How to Make Restaurant Advertising with No Budget Work for You

How to Make Restaurant Advertising with No Budget Work for You
Laurie Mega

By Laurie Mega

Whether you’re preparing for opening night or celebrating 10 years in your location, restaurant advertising and getting new (and familiar) faces in the front door is a constant part of your job.

Some restaurants spend money and effort on paid radio spots or mailing lists. But if you’re on a tight budget (or even if you’re not), there are plenty of creative (and free) ways to get the word out about your restaurant.

Many involve a digital presence, something essential to any marketing strategy today. I’ve broken down some of the best ways to market your restaurant through digital channels, as well as through some other creative sources that won’t break the bank.

But before we discuss how to market your restaurant, it’s important to talk about branding.

If you don’t have a solid brand strategy in place, you could end up wasting time on advertising that won’t yield any results. And while the restaurant advertising options we’re going to discuss are free, your time and labor is not.

Branding your restaraunt is essential to running a successful, busy restaurant and there are many ways to market your restaurant. For more helpful tips read How To Start a Restaurant: Your 13 Ingredient Recipe

Branding 101

restaurant-advertising-coffee-sign

As Entrepreneur puts it, “Your brand is the sum total of your customers’ perceptions, notions and experience. It is the face, personality and the values espoused by your business — and everything in between.[1]

Think about the old Cheers theme song. “Sometimes you wanna go where everybody knows your name.” That wasn’t just a song for the opening credits. That was the branding for the bar itself. It was a place where patrons could go to forget their worries and connect with good friends.

That’s exactly what you need to think about when branding your restaurant. What are people’s first impressions of your establishment when they see a flyer or walk by? How do they react when they walk through the door? What feeling do they walk away with after a meal?

All of this can be cultivated through a branding strategy.

The Importance of Branding

In Restaurant Success by the Numbers, Roger Fields, CPA, pulls a great quote from Tim Sanders, New York Times best-selling author and former Yahoo! CSO. Sanders suggests to think of your brand as “the promise of an outcome you instill into the minds of your target customers. It’s a shortcut: a great experience or a problem solved.”

Creating a branding strategy for yourself is all about stating what makes your restaurant unique, defining your values as a business, and creating consistent messaging, visuals, and customer and food service that reflect those unique qualities and values.

Everything from the name of your restaurant to your marketing materials and strategies to the way you present the bill should reflect those qualities and values.

Let’s look at an example.

Tavern in the Square is a fast-casual restaurant and bar with several locations in the greater Boston area. According to its site, the owners “wanted to open a place that was not only a great spot to watch a game, but one that had a fun neighborhood vibe with friendly staff and high quality food and drinks.” Each location, they say, adapts to the community it is a part of.

The Tavern in the Square locations have become popular neighborhood restaurants because of their consistent adherence to these values.

When I lived in a neighborhood with a large student population, the local Tavern in the Square had trivia nights, DJs, and beer and burger specials.

Now I live in the suburbs, where the local Tavern in the Square features a kids’ menu that was tested by staff members with kids and table-side props for baby carriers.

The company has become successful because of their commitment to becoming a part of every community in which they have a restaurant.

“Your restaurant will become known for the unique selling points you offer, and this brand will generate a lasting impression and strong emotional connection with your customers, motivating them to frequent your restaurant regularly and recommend it enthusiastically to family and friends.” - Roger Fields

So define your audience, know your niche, create strong recognizable imagery for your restaurant and then build a reputation based on your values and unique qualities.

Marketing Strategically

restaurant-advertising-girl-on-phone-at-laptop

You probably had to put a basic marketing strategy together when you created your business plan in which you talked briefly about the channels through which you’d advertise your restaurant.

Now it’s time to take that outline and flesh it out. You may even find as you do so that some of the channels you listed in your original plan no longer make sense for your business or your budget.

For instance, if you are a family-friendly restaurant, it makes sense to place coupons in places where families frequent (My dentist regularly carries coupons for a local fast-casual chain). You may want to bolster your paid advertising with free social media accounts or listings on MommmyPoppins.com and Macaroni Kids.

But if you’re a QSR that targets teenagers, Instagram or SnapChat may be your best option. And you can probably skip the printed flyers or radio spots.

It’s important to know exactly which channels to target to get the most out of your time, money, and resources.

And as traditional advertising becomes less and less popular with businesses and consumers alike, there is real value in looking into other, free ways to get the word about your restaurant out.

Alternatives to Traditional Restaurant Advertising

Paid radio spots radio and glossy flyers may have a place in your marketing plan, depending on they type of restaurant you are. But there are other ways to raise awareness and maintain a strong customer base without tapping into your budget.

I’ve listed several below. The kinds of free restaurant advertising (like using your menu as a marketing tool) that you choose will depend on the type of restaurant you have, your customer base, your branding, and your marketing strategy.

Word-of-Mouth

According to Fields, “Word-of-mouth advertising is particularly powerful because, unlike other methods, it is generally perceived to be objective and credible; it is assumed that people don’t want to mislead listeners when they endorse a product or make a recommendation.”

And customers these days trust recommendations from friends and peers more than they ever have.

According to a 2018 survey by BrightLocal, 89 percent of consumers look at online reviews for small businesses and 57 percent will only patronize a business if it has four stars or more[2].

In the age of digital marketing, word-of-mouth goes way beyond a recommendation by a coworker at the water cooler. Word-of-mouth recommendations are spread through review sites like Yelp, through social media posts by customers, and through blog and video posts by influencers and micro-influencers.

Of course, spreading a positive message about your restaurant starts with serving great food and providing excellent service in an inviting and comfortable setting.

That means your staff, both front- and back-of-house, are the first step in creating a successful word-of-mouth campaign.

Go through your branding and marketing plan with your staff. Make it a part of your employee manual and ensure everyone, from the head chef to the busser, is well-versed in the restaurant’s values and practices when it comes to food and customer service.

But just because word-of-mouth tends to spread organically, doesn’t mean you can’t help it along a little bit. There are ways to cultivate reviews, social posts, and influencer marketing with just a little innovative thinking and elbow grease.

restaurant-advertising-open-sign

Customer Reviews

It’s not enough to provide great service and then hope people will take the time to write a review. Encourage customers to spread the word by leaving a gentle suggestion on their bill or a table placard.

When customers write a positive review, respond with a thank-you.

Note: There will always be patrons who are displeased with your restaurant one way or another. It could have been an off night for their server, or an order wasn’t quite what they expected. Still, some customers are just hard to please.

For that reason, it’s important to address negative reviews, too. If you do get one, respond immediately and politely and offer to remedy the situation. Doing so will show potential customers that you’re willing to fix problems.

Social Posts

People love to tag themselves when they’re out eating and they love to post pictures of their food, too. But, again, you don’t have to wait around, hoping your customers will do just that.

Encourage selfies and food pics by running contests and discounts to social posters. You could give away a free dinner to the selfie with the most people in it, or the customer with the most selfies with different members of the waitstaff.

Of course, these kinds of promotions would only work for certain kinds of restaurants. You’re not likely to find patrons snapping selfies at a high-end French restaurant, where the customers would most likely be older and less plugged in to selfie culture, nevermind what it would do to the ambience!

Use the Media

You can always pitch your restaurant to food critics, from you local newspaper or TV station to prestigious national outlets like the New York Times or Zagat’s. But there are plenty of other ways to use the media to create buzz for your restaurant.

Pitch Food Bloggers and Influencers

While it’s still worth sending out press releases to TV and print media channels, think about your digital options, too.

There are food bloggers for practically every type of food and every corner of the U.S. You could even pitch your restaurant to non-food blogs with a good following, if you can find a good angle. According to Statista, there were 30 million bloggers in the U.S. in 2018. Chances are, you can find some that would be interested in your restaurant[3].

For instance, if you are that high-end French restaurant and you’re opening in the Atlanta area, you may pitch the local food blogs, but you may also pitch lifestyle blogs that target Buckhead, an affluent neighborhood just outside of Atlanta. You may also target French cultural blogs.

Influencers and micro-influencers can also help create buzz for you. They have a loyal following on social media channels like Instagram, YouTube, and Snapchat.

Just know that influencers tend to get some kind of compensation for their work. But while a larger, more-well known influencer might ask for money, micro-influencers, those with a small but loyal reach, might not ask for money.

Amanda Mohan is a model and micro-influencer in the greater Boston area. She recommends reaching out influencers like her. “Micro-influencers who are in college, for instance, would go to a restaurant and talk about it if their meal was comped,” she says.

And while they would have to be clear that they did get a free meal in their post, it would still garner attention with their following if they had something good to say about the food.

Do Something Newsworthy

Anytime your restaurant does anything significant, write a press release and send it out. It could be anything: opening a food stall at the local farmer’s market, hosting a fundraiser for a worthy cause, or offering a scholarship for local students.

And if your restaurant is related to any kind of holiday or special event, make sure bloggers and food columnists know. They’re always looking to fill their calendar with great places for Valentine’s Day or Cinco de Mayo or Mother’s Day brunch.

restaurant-advertising-propere-hamburgers

Create Social Media Accounts

Creating social media accounts for your business and relatively easy and it’s free. But there’s more to social media marketing than putting up an account and occasionally posting an event announcement.

To market through social media successfully, you need to engage your audience. As Fields puts it, “the best way to promote your restaurant using social media is not so much by hard selling, but by making personal connections and building relationships with your customers so that they will become your followers.”

Social media marketing is about telling a story through posts that entertain, inform, evoke emotion in your audience. And you need to post on a regular basis to keep your audience engaged.

But before you start planning your social media calendar, it’s important to identify the social media channels you should be on in the first place. That all depends on your audience.

Here are a few examples of what I mean.

Facebook: According to Statista, the majority of Facebook users in 2017 were males between the ages of 25 and 34[4].

Pinterest: Active pinners tend to be female, between the ages of 18 and 29[5].

Instagram: The largest demographic of Instagram users are males between the ages of 13 and 17.

While social media accounts are free, the time and effort to get them up and running is not. Knowing which channels you should focus on and which you shouldn’t will save you time and resources.

Once you’ve created accounts, it’s time to start posting. This is an opportunity to post more than just restaurant announcements. You could post funny memes, questions that invite your audience into a discussion, helpful tips from you or other sources, or posts to promote local businesses you work with.

And don’t forget to follow influencers, food bloggers, your vendors, and community leaders. Share and like their posts, and respond to comments on yours. People appreciate engaged brands. And if you spread the word about other businesses and people online, they’re more likely to spread the word about you.

Finally, create content that positions you as an expert in your niche. If you’re a beer garden, create a blog on your site dedicated to reviewing beers or supporting the local homebrewing community, for example. Offer tips on pairing beers with food.

Then promote those posts across your social media channels. When you do this, two things happen:

  1. Your social media following will read and share your articles, extending your reach.
  2. People searching for tips on food pairings or homebrewing may find your article, thus finding you.

Free Restaurant Advertising Tactics that Work

Making the most of free restaurant advertising starts with a solid branding and marketing strategy. Once you have those in place, you can determine the best kinds of advertising for your restaurant.

Of course, all restaurants can take advantage of word-of-mouth and the media, but the way in which you get that word out and the media channels you pitch will depend on the type of restaurant you run.

This also holds true for the kind of social media marketing you choose to do.

Where there are more budget-friendly ways to advertise your restaurant, keep in mind that all of it takes time and resources, which cost you money in the end. Knowing your audience and your brand will help you target the right marketing channels that will yield results and make the effort worth every penny.


  1. https://www.entrepreneur.com/article/313369 ↩︎

  2. https://www.brightlocal.com/learn/local-consumer-review-survey/ ↩︎

  3. https://www.statista.com/statistics/187267/number-of-bloggers-in-usa/ ↩︎

  4. https://www.statista.com/statistics/187041/us-user-age-distribution-on-facebook/ ↩︎

  5. https://sproutsocial.com/insights/new-social-media-demographics/#Instagram ↩︎

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Laurie Mega
Laurie Mega

Laurie is a writer with family in the restaurant industry. She lives near Boston with her husband and two boys and has been published in HomeandGarden.com, The Economist, and more.