It's been said that it takes a village to raise a child, but restaurateurs know it takes at least a community that large to grow just one business. It makes sense, therefore, to do all you can to encourage customers to dine in groups.
The good news is people love to eat and drink in clusters. In that scenario, dining out is fellowship, not a fuel stop. Even if the meal is less than stellar, the gang has a common experience that provides something to talk about until they unite again — likely around food.
Unfortunately for restaurant operators, the numbers of two- and four-tops coming through the doors are much more common than the eight- and 10-tops. Getting 10 people's schedules synched and then having them agree on the same restaurant takes miraculous cooperation. But given the potential sales generated by larger parties, operators must work on strategies that engage customers and provide them incentives to dine out with their posse.
Restaurants located near offices can capitalize on that proximity to masses of people by rewarding small groups to invite others. Say four friends dine together regularly; an operator could tell them, "Get four more of your colleagues to come next time and I'll buy dessert for all eight of you." An aggressive marketer could go directly to local business owners and propose group deals to host meetings — more numbers, more rewards. The point, of course, is to do all you can to get more guests to bring in more customers more often.
Hosting "cause events," such as fundraisers, are great for drawing groups because, well, they're a lot of fun. People like rallying around a worthy cause and they appreciate operators—during and after the event—who are willing to share their profits with those needing assistance.
Social media is exceptionally helpful in boosting attendance at such events, especially for restaurateurs already communicating with customers through their own mini-networks. Within such sub-communities, news travels rapidly and people tend to respond quickly to invitations to join events.
But technology isn't always necessary to achieve good attendance. Just saying to several good customers, "Bring three friends with you to the fundraiser and I'll buy everyone a round of drinks," engages them directly, provides a good incentive for being social butterflies and fills the place in the process.
While bigger numbers do make an impact, using one-on-one engagement that could yield long-term returns is still powerful, especially when you encourage your guests to do the giving for you. For example, an operator who knows a regular loves her chicken sandwich can tell him, "Since you like that so much, share it with another friend who also might like it. Tell him about us and I'll treat him to a chicken sandwich."
Not only does that expose one more person to your restaurant, the endorsement of your place and your food comes from a trusted friend. In making that customer your ambassador, he also gets to feel generous — albeit at your expense — toward others with whom he wants to share the experience of dining at your place. That changes your restaurant from a place where he liked to eat to a place he now wants to share with others. That's a customer who will return often and bring others along for the meal.
With the advent of mobile technology and social networks, there is now a way to provide social rewards to your customers for measurable referrals. These rewards could super charge your community by making your restaurant experience a lot more fun and social.
Jitendra Gupta is CEO of Punchh, the only mobile-centric marketing platform for restaurants that uses the power of mobile devices and social networks to drive and measure repeat visits, word of mouth, and referrals.