Whether it’s your first year or your tenth year in business, there are bound to be certain times of the week or year that are slower than others. Usually it’s after the holiday rush - in January and February - or in the beginning of the week, on Mondays and Tuesdays.
What should you do during those slow times? Should you just accept that you’ll have less business and find something else productive to work on? Or do you market and promote so you’ll have more people coming in and business to keep busy? The answer is both. You can’t control the seasonality and the reality that more people dine out on weekends. But there are lots of things you can do to grow your business even during slow times.
The Pros and Cons of Discounting – A Strategy that Makes Sense
First, see if you can create a busy night out of a slow night. One classic way to do this is by offering discounts. However, rather than discounting your prices on existing items, create a new item or “special” for that evening only - something that’s a good deal that will bring people in the door in high enough volumes to make up for the loss of margin. By creating a new item, you avoid the situation where people think they are over paying the rest of the time because they got a discount that night. You don’t want people to think that your food is only worth it when it’s offered at a discounted price.
Create a Promotable Occasion
Another way to create a busy time out of an otherwise slow one is to offer something entertaining. This can be in addition to or instead of your special deal. Here’s some ideas:
- Hire a local musician.
- Build a theme dinner around a seasonal or local event.
- Host cooking lessons or dance lessons.
- Create a tasting night with wine or craft beer pairings.
- Host Meetup groups.
- Invite local artists in to showcase their work on your walls
- On a cold winter day – roast a pig in the parking lot and have a barbeque!
A successful restaurant in Laconia, NH hosts a free “biathlon” every Saturday in the winter and invites people to strap on snowshoes or cross country skis, don a paint-ball gun (they provide), and do loops around their property in friendly competition! What a great way to encourage people to leave their house on a cold winter day and give them a reason to get outside and have fun. (And then spend money in the warm and cozy tavern afterwards while making new friends!)
Think outside the box and get creative! Ask yourself how you can contribute to building community in your neighborhood. Make the event fun and make it relevant to your brand. Make it a repeatable, regular occasion, and you’ll build up a customer base of regulars who look forward to making your event (and restaurant) part of their life.
Marketing Your Special Event
Once you’ve designed your promotion and/or occasion, it’s time to spread the word. Test a variety of marketing channels to figure out what works in your community for your target customers. If you’ve already got social media followers, get the word out to them first. Then you might try some traditional tactics such as newspaper ads and flyers on community bulletin boards. Make your marketing measurable by using coupons and hang tags that need to be redeemed, so you can see what’s working and what’s not working. Keep testing and measuring until you find a marketing mix that’s effective.
Improve and Fix Your Operations
The most common mistake small business owners make is to work too much IN their business, and not enough ON their business. When it’s busy, they get so wrapped up in the day to day, they don’t have time to strategically plan and set up systems for growth. Slow times are a great opportunity to take a step back and look at the big picture.
Look at your menu. Consider temporarily downsizing it to minimize inventory and waste while it’s slow. Look at what’s really profitable and what’s not. What did and didn’t sell when you were busy? If you don’t have systems in place to track these things – establish them now. Prepare. Plan and test new menu items. Consider changing the menu design and layout. Train your staff to take on more responsibilities. These are things you won’t have time to focus on when it gets busy.
Remember: Running Your Own Business is Supposed to be Hard
If it were easy, everyone would do it. The fact is, some days will always be a harder sell than other days. Don’t be surprised! Don’t be angry! The worst thing you can do is get angry at yourself or your staff for the lack of business. Seasonality is the nature of the restaurant business. Recognize and accept this, then plan accordingly, and you can turn slow times into something positive for the long-term growth and success of your business!