Live music fills the air, kids with face paint run by, adults laugh and talk as they sample cuts of smoked meats, craft beer, and gourmet lemonade. It’s not a festival or fair—it’s the grand opening of a new City Barbeque.
The Dublin, Ohio–based craft barbecue fast casual has been around since 1999 and began holding large-scale grand-opening bashes about five years ago. “We have guests who’ve come to several grand openings because they have so much fun,” says Corey Kaminski, regional marketing manager of City Barbeque. Calling these events community festivals isn’t so far off.
“Grand openings are critical to all brick-and-mortar retailers,” says Austin Wright, senior vice president of strategy at Ansira, a data- and technology-driven marketing agency. “They create awareness and drive traffic.”
City Barbeque sees some of its highest sales around grand openings, Kaminski says. It’s not easy to maintain those numbers, but it’s much better than starting slow and taking a long time to build strong sales.
Though every brand should hold grand openings, not everyone can, or should, throw a family-friendly extravaganza like City Barbeque. “The trick is understanding what should be done at a grand opening and when to do it,” Wright says. That depends on the brand’s message, goals, ideal customer base, values, and strategy for reaching locals.
For Chicken Salad Chick, grand openings are designed to generate excitement in the community and staff and to attract new loyal customers. It’s common to see lines of people snaking around the block in anticipation of a new store opening. The brand has been running a popular special for the past two years: The first person in line gets free chicken salad every week for a year, and the next 99 get free chicken salad once a month for a year.
This splashy promo, which is implemented through the brand’s loyalty program, encourages repeat business. It also generates enthusiasm from staff and other community members. “It creates excitement for [the staff] to know that there’s all these folks out there waiting to get in and participate in this thing they’ve chosen to work for,” says Tom Carr, vice president of marketing for Chicken Salad Chick. “And people will get in line when they see a line… . They’ll say, ‘We know something is going on,’ and when it’s that popular they want to participate in it.”
In addition to being family friendly, City Barbeque’s identity is largely built around being part of a community. It runs hundreds of local fundraisers a month. “Having multiple locations can have a stigma attached to it. We don’t want to be viewed that way,” Kaminski says. “We want to highlight the local community that we’re trying to support. I think that’s more beneficial than if I would just plaster every newspaper with ads about us.”
While the local celebrities and radio station partnerships help to establish City Barbeque in the community, nothing does it quite as well as its opening tradition, which supports at least one local charity with 10 percent of all grand-opening sales.
Both Chicken Salad Chick and City Barbeque rely heavily on Facebook to get the word out about their grand-opening events. It’s the ideal medium for Chicken Salad Chick, whose core customer base is women ages 35–60, a primary Facebook user group. Kaminski likes Facebook event blasts because they go farther and reach a more targeted audience than a Facebook ad.
It’s important to use awareness channels like Facebook and other social networks, Wright says, because they can utilize tracking capabilities—meaning success can be measured. “Ideally, these channels will leverage targeting that uses profiles of existing customers,” he adds.
The brands also sometimes partner with local radio stations before or during the event. While channels like radio, TV, and billboards can be great for getting the word out, Wright cautions against using them too much for grand-opening promotions. Their audiences aren’t as targeted and, therefore, success is more difficult to measure.
Regardless of how they’re advertised, grand-opening events need to be carefully coordinated. City Barbeque and Chicken Salad Chick begin holding planning meetings 12 weeks beforehand. Both have developed programs that formalize many aspects of the event—a step Wright says is necessary to maintain quality, consistency, and brand identity.
Still, some things are left up to individual stores. At City Barbeque, the length of the opening celebrations, the activities and entertainment, and the charity partnerships are all customizable, says Brian Hipsher, vice president of marketing.
Formal coordination touches nearly every aspect of the company. “While in many ways, marketing is the center of the grand-opening day event, the grand-opening process is only successful through collaboration with the rest of the team,” Carr says. “Collaboration with construction, staying on time, and understanding when the restaurant is going to open is critical.”
At Chicken Salad Chick, training dovetails with marketing when trainees produce dozens of pounds of chicken salad while learning the recipes. That food is turned into a marketing tool when team members take it to neighboring businesses, schools, doctors’ offices, and community spots, giving out free samples.
Increasingly, grand openings are multi-day affairs. City Barbeque often opens Mondays and holds community celebrations Saturdays. Soft openings give the staff a chance to get ready for opening day, which can be overwhelming, Hipsher says.
Chicken Salad Chick is experimenting with grand-opening weeks to expand the pool of potential guests. Carr likes being able to accommodate more people and prolong the brand’s introduction to a community. “We want the town to see that it’s a big deal and that we appreciate them getting involved,” he says.