Mr. Grohs

Food & Beverage

Building the Buzz for a Hotel Restaurant

By Darin Grohs, Director Food & Beverage, W Hotel New Orleans

A restaurant can be a great asset to a hotel - it presents an additional source of revenue, adds to the bottom line, and is an attractive feature for guests. Operating a restaurant from within a hotel also ensures a certain amount of business will be coming your way. Some hotel restaurants are simply an extra amenity for guests while others strive to be a part of a city's more established restaurant list. In bigger cities that are known to have a multitude of great dining options like New York, Chicago, New Orleans and San Francisco, it can be tough for hotels to break into the mix of "must tries."

Over the years, hotel restaurants have gotten a bad reputation for putting out subpar food once the opening excitement dies and the stress of running a round-the-clock operation kicks in. Success stories do exist, however, and there are several elements that can help to overcome this negative stereotype. Restaurants with a "celebrity" or well-known chef, and ones affiliated with recognizable, popular brands have a better chance of breaking through the stigma associated with being a hotel restaurant. Customer access is another key factor as exterior entrances separate from hotel lobbies help to portray the restaurant as a stand-alone entity. In the absence of these elements, a hotel restaurant can present a challenge to food and beverage directors wanting to establish their eateries on the city's top 10 list.

With the right marketing, within the hotel and outside of it, restaurateurs can influence the amount of business coming in beyond hotel guests. Depending on where you live, the opportunities to market your hotel restaurant will vary; however, there are several different methods that you can try to increase your exposure and elevate your restaurant's reputation.

Participate in Community Events

Nonprofit groups and businesses often hold benefits and galas to raise money for a cause or an organization and are in need of restaurants to donate food and labor. While these events do not directly get people in your restaurant, they can provide exposure to new audiences. Fulfilling every request that comes your way is impossible, so it is important to select the right community events. Consider the size of the event and select ones that will offer the greatest amount of exposure without getting lost in the shuffle. Events with too many vendors become cluttered and make it difficult to stand out. Put your best foot forward and serve one of your signature dishes so people will want to come into the restaurant to try other dishes on your menu.

Cause Marketing

Cause marketing is a type of marketing that involves the cooperative efforts of a for profit business and a nonprofit organization for mutual benefit. If done correctly, cause marketing can generate regular business for a restaurant. For example, consider a Dine for a Purpose fundraiser that partners a restaurant with a local or national cause. You can choose to donate a portion of the proceeds from specific dishes or drinks or from entire meals on a designated date or dates. This type of effort will associate positive feelings with your restaurant and bring people in more frequently. Studies show that consumers respond to businesses that are tied to specific causes and are more likely to switch brands if one brand supports a good cause as long as the two brands are somewhat similar. This would mean selecting your restaurant over a competing entity because the consumer knows they are supporting a good cause. One website that provides more information on cause marketing including previous campaigns for best practices is Cause Marketing Forum (www.causemarketingforum.com).

Develop an Active Media Relations Plan

Media relations are an integral part of any successful marketing campaign. With today's evolving media landscape, there are multiple types of channels that you should be engaging with regularly including broadcast, print and digital/social. Most local news stations have morning shows with cooking opportunities. Get to know your morning show producers and set up regular cooking demonstrations. To keep content fresh and to secure their interest, propose segments that tie in with timely topics such as upcoming holidays, seasons or significant events. For example, pitch a great recipe that viewers can recreate at home for Thanksgiving dinner or, once school starts, pitch a wholesome dish that would be easy for working moms to make who do not have as much time to prepare well-balanced meals.

In addition to the news stations, start connecting with some of the local food bloggers in and around your city. They can have a lot of influence on the local community and can be a great resource. Find out what they like and introduce them to your restaurant if they have not been there before with a special meal that matches their interests. Another option is to arrange familiarization tours - or FAM tours. Work with the hotel to identify influential travel writers or food journalists who you would like to target for the property and put together an attractive opportunity for them to get to know you. Additionally, capitalize on media coming to town for festivals, events or business-related travel. This is sometimes easier for restaurants in larger cities, but work with your convention and visitors bureau to find out when media are coming to town so you can reach out to them in advance. Overall, an active media relations program will help to generate more publicity for your restaurant and in turn, affect the amount of traffic coming in the restaurant.

We would be remiss if we didn't include social media as an integral part of the marketing efforts. Social media can be very time consuming, but it provides another avenue to engage with consumers and is fairly easy to incorporate. You can regularly post new recipes of specials or seasonal dishes on Facebook and share pictures and updates on Twitter. Engage fans and encourage input, for example, ask them to choose the next special for the menu through a voting process. One thing to note about social media channels is you do not want to be completely self-promotional otherwise people will ignore you and stop following you. Highlight food-related events happening in the city and share news stories that you find interesting. Follow some of the local food bloggers and repost their blogs on your Facebook page by tagging them in the post. They usually appreciate the additional exposure and the fact that you are paying attention to what they have to say. Finally, create a YouTube channel for the restaurant. Short cooking demonstrations are fairly easy to put together and upload to YouTube if you have a flip camera or video camera. Keep the videos short - three minutes or less if possible. You can also post them on your Facebook page and tweet the links through Twitter. Video posts usually garner the most attention followed by pictures. Social media is something that you can incorporate as much or as little as you want. The more active and engaging you are, the more beneficial it will be to your business.

Utilize third party resources when appropriate

If you are looking for a marketing push, you can engage with third party discount sites like Groupon, Living Social and Restaurant.com. There is no cost to participate; however, you are not completely benefiting from the full sale of the tickets since the sites are taking a percentage. They can boost revenue temporarily though and usually have a large database that they market to.

How can success come in a restaurant without marketing?

As we've seen with the options above, one sure expense in operating a restaurant is marketing…or is it? What if the hotel has decided that there is no benefit to marketing the restaurant due to its location, number of restaurant options nearby, name in the community or even future plans for the restaurant? How can a Food and Beverage department show a profit on what becomes a nice amenity to the guest?

Catering Space

One of the easiest ways to fill seats in an empty restaurant is to have banquets sell it as they would another space for a group in the hotel, or catering for an outside group that wants the feel of a restaurant for their event. This causes the hotel guests to be redirected to In Room Dining or a lounge atmosphere for the meal period. It is therefore important to have everyone's buy-in when deciding on the parameters of when to sell the restaurant space. Does it get sold for breakfast, lunch or dinner and when does the catering department have free sell for the space? How is that then communicated back to the restaurant manager or food and beverage director to ensure they don't book a private group at the same time? It's a difficult situation when the same space is booked twice unwittingly and in the end the guest suffers because someone is not going to get the space they reserved. Some points to keep in mind when using your restaurant as catering space:

  • Make sure to decide on free sell days and times so your catering managers know when they don't have to ask about the use of the space and can feel free to book it as long as it shows open in their given catering booking system.

  • Have a minimum spend for closing the restaurant. Remember it isn't just the potential value of sales that you will be losing, it is also the value of the customer, that is also the hotel guest, who will demand compensation for not having a restaurant, whether they would have used it or not.

  • Decide on how you will staff the event. Will you use your banquet servers or your restaurant servers? Remember that you will be displacing your service staff for the night if you sell it as a banquet/catering function and that could result in disgruntled employees.

  • Have a point of contact on each side of the booking. One person in catering and/or one in operations to ensure everyone is communicating to the necessary departments when booking the space. Reservations may be on the books that would be affected and nobody will know if they don't ask across the lines of sales and operations. Also, when booking a group, the restaurant needs to close its books for the night in their respective reservation system.

  • Communicate with the whole hotel once it has been decided. Ensure the front office is aware to communicate with the guests. The concierge needs to have places to send them and even be ready to pull a favor out if needed to get a reservation on a short notice.

  • Finally, make sure to staff the other bars and service areas appropriately for any overflow.

Special Events

Another way to fill seats is to work with your local beer, liquor and wine vendors to set up special events in the restaurant space. Dinners served in multiple courses and paired with wined and beers, and other similar events have become popular over the past few years. Today, we're seeing a growing trend with whiskey tasting dinners as well. By working with liquor representatives, you can often get special pricing to help reduce the expense and increase your profit. Vendors can help to set you up with Point of Sale if needed and provide themselves or another representative to talk about the specific liquor you are featuring. Additionally, they can help to advertise the event through their database and tap other connections to fill the space with the desired number of people. These special events give you a chance to showcase your restaurant, your chef and your staff to people that may not have otherwise stepped into the restaurant to dine.

Reduce hours of operation

While not ideal, this option helps to save on payroll during times of low hotel occupancy and capture in the restaurant. It is very important, as when selling the space for catering, to communicate the hours to the entire hotel staff. It is also important to understand the implications of reducing hours. If you decide to close after breakfast, where will your guest be able to eat? Do you offer another option for them? Is it internal to the hotel and will it be a viable option for the hotel guest or anyone else that would happen upon the restaurant for lunch? Or even if simply closing for the hours between lunch and dinner, where will those afternoon guests go for an afternoon snack? If your hotel has a 3pm check-in, where will guests go for a drink or late lunch while they wait for their room? There are many questions to ask before adjusting the hours of operation up to and including the impact on your AAA rating as breakfast is usually required.

Closing for meal periods

After you've exhausted all other options and ideas for bringing in more business to the restaurant and it is causing too much of a financial burden on the hotel, the alternative is to close for given meal periods. This is of course the extreme and must be thought through completely before making a decision that will affect operations so dramatically. It is important to note again that breakfast is a must for most AAA ratings. If management discusses closing during lunch and/or dinner, they should also consider an alternate location within the hotel - such as a lounge - for diners to go. It will impact site visits, potential business and it will impact the number of employees that you will need to operate. While this option appears to be extreme, if the restaurant has been neglected and forgotten about for too long, closing for designated meal periods can free up resources temporarily and present an opportunity to restructure, develop new ideas on business and give carte blanche to the sales team to sell it for banquets and catering, driving profitable business into the space. Additionally, if the restaurant and/or hotel are going into a potential renovation or concept change, it would not be impacting the perception of the restaurant in the local market.

Without a big-named chef or well-known brand name behind your hotel restaurant, you are competing in a tough environment. Whether the executive management team wants to allocate resources to the marketing of the restaurant or has decided to hold off, there are tactics that you can employ at your hotel restaurant to increase revenue, bring in more outside customers or restructure your operations. Sometimes it requires being creative with your space, developing partnerships and thinking outside the box.

Chef Darin Grohs got the bug for hospitality with his first job as a bus-boy at age 13 working at a bowling alley in Rapid City, SD. He worked as a server and a dishwasher in addition and helped out in the kitchen when he could as he was not old enough to become a cook. After his time in the US Navy, doing anything but cooking, he got back into his groove and attended the Art Institute of Atlanta where he graduated a term early and second in his class with an Associate’s Degree in Culinary Arts. Chef Grohs went on to attend Georgia State University to attain his four year Bachelor of Arts Degree in Business. All the while he focused on anything and everything in the food service industry. He worked at a liquor store to learn and understand his beverages and start his knowledge of wines. He even worked at a Bed and Breakfast for a well rounded understanding of the Hospitality business. He was classically trained in French Cuisine, he worked at multiple Italian restaurants and had the influence of his mentors in Atlanta who imparted the knowledge and understanding of the Low Country and all the flavors that are indicative of this area. He moved back to the Mid-West for a time, to Southern Florida with its Latin flavors and then landed in Southern California where he adopted the practice of market to table before heading to New Orleans. Mr. Grohs can be contacted at 504-207-5030 or darin.grohs@whotels.com Extended Bio...

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