Can PR Save Your Restaurant from Declining Sales?

Ask yourself these hard questions to decide your restaurant's fate

A highly successful restaurant starts to see sales decline. Perhaps increased competition is the culprit or a wildcard menu special designed to attract new customers that only ended up confusing regulars. This is usually when our public relations agency gets the call: Help! We need PR.

Here’s the hard truth: that PR life jacket will never help in the long run. A solid PR firm with great media relationships can put an ailing restaurant in the spotlight, but when the buzz wears off, you’re back to where you started.

To turn media hits and promotions intodollar signs, take a hard look at the business to understand where the guests are and why they aren’t coming in. Asking yourself  these questions will help.

Do You Have a Story to Tell?
Consider the following: Everyone has a story—what’s yours? To stand out, you must give guests a reason to dine at your restaurant.

With our high-end steakhouse client, we found that their best guests dined at the restaurant because of how they felt walking into the restaurant. VIP treatment was standard; staff recognized them. Customers also enjoyed the luxe setting and appreciated the care staffed showed, accommodating dietary preferences and needs. This became a core part of the PR strategy.

No matter what your concept or price point may be, it is essential to clearly identify what makes you different so that the message resonates.

Is the Location In Sync?
Whether your restaurant is a neighborhood gem or a culinary destination, location affects the communications strategy. We recently worked with a restaurant that seemed to have everything going for it, yet seats were empty. Digging deeper, we realized that the restaurant was a foodie destination in a neighborhood that didn’t give culinary matters a second thought.

To appeal to the neighborhood and attract new regulars, we highlighted the more casual bar menu as well as the craveable, everyday types of dishes. Implementing a frequent dining program and connecting to local businesses also created stronger ties to the area.

Are You Serving What Diners Want?
A celebrity chef offers a menu of authentic Neapolitan pizzas, pastas and delicious salads, but the neighborhood expected a red sauce Italian restaurant with traditional Americanized pizza. So how do you balance what the guest wants with the artistry of a chef? Provide balance to the menu. In this case, the chef included his best version of those traditional classics such as a more familiar cheese pizza and spaghetti and meatballs.

Can You Create New Buzz?
If the chance to promote your new restaurant is over, do something different. Launching a refreshed happy hour or adding a twist to an existing promotion can be just enough to create buzz and bring media in the door to see all that your restaurant has to offer.

Does the Concept Fit a Label?
Media and guests need to be able to categorize restaurants so they can easily remember them. Asking “where do you fit in Zagat” is a simple exercise to define yourself. While many restaurants take elements from different ethnic cuisines or dining environments, it’s important to have a quick definition.

Nobody creates lists of “Best Thai meets Vietnamese meets California with a touch of French,” so don’t buck the category concept. Make sure that staff is aware and can describe the restaurant in the same way.

What’s the Final Consideration?
Sometimes a sinking ship can’t be saved. PR can’t compensate for a restaurant that is out of touch with what guests want or counteract a failing revenue model.

At one concept that offered live music, for example, more people turned out for the music than the food. And guests who did come for the food couldn’t enjoy their dinner because the music was too loud. Either way, the show portion of the concept meant that the restaurant wasn’t turning tables more than once a night, killing its profits.

Perhaps the biggest issue PR can’t fix is a bad service experience or food that underdelivers on expectations. PR can get people in the door, but it’s up to the operations team to turn them into loyal guests.


Andrew Freeman is president of Andrew Freeman & Co., an innovative hospitality consulting agency based in San Francisco. Candace MacDonald is director of concept strategies for the agency.