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    For Restaurants, a Guest's First Visit is the Moment of Truth

  • Brian Hipsher, City Barbeque's vice president of marketing, shares how the growing chain hooks its customers from day one—and keeps them coming back.

    City Barbecue
    City Barbeque uses a firebox that burns the wood and cooks the meat through an indirect method.

    Editor’s note: This is the latest monthly column with Rom Krupp, the founder and CEO of Marketing Vitals, an analytics software helping restaurants of all shapes and sizes. You can read his column on Twin Peaks here, Abuelo's here, Kenny's Restaurant Group here, Sonny’s BBQ here, Boston's here, Del Frisco’s Grill here, Four Foods Group here, and Hopdoddy Burger Bar here.

    Since 1999, City Barbeque has been 100 percent devoted to its craft. By never taking shortcuts, its meats are always smoked on-site at each restaurant, hand rubbed with spices, and take upward of 18 hours to become pure barbeque perfection. Using a firebox that burns the wood and cooks the meat through an indirect method, they achieve the most tender flavorful meat possible accompanied by sides prepared from scratch and made fresh throughout the day. With this dedication, I wanted to know more so I sat down with the City Barbeque vice president of marketing, Brian Hipsher.

    What marketing strategies did you launch with that you still use today?

    Our founder, Rick Malir, built a raving fan base for the first City Barbeque by taking amazing food out into the community and getting to know people personally. Building personal connections inside and outside the restaurant, one at a time, is hard work (and certainly not the cheapest way to reach people). But he wanted to create real relationships to best serve and create happiness which is core to our brand. Our teammates today use this same approach in every City Barbeque community: we call it "backyard hospitality."  

    What do you believe has changed the most when it comes to driving customer frequency? 

    Think about where you dine the most and why it is your favorite place. Has that changed over the years? The explosion of new flavors, ideas, and concepts, combined with technology and access to information, keeps guests exploring. The basics still apply when it comes to customer frequency—amazing food, hospitality, atmosphere—but if you aren't evolving all three, you may find yourself in trouble. At City Barbeque, we're continually improving on the basics to give guests a reason to come back. We also use analytics to see which menu items and teammates are driving frequency; these insights are extremely valuable for improving the customer experience.

    What role has social media played in brand awareness?

    Reputation management sites shine a light on a city's top restaurants. Guests want to try the best—and they often search online to find it. On social media, you can engage with guests 24/7, and they can learn about new offerings, participate in brand conversations, and have some fun. At City Barbeque, reputation management and social media are central to our promotional efforts. In the last year we've doubled our social reach while enjoying a best-in-class content engagement rate. We reach tens of millions of unique folks with our messages—and who doesn’t like a beautiful brisket photo? 

    What is your top marketing tip for a new restaurant just starting? 

    Get people talking about you! It is hard to get folks to change their dining habits, so you have to build up the anticipation of your opening and knock their socks off. You have one chance, one moment of truth: that first visit. Make sure that first experience is amazing so folks will want to talk about that great new place they tried. Be generous! Light that fire in your first three months and you’ll be in pretty good shape. 

    Do individualized local or national campaigns generate the best ROI? 

    Local, local, local. That being said, with technology and talent, it's possible to focus on both. We can launch a new product or campaign nationally and easily localize it. Giving local teams the freedom to craft the best approach and giving them the tools and assets to be efficient in doing so, makes our campaigns better. … Best of all, we can learn from those local adaptations to share across our brand for next time.

    READER QUESTION

    How important is employee feedback in maintaining top talent?Pat from Indianapolis

    Ultimately, education, training, communication, and opportunity will be the driving forces to attract and maintain strong staff. But every restaurant should be actively building loyalty and pride through repetition of success. Employee praise should never be delayed but neither should a solid way for employees to improve. Management must be fast and effusive so feedback becomes successful exchanges that will create a path for employee loyalty, pride and growth. Observe and quickly respond to both positive and negative employee actions. Your staff will welcome it when it is professional and proactive and not tucked away in an employee evaluation happening many months later.  

    Do you have a restaurant marketing question? Email [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @Vitals_com

    Rom Krupp is the founder and CEO of Marketing Vitals, a game-changing analytics software helping restaurants of all shapes and sizes with intelligence that leads to actionable decision-making With over 20 years working with over 400 brands, Rom Krupp helps restaurants turn data into dollars.