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A Toast to Triumph

Posted At: March 6, 2013 4:00 P.M.
by Gillian Richard and Haley Clemons

“Eighty-five percent of all restaurants fail within the first five years, and 50 percent fail within the first year,” said Kim Boyle, assistant professor of restaurant, hotel and meetings management at The University of Alabama.

Creating and sustaining a restaurant is no easy task. With the odds against them, how can restaurants sustain themselves and continue to generate customers? While tasty food, appealing atmosphere and careful customer relations are crucial elements for success, nothing can replace the value of a strategic PR plan.

Cooking Up a Plan

Peter Schmidt has seen his share of the restaurant business: the good, the bad and the inedible. Trained in the culinary arts in Brunschweig, Germany, he has spent years working with hospitality clients across the globe.

“You can’t just open a restaurant and say, ‘People will come because I am a nice guy.’ You are going to fail, and that is where a lot of people fail,” said Schmidt, now the director of food and beverage at the Hotel Capstone, located in Tuscaloosa, Ala. Schmidt stressed the importance of having a public relations plan in place before the doors open, and the first dish is served.

The ability to identify a target market is a PR skill that directly applies in the food industry. Careful research allows the restaurateur to generate a concept, menu and comprehensive plan to reach key customers.

“First of all, with anything you do in our [restaurant] business, you have to find out your location, demographics and what market you are going after,” Schmidt said. “Find out who your customer will be. Your concept is very important.”

Dr. Suzanne Horsley, professor in the Department of Advertising and Public Relations at The University of Alabama, agrees. “From being a customer with a PR background, it seems the restaurants that do the best are the ones who know their clientele and their locals and are a part of the community.”

Taking the time to create a public relations plan allows the restaurant to manage its image and consistently connect with its target patrons. To stay in business, managers have to connect. It is not enough to shake a customer’s hand – restaurants have to remain in the public eye regularly to make an impact. With the new trends and tools of the information age, there are plenty of ways to make clients’ mouths water.

“Go to social media and find out who the movers and the shakers are. Find the people who you want to go after in that town and address them through whatever means fit the situation,” Schmidt said. “Emails and invitations to these people for your opening will create awareness. Once you create that awareness, you have to continue on that path until you really reel them in.”

Part of this research involves identifying the niche market that you want to, quite literally, cater to. With such a high rate of failure in restaurants, establishing a brand identity that stands out among competitors is critical to survival.

Serving It to the Right Table

Catering to a specific audience goes beyond the kitchen walls, as well. Horsley and Schmidt are currently collaborating on the West Alabama Food and Wine Festival that will take place at the Hotel Capstone in March.

Because this is a first-time event, the festival’s PR team has been working on pinpointing the specific audience to which to market. While Tuscaloosa is home to the more than 33,000 students at The University of Alabama, it is also home to numerous professionals.

“People within our target audience usually have a more sophisticated palate and enjoy these types of social activities,” said Casey Rogers, a student member of the festival PR team. “Tuscaloosa’s finer restaurants typically get overlooked because of the heavy focus on the students who live here. I believe it is time to highlight the great dining experience that Tuscaloosa has to offer.”

An integral part of maintaining loyal clientele is staying involved in the community and making them aware that you care. Events like the festival keep customers coming, and Schmidt said he believes that working with local charities helps increase the social responsibility of the restaurant.

“Participating in a festival or community event like this can be part of a sound PR strategy. This not only gives the restaurant more exposure to new audiences, but it also presents that restaurant as an active member of the community who cares about the people who live there. There is a cost to being in the festival [i.e., donating all the food and employee time], but the return on investment can be greater than that from an ad in the paper,” Horsley said.

“Public relations for a restaurant involves going out and letting people know who you are and what you are,” Schmidt said. “You have to let the customer know what you are giving them. The food and wine festival is a good example of that. Restaurants can understand, when being part of an event like this, that they are benefiting because their name is out there, they are getting exposure.”

When There’s Too Much Food on the Plate

When it comes to PR, restaurants can choose several things from the menu. Some managers may decide to run their own public relations and manage all those efforts within the company. Others choose to take a different approach and hire a PR firm to create and implement a plan. Are there advantages of one over the other? Schmidt seems to think so.

“Just because I am a great chef and have good customer relations skills, doesn’t mean I know how to do PR,” Schmidt said. “In our busy business, taking on too much to save a couple of pennies has the potential to hurt us in the long run. But, let the firm know up front what your expectations are, what you are doing and let them tell you what they will do prior to engaging your customers.”

On the other side of the table, as a communication professional, it is important to understand the industry for which you are working, Horsley said. “The food industry has its quirks that as an outsider you have to learn, but that’s what makes it interesting.”

With so many other tasks on their plates, outsourcing can be beneficial to restaurant owners. “When I have several responsibilities at once, I don’t want to spread myself too thin,” Schmidt said. “PR is a finicky thing. If you don’t know what you are doing, you can really hurt yourself more than help.”

The food and restaurant industry is all about planning. Chefs must plan for food, how many staff members need to be on each shift and the number of customers they will see on any given night. However, restaurants that want to be successful in the long run must also plan for PR. The market is competitive, so getting your name in front of your customers can help you stand out. While having good food is important, it is also important that your public relations plan is appetizing to your customers. Bon appétit!


  1. Post comment

    Adding to what Brooke (above) said, I do think that, considering the staggering statistic that almost all restaurants fail within the first five years, hiring a PR firm is a good idea. It takes a bigger burden off of the restaurant managers so they can focus strictly on running the restaurant.

  2. Post comment

    This is a good article focusing on PR for restaurants. It is a great idea for restaurants to hire a PR firm so that they can focus on the food, customers, service, etc., instead of having one person having so much on their plate. As far as coming up with a strategic PR plan and targeting the right people, I feel the managers would be better than a PR firm. Managers are more likely to target the right customers rather than a PR firm because they know so much more about the restaurant in ways that could help target the right customers more effectively.

  3. Post comment

    The specific angle that you decided to take in this article is really interesting. I understand how it can resonate with University of Alabama students, but I am also interested in the wider trend of restaurant branding management.

    There are several public relations firms, like J Public Relations, that specialize in luxury restaurant branding (among other luxuries). The target market for these luxury dining experiences are as specific as the target for a high quality food and wine festival in a college town—with a much higher price tag. Is the trend toward service outsourcing suggested in this piece as common with larger venues and larger events?

    Well let us examine: A culinary public relations plan must be able to maintain buzz long after restaurant opening. And online journalists and bloggers have even more clout in the control of trends and local hotspots. When you look at the long term requirements of a successful campaign on a large scale, it doesn’t seem possible for an owner to manage by himself.


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