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Jack's Gastropub & INN31 (Noah Fleming)
Jack's Gastropub & INN31 (Noah Fleming)

Guest column

Six lessons from a small, family-owned restaurant Add to ...

Remember when you could walk in to a restaurant and order the “usual?” I remember each year my mother taking me down to the local shoe store where I would choose from maybe a dozen pairs of shoes, and each year the owner would miraculously remember things like my favourite colour or style. Of course, things have changed. Main Street has changed.

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Small businesses struggle to compete with the online giants and the other new realities of Main Street; they’ve got a gazillion social media strategists telling them the solution to their business woes is to tweet, poke, pin, and prod.

In the mad rush to jump on the latest and shiniest tech bandwagon, most businesses miss the most important part of all – effectiveness in the way they engage customers. They return back to that same old sentiment they had about traditional media: “Nothing works, so I’ll just run some ads in the newspaper.”

But there’s a quiet revolution happening in SMB marketing and community building. There are a number of businesses of finally putting the pieces together and it’s working.

One of my clients, Jack's Gastropub & INN3, after 20 successful years in the restaurant industry, found his business struggling in a poor economy. Nothing had dramatically changed; people just simply stopped coming in as often as they once did. When the client called me, sales were down. Fast-forward three years later and we’ve not only been able to gain back the lost business, but we’ve been able to surpass their best year of sales in over twenty years of business. In fact, they've been able to generate revenue that would be considered successful in Canada’s largest cities like Toronto and Vancouver.

The restaurant is located the small town of Kingsville, Ont. Kingsville is a small town of 20,000 people whose claim to fame being the most ‘Southern Town’ in all of Canada. It shares the same equator line as California, and residents enjoy warmer-than-most-Canadian-town summers. The next major city is a 40-minute drive away. It’s hard for restaurants to thrive here, much less survive here.

I advised my client to follow my lead and implement everything I knew about building communities online and do it with their offline customers. They started it on a small scale and have done it remarkably well. They used social media to build an incredibly loyal community and, in turn, it’s allowed them to grow the business exponentially. Here’s how they did it:

One of the things they started doing was publishing a printed newsletter, consistently, each month for over two years. The newsletter highlights and addresses everything from events to contest winners to customer complaints. Think you're e-mailing your customers too much? They're using MailChimp to engage customers at least four to five times per week. Open-rates are through the roof.

They used sites like Fiverr, a website where random people from all over the world offer to do things for $5, to create seasonal marketing campaigns that generated tens of thousands of dollars in revenue for under $100 total. But did the videos go viral for the world to see? No. But who cares? What mattered was that the videos resonated with their community of loyal customers

When customers asked why a favourite menu option was no longer available, they responded with a video blog post. A customer then initiated an online petition encouraging Frito-Lays to start re-delivering the suddenly “no longer available” product. Days later the phone rang and an executive from Dallas, Texas, was on the line. It worked. Bringing back the regular delivery of corn chips to the restaurant meant more “Tecumseh Nachos” – corn chips topped with cheddar cheese, ground beef, pico de gallo, sour cream and scallions, a true customer favourite!

They’ve also used daily-deal sites without losing their shirts by training staff to recognize that a customer with a coupon might not be a bargain hunter, but a potential new customer for life.

They created special events and private clubs that don’t just sell out quickly, but faster than the Stones on Ticketmaster. Their “Beer Club,” a monthly gathering of craft beer lovers, has sold out every month for over two years. It’s become one of the hottest tickets around. And when customers said they wanted to learn more about butchering, they created a dinner series and brought in butcher, Jamie Waldron, who did live demos for the sold-out crowd.

I assisted them in implementing a very simply loyalty card program which has allowed them to track specific customer data and behaviour analytics. It’s given them the tools to engage and re-engage customers who haven’t visited in a while. It’s allowed them to reward their most valuable customers in more individually tailored and specific ways. For example, they created private menus only accessible to loyalty members. A free Starbucks every 15 drinks is great, but having access to the “Secret Menu” creates an entirely new sense of belonging to something bigger. Loyalty earns you other perks like private events, and priority reservations. It’s given them insights on their customer base most businesses would never know.

Food Network's You Gotta Eat Here! is coming to film in a couple of weeks.

Here’s what this means for every other business – your business: Slow down. Take a deep breath and good hard look at the tools available to you. You don't need them all. Instead, take a close look at your customers and how you’re engaging with them now. Figure out how can you foster a sense of community for your customers. That’s where the magic happens.

Instead of viewing your customers as a faceless, amorphous entity, view them as your community. It’s not just enough to tweet, pin, and poke because everyone else is doing it. And it’s certainly not about going global. Instead, it’s about going local on a microscopic level. Fad jumping to each latest and greatest tech tools gets you nowhere.

I’m not telling you anything complicated. This is a family-owned restaurant in a town probably smaller than yours, with a budget probably less than yours. There are dozens of small businesses following suit. Are you?

Special to The Globe and Mail

Noah Fleming www.Noahfleming.com Noah is the president of Fleming Consulting & Co. ( www.noahfleming.com ). Noah specializes in helping clients build unbreakable customer loyalty and dramatically increase their customer retention.

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