In covering restaurants and talking with chefs and business owners, I see and hear about a lot of business disasters. This two-part series compiles many common errors and how to avoid them for a better chance at business success. Yesterday we covered business insurance and how to decide who to work with in a new enterprise. Today we continue with information on legally protecting your restaurant and more.
Protect Your Brand
Over the past few years, we’ve seen more than one restaurant having to start all over with its branding, or having its brand infringed upon, because it wasn't protected.
One of the very first things you should do while your restaurant concept is still nothing more than a gleam in your eye is to search the United States Patent and Trademark Office website to ensure no one has already taken the name. If it looks like your brand is unique, file for trademark immediately.
Additionally, secure your domain name (and similar domain names, possibly including common misspellings), Twitter handle, Facebook page, Instagram username, Snapchat handle and whatever other social media accounts you can think of.
While we’re on the subject of trademarks and logos, please consider retaining professional graphic designers for your logo, website, marketing package template and menus. Design is, in fact, a discipline with rules. Unless your nephew or secretary is a graphic designer, asking him or her to design your logo is a mistake you’ll be stuck with for a long time. Pay now, or pay later. Rebranding is no fun.
Consider Hiring a Public Relations Professional
I sometimes hear restaurant owners bitterly complain about how other places with professional PR get more attention than they do.
Uh, yeah? What did you think a public relations firm does? Their job is to draw attention.
I wholeheartedly agree that food writers need to go to places they’ve never heard of before and try to cover the true scope of the city. Here’s the problem: Writers are exceptionally busy people, with tons of other restaurants clamoring for their time, and an influx of email that just won’t quit. If you’re sitting around waiting for some food writer to “discover” you, you may be waiting a long time.
There are good public relations firms and there are bad ones. Get referrals from successful restaurant owners before hiring one. Also, get in writing exactly what it is the PR firm is supposed to be doing for you. Is it a “one-off” project in which they are helping promote a particular event? Are they supposed to regularly manage your social media accounts and maintain an up-to-date library of photos of your place, food, beverages and current personnel? Do they know the menu almost as well as you do? Do they have current copies of the menu on hand? Are they there to brainstorm with you on fun and exciting specials and promotions? Will they quantify their work by providing monthly reports of what, exactly, they did for you and whether they can correlate that with bigger sales and a larger social media following?
A good PR person is a joy for reporters to work with because he or she knows how to write to-the-point press releases with all the information we need, sends photos along with the releases and responds promptly to inquiries.
A bad PR person collects a check from his or her clients without quantifying work or results and doesn’t have any exciting ideas.
By the way, don’t play games with your news, and never lie. Failure to be honest and trustworthy may mean not getting coverage later down the road when you really need it. Reporters are people, too, people who are just as annoyed by mistreatment as anyone else. Also, it’s our job to know what’s going on and we’re more likely to catch you in a lie or tricky business than anyone else.
No Food Writer or Restaurant Critic Can Either Save or Destroy Your Business
Restaurant critics at major, widely read publications can give your business a major boost and possibly even put you on the national radar — or not, in the case of a bad review. However, there's a limit to that power.
No restaurant critic or food writer can save your business if there is something inherently wrong. For that matter, neither can a restaurant critic ruin your business with a bad review if you are actually doing most things right most of the time. It's just, like, their opinions, man, and you have regular customers who know better.
When it's a good review, the worst thing is having no idea how to handle — much less capitalize on — the sudden influx of business or what to do when that's all over.
Let’s say you get a glowing review and diners barnstorm the front doors for a few months. In time, the novelty fades and those same diners are off to chase the next new hot thing. What’s your plan for when that happens? What are you going to do when your restaurant reaches maturity and you're not the new hotness anymore?
Be interesting. Stay on the radar. Keep the menu fresh but don’t discard the old favorites. Give people a reason to talk about you when the initial rush is over.
The only people who will ultimately keep your restaurant going are those who live nearby. Fall just as much all over yourself trying to please your regulars and "the locals" as you would for a known food writer. If your neighborhood loves you, it will sustain your business long after the food writers and the fickle have moved on.
When It Comes to the Media, Try, Try and Try Again
Never stop reaching out to the media. Just because they didn’t respond to your first press release doesn’t mean you should give up on contacting them. Maybe your first event didn’t fit into their coverage plans. Maybe they were already full up on news that week and just couldn’t get to you. Maybe you didn’t contact the right kind of news outlet.
If you’re not getting the response you want from the media, there are a few things you can do. First, take a look at what is getting coverage and consider adjusting your plans so you’re positioned in a similar fashion. Second, it doesn’t hurt at all to send a kind, genuine email asking why your press release wasn’t of interest. (That needs to be something more than a line on a press release asking, “Is this of interest to you?” The silence will be deafening.) Don’t whine, either. (See the part below called “No Matter What, Avoid the Stink of Failure.) You might not receive a response, but then again, you might and it could lead to some valuable insights.
Don’t Participate in Events You Can’t Afford
Festivals and tasting events are a great way to put your brand and your food in front of an interested audience. However, this is a game for restaurants that are financially secure. There are usually fees to participate and often no reimbursement for food and labor costs. If your restaurant is in dire straits, that money is likely better spent elsewhere.
No Matter What, Avoid the Stink of Failure
Everyone loves a winner, so you need to look and sound like one, even if you’re not. Fake it until you make it. Begging for business on social media, giving two-for-one dining deals and sending out coupons is the same as transmitting “Hey, we’re really hurting right now!” There are better ways to market, and they make you look like a winner. (See “Consider Hiring a Public Relations Professional” above. A good one knows the correct tactics to get people in the door without sacrificing your dignity.)
Never Sacrifice Your Vision or Your Integrity, but Understand Your Concept May Just Not Be the Right One
There’s a fine line between giving people what they want and compromising your vision of what you set out to do in the first place. If you fail to open the right concept in the right area, you may find yourself scrambling to meet your guests’ demands.
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“Re-concepting,” though, usually doesn’t work and has a high risk of alienating the customers who already liked your restaurant. Generally, if a new concept is needed, it can’t really be done under the same restaurant name. There’s a big difference between adding that rib eye your customers keep asking for and deciding that your all-bacon-all-the-time concept isn’t jibing with a neighborhood made up primarily of health-conscious millennials.
If a restaurant is just not working and has had plenty of time to find its audience, it needs major surgery, not an outpatient procedure. Come up with a new vision that works but don’t compromise the old one. It’s just not going to work.
Related to the above: If you opened promising fresh local produce and high-quality meat, do not think you can get away with cheap ingredients. Some of your customers will know and will abandon you. Worse, you might get caught and publicly humiliated.
This is by no means an exhaustive list. There are unfortunately a million ways to get screwed. There are many unexpected ways to fail. However, these are all good things to think about. Consider the issues, have a plan for what you want to do about them and go forth with your best foot forward.