Restaurant marketing refers to the tactics restaurant businesses use to bring in business—make customers aware of your brand, attract new customers, and retain repeat customers. There are many strategies you can employ to market a restaurant, both online and offline. You can handle many restaurant marketing tasks yourself, costing you only your time. However, most restaurants allocate 2% to 20% of their overall sales to marketing tasks.
In this guide, I share the marketing strategies I have seen work in the various restaurants I’ve managed over more than 10 years of working in the restaurant industry. Scroll down for restaurant marketing steps and ideas, tips for success, restaurant marketing tools I recommend, and a breakdown of restaurant marketing costs.
How to Market a Restaurant: Steps
These steps cover the basics of a marketing strategy for restaurants. You’ll want to start here to learn how to market a new restaurant or develop a streamlined marketing plan if your restaurant is already open.
Step 1: Develop Your Brand Identity
Before you start wall-papering social media with your restaurant logo, you need an eye-catching logo design. If you are a graphic design master, you might be able to design your restaurant logo yourself. Most restaurant owners hire a graphic designer. You don’t need to break the bank to do this. Freelance designers are easy to find on sites like Fiverr and 99 Designs, where you can get a simple logo design for $50 to $150.
But branding is more than just a logo. For $250 to $1,000, you can have a graphic designer create a full brand identity that includes everything from your logo to color scheme, fonts for your website and menus, and even to-go container stickers. When you’ve just spent months making a million decisions about menu items and lease contracts, it can be a relief to turn over some decisions to a professional.
However you choose to design your brand identity, make sure you have these essential elements:
- Logo: Get your logo in multiple formats and file sizes. You’ll need a large file size and a high-resolution .png or .jpg for print applications (like menus), but smaller file sizes for social media banners and profile pictures. Get all your logo sizes in color and greyscale, since printing in color is more expensive, and you’ll want options.
- Fonts: Select two to three fonts that you will use for all of your branded materials—from menus to your website. This gives customers a seamless experience whether they are interacting with your restaurant in person or online.
- Brand colors: Select two to four colors that identify your brand. Log each color’s identifying hexadecimal (a.k.a “hex”), CMYK, or Pantone Matching System (PMS) codes. Which code you need will vary depending on how you intend to use it; hex codes are used online while CMYK and PMS are used in print. Literally, create a cheat sheet of your colors and their identifying codes. This ensures you always know what colors to use for your website, printed menus, business cards, and other marketing materials.
You may also want to take the time to create some additional brand guidelines, like how you plan to describe your food and the tone you intend to strike with customer communications. I once got into a lengthy mediation between a chef and an event planner about whether the potatoes listed on a menu would be called “pee-wee potatoes” or “heirloom fingerling potatoes.”
That’s two hours of my life I’ll never get back. If you take a moment to create some guidelines, you can avoid that fate.
- The 11 Best Sites for Logo Design (Paid & Free)
- 35 Cool Business Card Ideas (+ Examples for Inspiration)
Step 2: Optimize Your Google Business Profile
These days, getting your restaurant online is not an option, it is a basic requirement. Setting up a Google Business Profile is an absolute necessity. It is absolutely free—it only costs you time.
Local businesses add contact, product, and service information, then this information appears in Google search results and on Google Maps when people search for restaurants near them. To get started, visit the Google Business Profile (GBP) page and follow the prompts.
The more information you include, the more helpful your listing will be in search results. Include your hours of operation, your phone number, photos of your interior, links to your website, reservation platform, preferred online ordering platform, and answers to commonly asked questions (do you have valet parking? Is there a corkage or cake fee? etc.).
Step 3: Claim Listings on Review Sites
While you are on the internet, take the time to navigate to Yelp, TripAdvisor, and other review sites to claim your business listings. This is an important step. Once your business is up and running, these third-party sites will generate a profile for your business based on customer reviews. If you don’t claim these listings as your business, it is possible that another interested party will be able to update the information in them without your knowledge or consent.
These sites regularly add new businesses manually, so it’s virtually impossible that your restaurant won’t pop up on them at some point if customers want to review your business. Managing these review sites is an everyday part of restaurant management nowadays. While you can’t control what customers say, you can start your listing with accurate information and give yourself the tools to respond directly to critical reviews.
Step 4: Create Third-party Accounts
Once you have your basic business listings configured, you should claim your restaurant’s social media handle on all the major social media platforms. Even if you don’t plan to use TikTok to market your restaurant right away, creating a profile with your restaurant’s name prevents an impersonator from creating one that could confuse your customers. One day you may discover that your line cook is a TikTok wizard and would love to add content to that account for you, and you’ll be glad you already created it.
When claiming listings and business profiles, check all of these sites and platforms:
- X (formerly Twitter)
You’re not necessarily going to use all of these platforms right away. Some of them, you might never use at all. Like scooping a fingerful of icing off a cupcake, you could be claiming it for later, or simply making it unappealing for someone else to claim. As with review sites, failing to create business social media accounts won’t keep your restaurant off the platforms. On TikTok and Instagram especially, users can create content that puts your restaurant on blast (or puts it on the map). Part of operating a restaurant these days is managing some social media.
While we’re talking about third-party accounts, we should also consider third-party online ordering platforms like Grubhub, Uber Eats, and DoorDash. In the past, these platforms added restaurants without consultation, leading to confused restaurant owners, disappointed customers, and lawsuits. Adding restaurants this way may no longer be part of the third-party platform business model (pending the results of two major lawsuits), but you should check to see if your restaurant has been listed.
Third-party platforms can be useful for showcasing your restaurant to a new audience and boosting your visibility, so evaluate which platforms suit your restaurant.
Step 5: Take Professional Food Photos
It is commonly said that people eat with their eyes first. Professional food photography makes your food look appealing on printed menus and online. You can find professional food photographers in practically any market through a simple online search. Look for photographers with food photography experience. They will have the best lighting, backdrops, and other tools to make your food pop, plus some food styling experience to make your images even more mouthwatering.
When you get your images, make sure the photographer signs a release giving you permission to use your images for any commercial purpose. Under US copyright law, the photographer retains the rights to any image they capture, so you need this release in order to avoid legal troubles down the road. Along with the release, you should also request digital copies of the raw images and web-optimized copies of the images. You’ll want the higher resolution images for print applications like menus and posters, but the smaller images for social media and email campaigns.
Prices for food photographers can vary widely depending on your market and the photographer’s experience. You should expect to pay from $50 to $500 per hour for a good food photographer.
Some third-party online ordering platforms offer photography services. DoorDash sends a photographer to new clients for free. If you sign on with a third-party platform, ask about photography services. They typically request that you don’t post their photos on other delivery sites, but otherwise, the snaps are yours to use as you like.
Step 6: Create a Website
A recent study found that 62% of diners discover restaurants on Google before they set foot in the space. A 2019 study found that 62% of diners say that the quality of a restaurant’s website influenced their decision to order takeout or delivery from the business. In the age of online ordering, a website is quickly becoming a necessary part of any restaurant, even small ones.
Many restaurant websites are single, simple pages that include basic information, like:
- Hours of operation
- Contact information like email address and phone number
- Street address
- Links to online ordering, reservations, or waitlist pages
Some restaurants hire graphic designers to build a custom website from scratch. If you are comfortable with basic drag-and-drop design functions, however, you can build your own website in a few hours on a platform like Squarespace or WordPress. While you’re in the website development phase, you’ll want to buy a custom domain so that customers can easily find your site with your restaurant name.
Whichever route you choose to build your restaurant website, you want to ensure that it is:
- Quick loading
- Easy to navigate
- Visually appealing
Read our full guide to creating a restaurant website to learn how to achieve these goals.
- Best Restaurant Website Builders
- Best Free Website Builders
- How to Make a Small Business Website
- Website Basics (+ Free Checklist)
Step 7: Create a Customer Log
Restaurant businesses sink or swim based on their ability to retain repeat customers. To appeal to repeat customers you first need to know who your customers are. A customer log helps you log customer preferences and see trends that can show marketing opportunities.
In low-tech restaurants I managed, I kept track of regular customers via a pocket-sized address book where I noted information like their birthdays, anniversaries, and food and beverage preferences. This is still a good low-tech strategy, but with a cloud-based point-of-sale (POS) system, you can create detailed customer profiles complete with purchase history, payment methods, and contact information.
A customer log can be an address book or a spreadsheet. Most restaurant POS, reservations, or email marketing systems also include detailed customer logs. Many POS systems—like Toast and Lightspeed Restaurant—automatically create customer profiles from payment information, and can compile data from the same customer even when they use different payment methods. This level of automation saves you administrative time when you are planning your marketing strategies.
Step 8: Establish a Loyalty Program
A recent survey by Deloitte found that 47% of restaurant loyalty users rely on their memberships several times a month. So leveraging all the great customer information you’re collecting to establish a loyalty program is a no-brainer. Most restaurants can benefit from some kind of loyalty program.
You aren’t locked into a simple punch card of “buy 10 entrees, get one free.” With integrated loyalty software, you can choose how and when to reward your loyal customers. You can award points based on dollars spent or offer higher points for dining during a slow time of day, slow season, or purchasing specific items. You can reward with discounts, apply points like money to pay a bill or offer a specific reward (like free dessert) when a certain limit is met.
Alternatively, you could offer enrollment in a “VIP” program that offers a small dining discount (10% to 15%) or first-chance access to special events and reservations to customers who share their contact information and enroll in your email newsletters or text marketing messages. You can tailor your loyalty program to your restaurant. Think about what program you have the bandwidth to manage, and what types of rewards will resonate with your guests.
In my experience, most restaurant loyalty members don’t count their points and hoard them like ogres. Belonging to a loyalty program makes them more likely to choose your restaurant over others when they are in your area. And the points and rewards tracking are more reminders to you that this regular customer could use some of your attention to keep them coming back.
Step 9: Create a Messaging Strategy
Your newly minted restaurant social media accounts, website, and customer email list all provide an excellent foundation for communicating with your customers. You just need to decide how you will communicate with customers in each channel. The way you choose to communicate is your messaging strategy.
For example, you may choose to use your social media accounts solely for social media advertising and only respond to direct messages and those platforms. You could reserve personalized communications for email marketing messages to lists of customers filtered by their interests and purchase history. In this scenario, you might spend the time to create a user-friendly website that you only update when your seasonal menu changes. This is a typical messaging strategy for an independent restaurant; it preserves your administrative bandwidth and keeps your marketing strategy rolling.
Your restaurant messaging strategy should include social media messaging, email and text marketing, and review responses. Expand the sections below for a deeper look at each category.
Email and text message marketing are an excellent way to connect with customers by sending personalized messages. You could, of course, use your email and text message lists to send the same message to all customers; this makes sense if you are announcing reservations for New Year’s Eve or Mother’s Day Brunch. Or most email and text message marketing software allows you to create customer lists based on custom tags and filters to identify red wine fans (who want to hear about your upcoming wine dinner), January birthdays (who might enjoy a complimentary dessert), or diners who haven’t visited in several months (who might need a friendly nudge).
It is worth investing in email and text marketing tools that support custom tags and filters, because customers are increasingly interested in personalization. More than half (56%) of consumers say that personalization turns them into repeat customers. That’s a 7% increase since 2022. Repeat business is the lifeblood of almost any restaurant. So offer all the personalization you can.
Online reviews are a fact of life for modern-day restaurant owners; there’s no way around it. You can’t stop or control online reviews, but you can respond to them. A well-timed, thoughtful response to critical online reviews can show potential customers that the reviewer is perhaps being unreasonable, or that you are willing to make things right when something went wrong.
It is important to respond to positive reviews, too. This can help boost your morale after handling some complaints, but also encourage other customers to say something nice to get a little attention. Potential customers really do read online reviews and owner responses. Keep your tone friendly and upbeat. For the most negative reviews, reach out to the writer directly to resolve their core complaint (most review sites allow this). Then respond publicly that you sent a direct message to attempt to resolve the issue.
Most importantly, try not to take negative reviews personally. I know that can be hard. Your work in your restaurant can be incredibly personal, representing years’ worth of creative work and time away from your loved ones. Take a deep breath before responding to negative feedback. And maybe type your initial response into an AI writing app to help you refine your tone and remove angry and frustrated language. It might be funny to read some of those restaurant owner review responses that go viral, but you might not be ready to draw that kind of attention yourself.
- How to Make a Social Media Plan in 5 Steps [+ Free Template]
- How to Create an Email Marketing Plan in 5 Steps [+ Free Template]
Step 10: Build Community Connections
No restaurant is an island. We all need our surrounding community to bring in customers and keep our businesses accessible. Restaurants can connect with their community in multiple ways. You can donate food to a fundraiser, donate gift cards to a raffle, or you and your staff can donate your time to a cause you believe in.
Local restaurants sponsoring children’s sports teams are also a time-honored tradition. I distinctly remember proudly wearing my “Lou’s Deli Demons” T-shirt for the one season I played t-ball. I also remember enjoying many post-game grape sodas and hoagies at Lou’s.
Most major community happenings spend the whole year planning their events and fundraisers. Identifying your business as a source of support early can be a first step to establishing community roots that will help build local excitement about your restaurant. Feeling like you are already part of a community can also give you the boost you need to make it through slow seasons.
You can build deeper roots with the restaurant community and connect with other restaurant owners in your area by supporting national nonprofit organizations that are popular with other hospitality professionals. The Careers through the Culinary Arts Program (CCAP), Share our Strength, and Alex’s Lemonade Stand are all national organizations that plan and host food events in multiple locations throughout the country. All three are popular with independent restaurants and all support excellent causes like furthering culinary education, ending childhood hunger, and supporting pediatric cancer research.
Restaurant Marketing Ideas
Beyond the basics of marketing your restaurant with an eye-catching logo, mouthwatering menu images, and a rewarding loyalty program, you might want to consider some next-level restaurant marketing strategies. Depending on your restaurant type and the competitiveness of your market, some of these strategies could be necessary to break through the static and connect with customers in a meaningful way. These are a few higher-level restaurant marketing strategies that I’ve seen be effective in multiple restaurants.
Direct Mail Campaigns
Direct mail sounds old school (and it is). But for take-out-heavy restaurants, and quick service operations that rely on nearby customers, direct mail is still an excellent and effective way to market an independent restaurant. Direct mail is fast and local. You can select exactly what locations you want to target with your coupons and offers. The United States Postal Service (USPS), in fact, offers a user-friendly direct mail service where you can design your mailers and select your target routes right on the USPS website.
Direct mail campaigns are great for announcing a new restaurant opening, offering deals and promotions, and are de rigueur for pizzerias and other quick service restaurants. You can typically run a direct mail campaign for $500 or less.
Partner With Other Businesses
A classic restaurant and business partnership is the wine or beer dinner. A vintner or brewer provides beverages and the restaurant provides food and the location. Customers buy tickets and are treated to a tasting menu paired with the featured wine or beer; the vintner sells some wine, the restaurant makes some profit, and both businesses get a boost from the other’s clientele. Wine dinners were popular in many of the southern California restaurants I managed, as wine country is nearby. But customers in the Midwest were even more eager to buy tickets to a wine dinner, and travel vicariously to France or the Napa Valley in a wine glass.
Depending on your market and your restaurant type, other partnerships may make a lot of sense. In the rural location where I now live, farm-to-fork collaborations between farmers and restaurants are popular. If you are located near a gym, offering a fitness-geared menu to gym members makes sense. Restaurants near a culinary school may inquire about hosting recent graduates for a cooking demonstration or a special menu, promoting the school, drawing in friends and family of the new grad, and possibly setting up a pipeline for future employees.
Get creative. Look at the businesses and craftspeople in your area and find ways to collaborate. The cost of partnering with other businesses typically comes in the form of a discount you offer to customers during the collaboration. Though there are plenty of collaborations—like partnering with a local artist to showcase and sell their art—that come with no costs at all.
You’re a restaurant, not a retailer, right? But adding some retail elements can boost your restaurant brand and your bottom line. Merchandise like cookbooks, branded coffee mugs, T-shirts, hats, et cetera has two major benefits; it advertises your brand outside your restaurant, and—unlike most of a restaurant’s product line—merchandise isn’t perishable.
Merchandise can be as simple as T-shirts with your restaurant logo printed on them, or as complex as a cookbook. There are print-on-demand services for virtually any type of item from water bottles to tote bags. As with most things, the larger the quantity you order, the lower your price per item will be. Though the challenge for restaurants is typically storage space. So it makes sense to start with a small quantity and then increase future orders once you know what sells.
Hire a Publicist
If you’ve seen restaurants that are similar to yours appearing on Food Network shows or cooking up holiday brunch recipes with Hoda and Jenna and you’re wondering how they got there, I can tell you. They likely have a publicist. A restaurant publicist can get you free advertising and raise brand awareness by getting you and your restaurant in the news. A good restaurant publicist is incredibly valuable if you are launching an ambitious rebrand, introducing a buzzy new chef, or need to stand apart from competitors in a difficult market.
A restaurant publicist generally charges you a monthly retainer, but the contracts don’t need to be long term. Retainers for small to midsize restaurant PR firms run around $1,000 per month; large, high-profile firms run $6,000 to $10,000 per month. You’ll also have additional costs for advertising buys, travel, and related expenses. If you want to work with a publicist, find one with restaurant-specific experience; they will have the most relevant contacts for your industry. In my experience, a general publicist without restaurant clients and restaurant contacts is just not worth the money.
Restaurant Marketing Tips
Any veteran restaurant owner or manager will have a list of warnings for you based on their experiences. These tips are based on my decade-plus experience managing restaurants from the Midwest to southern California. This list is definitely not exhaustive, but these tips will help you keep your restaurant marketing costs in line.
Use Discounts Selectively
Discounts draw customers into any kind of business. But if you discount all the time or discount too heavily then customers will only come in for deals. When offering discounts, remember that every discount costs you more than a share of your profit margin. If a discount becomes so popular that you need to bring in extra staff to keep up with customer traffic, you’ll be out of the cost of labor and additional supplies.
I generally find it’s better to offer discounts to drive business during a slow time (as in a Happy Hour) or offer discounts to returning guests to build loyalty. If you rely on discounts consistently to draw in new customers, your regulars may start to feel disgruntled that you don’t offer them the same deals, or you may undercut your profit margin entirely. So use discounts selectively.
Every major social media platform has its version of influencers. Influencers can definitely have an impact on a small independent restaurant, so you shouldn’t completely dismiss the idea of a collaboration. But if you plan to work with influencers, you should do your own research and hand-select influencers that have an audience that is relevant to your restaurant.
Don’t get in the habit of comping meals for every customer with a smartphone who tells you they are a big deal on Instagram. Ask to see audience data, and references from other businesses the influencer has collaborated with. Professional influencers will readily provide you with supporting documents to land a successful collaboration.
Create a Customer Film & Photo Policy
With the growth of TikTok and the shift toward video-based content on Instagram and Facebook, restaurants are seeing an influx of smartphone videographers. The user-generated content can boost your brand awareness, but you might not want to be an unwitting guest star of someone’s live-streamed dinner date (I have absolutely had this happen in a restaurant I managed). Your employees and other customers may also dislike appearing in other people’s social media posts.
Before your dining room fills with smartphone photographers, establish and communicate a film and photo policy. Request that customers keep their cameras pointed at their tabletops and that they ask for and receive an employee’s permission before filming or photographing them. Alternatively, your policy could state that photographing staff and other customers is off-limits and that photos and videos should stick to the food and decor.
Restaurant Marketing Tools
There are many tools that can help streamline your restaurant marketing strategy and relieve some of the administrative burden. Customer logs, email marketing tools, and third-party review aggregators can all keep your restaurant marketing strategies organized. What tools are best for you will depend on your budget and the marketing tasks you need help with.
These are some restaurant marketing tools that I’ve personally used and recommend for small, independent restaurants. I’ve included the ballpark price range, plus a few standout features to help you find the best fit for your restaurant. For a deeper dive, read our full ranking of the best restaurant marketing software.
Popular Restaurant Marketing Software
$0–$165+ per month
All-in-one restaurant POS
Built-in email and text message marketing
Online ordering and delivery management tools
$0–$60+ per month
Affordable restaurant POS system
Free online ordering site
Pay-as-you-go email and text marketing
$0–$30 per month
User-friendly online design software
Multiple templates for social media posts, menus, and more
Easy T-shirt printing from your designs
$20–$80 per month
Freestanding social media scheduling tool
Affordable monthly fees
Free trial available
Integrates with Toast, Square & Clover
Email & text marketing
Dynamic customer review tracking
Restaurant Marketing Costs
You can market a restaurant with any budget. Your restaurant marketing costs will depend on your restaurant type, your marketing goals, and the tools you need to execute your marketing strategy. Here are some basic restaurant marketing costs to consider:
- Branding costs: Getting your restaurant logo in various sizes and file types (for use on print, web, and social media applications) along with branded colors and custom fonts can cost very little if you design them yourself on a design app like Canva. If you hire a designer (a great idea if you are not creatively gifted), you should budget from $500 to $1,500.
- Website costs: You can get a free website via an app like Square (though it will include “.square” as part of the URL), or you can get a web designer to build a site for you with custom branding and tailor-made pages that match your restaurant. Hiring a designer from a freelancer site like Fiverr can cost as little as $50, but if you need a lot of customization, you’ll want to spend a couple thousand dollars on an experienced restaurant website designer.
- Professional food photography: Professional food photography is a great addition to your printed menus and advertisements, email marketing campaigns, social media channels, and third-party ordering platform accounts. What you pay depends on your market and your photographer’s experience level. Spending between $400 and $3,000 is pretty common.
- Software/ app subscription costs: Many restaurant software services offer free or pay-as-you-go baseline subscriptions to help independent restaurants get the tools they need. If you use email or text marketing tools, you’ll likely pay based on the number of monthly messages you send. I see most independent restaurants spend between $75 and $400 monthly for these types of services.
- Advertising costs: Social media advertising is flexible in price. On most platforms, you can set a budget for your advertisement before your ad runs so you don’t get surprised by an enormous bill. So if you want to promote your new Sunday brunch menu and you only have $50 to do it, you can absolutely afford some social media advertising. Though you can also spend more if you have it.
- Merchandise: If you create merchandise, you’ll need to budget for the items themselves, plus shipping costs. You may also have design fees if you hire a designer to create T-shirts, coffee mugs, aprons, or other items. You can typically expect a ballpark of $5 to $15 per custom merchandise item, depending on the item type and design services used.
How Much Should You Spend on Restaurant Marketing?
You should allocate between 2% and 20% of your sales to marketing your restaurant. That’s quite a range. That’s because your restaurant marketing costs will vary based on how competitive your market is and whether you are marketing a new or established restaurant.
Established restaurants with a steady clientele should allocate 2% to 5% of sales to attracting new customers and maintaining returning customer relationships. If your market is competitive (like New York, Los Angeles, or Chicago) or you need to compete with a lot of similar restaurants (like pizzerias on the East Coast, or barbecue joints in the South) you should budget closer to 10% to 15% of sales for your marketing efforts.
New restaurants should expect to spend the most. As a new restaurant, you’ll have one-time costs for logo design, branding, and your website design and hosting, as well as the outlay for any printed materials or merchandise you plan to use. You’ll be building sales at the same time, so spending up to 20% of your total sales on marketing in the first few months to a year is not unusual.
Marketing a restaurant is like designing a great dish; there are lots of strategies you can employ, and what ends up being successful will depend on your restaurant and clientele. Combining traditional branding and printed materials with an active online presence and direct customer outreach is a great place for any restaurant to start marketing. Custom merchandise and community involvement are great ways to expand your restaurant marketing efforts and make your restaurant a valuable part of your community.