Published on October 16, 2017, at 3:33 p.m.
by Hope Todd.
One Tuesday evening, I sat down in a little booth in a cozy tavern in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Across from me, my boyfriend was perusing the menu. Date night.
I didn’t need a menu, however. I knew exactly what I wanted: a burger and a brew.
Southern Ale House (SAH), located right across the river from The University of Alabama, was promoting its Tuesday night special, Burgers and Brews. We decided to check it out.
Vance, our waiter, asked what we wanted to drink, and I asked about the specials that night. These included some interesting combinations: an Olde English burger with steak sauce; a jalapeño cream cheese burger; and a pizza burger with pepperoni and mozzarella.
However, I went for the classic Ale House Burger with cheese, grilled onions, bacon and Slap Yo’ Mama sauce (yes, that good). I asked for a beer recommendation, and he brought out a sample that had just come in from one of the local breweries. I whipped out my ID and ordered a draft of it.
As I was sitting there, sipping my beer between nibbles, I wondered about the inner workings of nightly specials like this. Was it one of the ways the restaurant builds customer relationships?
Burgers and Brews
I went back to Southern Ale House the next day to find out for myself. I sat down with JP Reppin, front-of-house manager. On the chalkboard for that Wednesday: Baja fish tacos with red cabbage and Sriracha. If only I hadn’t already made a sandwich that afternoon.
Reppin told me Burgers and Brews has been at SAH since before he began working there two years ago. However, the restaurant had just recently hired a public relations manager, which is likely how Burgers and Brews made it onto my computer screen.
Some guests will come in and say that they want the burger they saw on Instagram. Every Tuesday morning, SAH tries to have a photo spread of the burger specials that day. The menu changes each week depending on the creations the chefs cook up; beers are paired accordingly.
“It’s an experience that you can’t get anywhere else in town,” Reppin said. “There’s plenty of burger places around here. But [at SAH] there’s a chaotic beauty of a burger and brew together. It works.”
But the biggest way the restaurant gets people there? Word of mouth.
Neighbors helping neighbors
Forty percent of guests on any given day are regulars, Reppin said. That’s an impressive number for being across the river from the university. Since it is in an area not as populated by students, many older patrons visit Southern Ale House more often.
“The owners believe in doing good,” he said. “Whenever there’s a walkathon, marathon or other opportunity to donate to a good cause, we get in there and help out, not asking for anything in return.”
But that’s not the end of doing good. The owners also make sure that their own people are taken care of.
Company culture is key
Staff turnover rates are very low at Southern Ale House. Many who work there are either in college or freshly out of college, and the average person works there for two to four years.
“Everyone is treated as family here,” said Kacey Smit, an employee at Southern Ale House. “I’ve been working there for over two years, and I know that if I ever need anything, they’ve got my back.”
Smit worked as a server for two years until she graduated. On her last day in house, she served the owners of the restaurant, who eat there every day.
They always make sure to tip whoever is serving them. But on her last day, the owners left a substantial tip and a note describing their thankfulness for her help over the years.
Now, since she had such a great experience there, she helps with SAH’s catering service alongside her real job as rehab director at Restore Therapy Services. Southern Ale House has never advertised its catering, but it is growing purely because of word of mouth.
“If we get the details right, the big picture will come into place,” said Reppin. “If we do something really good, you’ll remember us.”
This approach all ties back to building customer relationships. R Magazine for restaurants says that employees who feel empowered at their workplace are “60% more likely to be motivated to do their very best for the company.” If the restaurant family is treated well, it will translate into doing well and leaving a good impression on guests.
Maintaining positive customer relationships
Public relations is a tool that makes life easier for restaurants. It utilizes “free advertising” to save money and build reputation. Most importantly, it builds relationships with customers that keep them coming back.
Stacy Zeiger at the Houston Chronicle recommended four ways for small businesses to utilize public relations tactics for building relationships. These are creating an online presence; getting involved in the community; utilizing media; and developing specials.
Southern Ale House is no stranger to these tactics. Its website has an easy-to-navigate interface and features key information, linking to its social media platforms. It is involved in the community any way it can, as aforementioned. It utilizes earned media. And, of course, it promotes specials like Burgers and Brews.
Samantha Kemp, a business writer, elaborated further on the importance of promotion strategies to create customer interest. She said that highlighting the “taste, creativity and perhaps affordability” of your restaurant can make the establishment successful.
Perhaps that is why Southern Ale House has found success as a small business. SAH prides itself on the chefs’ creative ideas, Reppin said. Social media simply allows the restaurant to highlight the unique meals a person can have each week.
These tactics are simple. The cost is low and the impact is high. For a small business, every detail matters in building mutually beneficial relationships. Southern Ale House is just one example of a case study as to how it all works.
As for me, I’ll be visiting again soon to see what other concoctions come out of the kitchen.
You could say that Southern Ale House and I are in a serious relationship.