The world is a different place than it was pre 2020, and a lot of restaurants are struggling to keep up. Getting people back in seats is the goal, which means you need some solid restaurant marketing ideas.

First things first: you’re going to have to admit to yourself that the quality of your food doesn’t matter nearly as much as you hope it does. Of course it plays some role, and having your local area’s best Cuban sandwich is certainly a feather in your cap, but to get butts in chairs, you need a proven restaurant marketing strategy.

Identify Your Target Customer

You want to know your audience. When you sell food, this could seem difficult at first because the answer seems to be “everybody.” After all, we all need to eat. But marketing to everybody isn’t exactly a good strategy; it’s a shotgun blast of desperation. So instead, drill down. Consider what type of food you sell, who typically eats it, who you want to be eating it, and the circumstances around that meal.

Do you typically see families coming in for dinner? Maybe invest in a new-and-improved kids menu. Are your tables full of young couples? Increase the wine and beer offerings and add some cute desserts. Whatever the answer is, let the information you gather help shape the following food service marketing strategies.

Sweep the Floor

Rory Sutherland, at about the 15 minute mark in this TED talk, expresses a truth that is both revolutionary and almost childlike in its simplicity. That fact is this: you can create just as much value for a customer by increasing the quality of the food as by sweeping the floor.

“Now, Von Mises… says if you run a restaurant, there is no healthy distinction to be made between the value you create by cooking the food and the value you create by sweeping the floor. One of them creates, perhaps, the primary product—the thing we think we’re paying for—the other one creates a context within which we can enjoy and appreciate that product. And the idea that one of them should have priority over the other is fundamentally wrong.”

So what does this mean for a restaurant seeking to get more people in the doors? It means that sometimes, the best way to improve a customer’s experience isn’t by offering better food or a cheaper meal: it’s by changing the way the eating experience feels. The atmosphere, the music, the art on the walls, the quality of the tables, the friendliness of the staff—identify two or three areas that will make eating at your restaurant feel more fun, more elegant, more family-friendly, and invest time and money in those areas.

Find the Local Micro Influencers

An influencer isn’t just somebody with lots of followers on Instagram or TikTok; an influencer is someone who, well, influences others. They’re a ringleader, a sign-post offering directions—and if you know who they are, you can get them to point to you.

Grannies who run a mystery book club need a place to meet. So do soccer coaches after a season, and so does your local chapter of Lord of the Rings reenactors. The key to nabbing these folks and their loyalty is finding the influencer: the one who schedules the events and makes the plans. The Calendar Queen, the Maestro of Memos: whoever it is that schedules and plans. That’s your ideal target micro influencer.

These micro influencers are sort of like the gatekeepers, and if you get them on your side, you can get immediate access to a large group of people in your community. Extend a few coupons or simply send a “hey, we’re here” message to that group, and you’ll see your daily visitors increase.

Let Other Groups Use Your Space for Free

You’ve got a building, and there are always people in need of a space to meet. But leasing your space out to people for free sounds crazy, right?

But, consider the movie theater. You know how Regal can get away with offering to let you see unlimited movies for 20 bucks a month? Because they make their cash not from admissions but from concessions. Anybody can show up for free to a wine-and-paint night at your restaurant, and they’ll smell mozzarella sticks and hear the angel’s chorus that is freshly poured beer. Even the most fiscally concervative attendee will have trouble trying to resist that!

Invest in Local Advertising Partnerships

Buying space in the local paper (if you still have one) is a good idea, but you can branch out and team-up, Avengers style, with other local businesses to great effect.

For example, if your local Ramen place has a great social media following, try to collaborate with them! If you show a receipt from that place, you get a free appetizer; and they do the same. You don’t have to create a massive social following from scratch; you can use ones that others have built as long as you give them something in return.

Take Advantage of Small, Niche Communities In Your Area

What advantage do you have over national chains like McDonalds, Applebees or Red Robin? You are where you are; but they’re everywhere. That doesn’t sound like an advantage, you say? You’d be wrong.

You know your local community better than a chain ever could. You have an edge because you’re in there, rubbing elbows (or offering socially distanced fist bumps) and learning about the people and their interests. And therein lies your biggest advantage!

It’s possible to leverage this knowledge for sales by connecting with the small groups that exist in your area. Find and invite these groups into your space, enticing them with discounts or through exemplary customer service. If you run a brewery that names your sandwiches and custom craft beers after infamous 1920s gangsters, team up with the local swing dancing organization. There are always small groups of highly engaged people, and you should try to make friends with them, and invite them to your place for an after-event meal.

In Conclusion: The Best Restaurant Marketing Ideas

You can spend lots of money on signs and ads on Facebook to promote your restaurant, but the key to truly succeeding in this new world is relying on the connections of your community and the creativity of your outreach. Spending an hour or two each week trying to find local groups, organizations, micro influencers and so on, can yield as much (or much more) return than just buying an ad on the radio. Combine this community-building work with a good website and savvy digital marketing strategies, and you’ll have the perfect recipe for success.