U.S. and boasts roughly 32 million monthly active users. That's nearly one in ten Americans!
Optimizing your presence in these app-based food delivery services (and advertising within them strategically where possible) can expose your restaurant to new demographics. This keeps your brand in front of more eyeballs, more consistently.
18. Respond to online reviews
Consumers have numerous avenues where they can review your restaurant online, and on most of these, your restaurant can respond or reply. Doing so is a good idea—both on the positive reviews and the not-so-positive ones.
Brands that communicate appear more active and engaged than those that don't. Transparency is also a big deal to many consumers, so seeing an apology or explanation on a negative review can go a long way toward protecting your reputation.
Large chains often employ marketing and PR people to handle this function, but independent restaurants likely won't have this luxury. If you don't have anyone who can do this task well (or you're struggling to keep up with demand), consider using a generative AI assistant like ChatGPT to increase your output or boost your quality.
Offline restaurant advertising ideas
Traditional advertising methods like magazine ads, billboards, and TV commercials are pricey, and it can be difficult to measure their effectiveness. Here are some offline advertising marketing channels that won't break the bank and will give you a return on your investment.
19. Don't overlook direct mail
Think mail is dead? Think again.
Direct mail is a quick and easy way to reach almost everyone in your community. Mailing menus with coupons gives potential customers something tangible to associate with your restaurant. It's a great tactic to try at least once a year as people move in and out—especially if your restaurant is in a larger city or near a college campus.
If managing a direct mail campaign yourself isn't an option, look into services like ValPak, Money Mailer, or Welcome Wagon. You won't be able to mail out an entire menu, but you can send a coupon or two, along with information about your restaurant.
This is a great way to indirectly encourage word-of-mouth advertising too. If someone tries your restaurant for the first time and has a good customer experience, they're more likely to spread the word. If their friends and neighbors just received the same coupon in the mail, there's an added incentive to stop in.
20. Take your food outside your four walls!
Another way to boost exposure to your food is to take it to the people, rather than expecting the people to come to you. There are many ways restaurants can partner with local businesses to spread their reach. For example:
- Do you serve healthy food? Set up a table at the gym next door and serve samples of your green smoothies.
- Are you located near a college campus? Sponsor an event by catering it.
- Does your city hold food festivals or taste-of-[city] type local events? Consider participating as a form of advertising, not just as a direct money-maker.
Using options like these, you'll spread the word about your restaurant to receptive audiences who may not have known about you otherwise.
A food truck could be another option. Many local multi-restaurant groups find value in setting up a food truck that can take their brand or brands to wherever the customers are.
21. Become a coworking space
Some people are taking dinner-only restaurants and opening them up to freelancers, entrepreneurs, and students during the daytime to use as workspaces. Participating in a program like this will expose your restaurant to new customers and create an extra source of revenue during a time when your space would otherwise be unused.
22. Digital billboards
Renting digital billboard space is a great way to catch the eyes of those in cars or on public transit. Companies like Blip allow you to rent space on a digital billboard that rotates through different ads. For example, at a cost of just 13 cents per blip, Jack's Donuts earned nearly 400,000 impressions with billboard ads near retail locations.
That's a tremendous value compared to the traditional cost of renting a print billboard. And it still delivers major results in terms of exposure and potentially increased visits.
Takeaway ideas for restaurant advertising in 2024
- Use a combination of online, offline, and on-site advertising to reach new customers and turn current customers into regulars.
- Concentrate on social media platforms, specifically on visual sites like Instagram and TikTok. When guests can see you and your staff, it makes it easier for them to connect with you.
- Boost your digital presence with a strong, mobile-friendly website and menu, by responding to customer reviews, and through strategic use of food delivery apps.
- Maximize real estate by using signage to catch the attention of passersby, and spread the word about specials and promotions to current customers.
- Get creative with offline advertising. Partner with local businesses, don't overlook direct mail or digital billboards, and turn your unused space into profit and promotion by leasing it as a coworking space part time.
What innovative methods are you using to get customers in your seats this year?
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