It’s December, and the air is seasoned with the scent of cinnamon, spice, and everything nice. January is fast-approaching, and hot lunch spots will soon be back on the mind of every highschool and college student in your area.
Want to capture the hungry, back-to-school lunch crowd for January? Get ahead of it with our 12 favorite restaurant lunch special ideas for you to feature.
Why you should invest in restaurant lunch specials
Increasing lunch sales is a no-brainer in the restaurant business. With dinner prep taking place in most restaurants from noon on, you’re open anyway—and the more diners you can attract to buy lunch, the more profitable you become. 33% of Canadians eat out for lunch most-often, not far behind the dinner crowd at 49%.
Toast employee David Scott Peters said it best:
“Think about it: you are paying rent and utilities whether you are generating sales or not. (...) If you could generate enough sales to at least cover the daytime expenses, the next shift becomes a pure profit center. Basically, the busier you make your lunch business, the sooner you start making money.”
Sounds good, doesn’t it?
Historically, lunchtime can be a struggle for restaurateurs: going out for lunch is a dying tradition, according to the Wall Street Journal. Increasingly, corporate America is choosing to eat at their desks, a trend that threatens restaurant profitability. But if your restaurant successfully markets to college students, and you capitalize on the demand for fast, fresh, and smart lunch options, you might recover some of those losses (and grow your fanbase in the process).
Lunch special ideas for restaurants
As promised, here are 12 ways to get diners through your doors over the noon hour:
1. Create a content competition
User-generated content (UGC) is massively popular among the college crowd. With proper plating and presentation, just about any meal can be Instagrammable!
Hootsuite’s top three benefits of implementing a UGC strategy include:
- Promoting authenticity;
- Building trust; and
- Driving purchasing decisions
Put UGC to work for your restaurant by inviting diners to post a photo of their lunch on social media (tagging your business, of course) for a chance to win a meal on the house.
2. Offer student discounts
Most students live on a shoestring budget and are always on the lookout for discounts, deals, and other ways to save money.
Offering a discount for college students who present their student IDs provides extra incentive to take a lunchtime study break at your restaurant. On average, students spend between 1 - 2 hours per day on social media, so be sure you’re posting your promotion online!
3. Make your meals to go
Whether you’re a college goer or settled into a career, life is busy. For those who forgot to pack a lunch but are too time-poor to have a sit-down meal, advertising pre-packaged, nutritious grab-and-go options makes you a viable option for people on the move. Have a look at your restaurant POS analytics to determine what your best sellers are and see if you can create a quick and easy to-go version.
4. Mix and match
Diners appreciate feeling like they have a say in how they fuel their bodies, so why not let them decide what they eat for lunch? Create a fixed-price ‘Mix and Match’ menu with soups, salads, and sandwiches for customers to choose from. (If you’re stuck on how to price, $9.95 is a common one.)
Pop a promotional banner at the top of your lunch menu to catch diners’ eyes when they’re hungry but in a rush. Regularly switching up menu items is another good tactic that capitalizes on diners’ FOMO and encourages a return visit to grab the latest lunch deals.
5. Give BOGO a go
Even though eating alone is a growing trend, food remains a fundamentally social experience. With a BOGO (Buy One, Get One) deal, guests pay full price for their first item and receive a discount on a qualifying second item. Whether they split the deal with a friend or save the second item for dinner, you’ll benefit from a bigger check.
6. Reward lunchtime loyalty
Restaurant loyalty programs are a proven sales strategy no matter the time of day, but if you focus specifically on lunchtime (offering a free lunch every 10 visits, for example) you give diners a reason to keep coming back to you for a midday meal.
7. $15 in 15
As we’ve already established, some diners simply don’t have the luxury of long and leisurely lunch. With a $15 in 15 deal, you promise guests that items ordered off the $15 lunch menu will be prepared, plated, and served within 15 minutes of ordering.
8. Brunch for lunch
By now we’ve all heard that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, but study findings from the NPD Group indicate that every day approximately 10% of Americans skip this all-important meal. Does this mean they dislike breakfast? Not necessarily. Often it’s a time issue, not a taste issue. Take advantage by offering “brunch for lunch” options like avocado toast (a must-have for millennials) or an egg white omelet wrap with seasonal roasted veggies.
9. Take your food outside
Encourage your guests to grab some grub and enjoy the crisp fall air with portable meals. Some restaurants will go the extra mile and pack everything into a sweet little picnic basket, but a recyclable paper bag will also do the trick.
10. Host a live event
Whether you bring in a band, coordinate lunchtime trivia, or organize some noonhour comedy, hosting live events can make your restaurant the perfect midday getaway for both the college and the corporate crowd. Marketing promotions like these offline (distributing flyers around campus, for example) will drum up added excitement about upcoming events.
11. Serve up meals on wheels
If you’re a pub, bar, or business with a tiny kitchen, partnering with local businesses like food trucks or neighbouring restaurants is a great way to cater to the lunch crowd and get in front of a new audience. The food truck industry is one of the best-performing segments in food services, which means plenty of partnership opportunities for your patrons.
12. Create group meal kits
Catering is a great way to expand your reach, especially if you’re a small restaurant with limited seating. If your guests are too busy to come to you, why not go to them? Prepare a set menu of fun, easy-to-prepare lunch options like tacos, salads, or pasta that you can deliver to nearby universities or businesses. Bonus points for free delivery!
No matter which of these restaurant lunch specials you choose for fall, communication—within your team and out to the masses—is always going to be your key to success.
Naturally, you’ll want to incorporate your chosen strategies into your restaurant marketing plan. For example, using a platform like Instagram for your restaurant to highlight your special lunchtime deals, incorporating hashtags for your region and with common food qualifiers (things like #brunch, #lunch, and #foodie), and Instagram Stories at critical times during the day (like when your audience might start feeling those familiar hunger pangs) builds brand awareness and tempts people to pay you a visit.
It’s equally critical to give staff advance notice of your seasonal plans. In some cases, your staff may be students themselves, so soliciting feedback before you put your plan into action might spark interesting insights and ideas.
Last, but certainly not least, once your plan is off the ground and running it’s important to make sure you have the resources to manage a surge in hungry customers. Your restaurant employee scheduling software and POS software will be two of your greatest allies in ensuring you have the staff and inventory to brand yourselves as a go-to lunch spot.