“startWhen it comes to keeping our dining rooms filled, certain times of the year just seem to take care of themselves – others, not so much. If your restaurant is located near a beach, summer is probably fine, and winter might be good too; but the fall, when the kids go back to school, might be a little on the slow side. If you’re located in a ski town, when the conditions on the slopes are great, so is your guest count. But before the first snowfall arrives, or after the last is just a memory, depending on how much of a draw your area has for non-skiers, things might start to feel a more peaceful than you’d like.

If you’re in a town with good convention traffic, it’s bound to be seasonal to some extent. And while fourth quarter is usually strong for most operators, January frequently isn’t. We all deal with the reality of regular business cycles. How well we deal with them will make the difference between accepting periodic lackluster sales as a given, or evening out our revenues over the year so that even “bad” months will be firmly in the black and not be such a drain on our yearly numbers. Not to mention heartburn-inducing periods in terms of our cash flow. Let’s look at a few ideas to help get more people through our doors during what are typically slow times of the year.

We should realize that even though some of these ideas are initiatives that might initially be employed to increase traffic during traditionally less-busy periods, most are concepts that can easily and effectively be used all year round to accomplish the same. It should also be noted that some of the ideas are designed to bring in new customers, while others are meant to get our regulars to be even more frequent visitors.

Assessing your current client base

The first ideas we’ll consider are those intended to get new customers acquainted with our establishments. One of the very best tactics for bringing new groups of people into our restaurants is to first identify what kind of groups our current client base is involved with. Then, figure out an incentive to encourage everyone else in those groups to become our patrons, too. Depending on your concept, just what these groups are will vary widely. For some restaurateurs, examples of primary groups to try to entice will be the local bar association, opera guild or a particular private school. For others, it will be the little league, a public high school or local children’s hospital. Talk to your customers and get to know them. Find out what their interests are, what they do for fun, how they make a living and where they might volunteer their free time. If a person enjoys your restaurant, there’s a good chance other people they’re affiliated with in various ways will like it as well.

Helping Charities can help you too

When it comes to charities, restaurateurs don’t usually have to go very far out of their way to find an opportunity to engage. While all charities are certainly worthwhile in their own ways, some discernment is required to make sure that any largesse we extend will result in a win-win situation. Cold calls from people who can’t quite pronounce the name of your restaurant, and will probably never darken your door, may not be the best fit for your limited resources. On the other hand, when someone who is a frequent guest asks for a little help with a favorite cause you should, at the very least, see it as the opportunity that it is. If nothing else, hearing them out with a modicum of genuine attention and compassion – and maybe even a free cup of coffee – will help build your relationship with that person.

But imagine their reaction if, instead of just agreeing to their request for a “dinner for four” silent auction item (that might very well just get lost in the shuffle of their event anyway), you offer to help them and their charity with a fundraising event at your restaurant. With a little forethought, you can design an event that might very well fill your dinning room – or at least a private room – with new customers just like your regular who asked for the simple donation, and do it in a way that won’t break your budget. You might want to have a conversation with the charity’s development person and see if he or she has an idea that would work for all involved. Besides having a clear idea of just how much out of pocket expenses you are willing to contribute, make sure that other basic parameters are also covered.

If one of your primary goals is to see some new, pre-vetted faces in your restaurant, get a commitment for a minimum number of guests. Also, if your average cover is $100, be sure that the bulk of your guests aren’t the organization’s office staff. However, if your check average is $15 that might not be such a bad thing. The more exposure you can garner for your restaurant, the better. An article with photos in the charity’s monthly newsletter would be nice, as would your logo appearing wherever appropriate in their literature. Mentioning your restaurant’s name in any advertising they do for the event will be a given. Depending on just how much you agree to donate, you might be entitled to the status of, “Underwriter” or at least, “Valued Sponsor.” One of the most important parameters will be for you to pick the date. Any night in December would probably make no sense for most restaurants. But even a Friday or Saturday night during your slowest month might be a great deal for everyone.

There are any number of ways that the details of hosting an event like this could be worked out. For the right charity, if they could fill your dinning room with ticket sales on what would otherwise be a dead night, you might offer a special menu for cost if they agree to pay your normal price for the bar and gratuity. This will allow them to throw a successful fundraising event without you having to be the primary source of their income. In fact you’ll make more money than you otherwise would have, at the same time as you introduce new people to your operation and help a worthy cause.

A simpler route than holding a special event for the charity might be to offer a percentage of your sales on a given night to them. This could be advertised for maximum exposure, including getting coverage on the community interest segments of the local television and radio news shows. The charity should have connections in this arena (and so should you.) If this turns out to be a winning tactic, you might consider having a “Benefit Night” every Tuesday for a different cause during your slowest month. As far as your bottom line goes this will, in effect, be offering your normal services at a reduced rate. However, if things go as planned, the increased revenue from customers who wouldn’t normally come in should make up for this. This also has the advantage over normal discounting, which your customers will perceive as a price reduction, in that it won’t train them to expect to pay less than your going rate.

Don’t forget that the main purpose of going through the effort of holding events like this is to introduce people who should be your customers, but who have not yet given you a chance, to what they’ve been missing. Just because your margins will be lower than normal is no reason to scrimp on anything that would end up showing your services in anything but the best light. If you do something different than you normally would, make it better, not worse. The fact that you and your staff may not be totally used to doing this style of event should only make you try harder. If you usually use Choice meats, don’t substitute Select. If you normally have three valets, get five that night. The same holds true for your front of the house and back of the house staffing. Don’t economize foolishly; put your best foot forward and wow every guest in the room. Then, and only then, will you accomplish your twin goals of gaining new long-term customers at the same time as you fill what would otherwise be a slow night.

Make your house their house – booking repetitive functions

Another way to maximize your involvement with various groups is to book their business for any repetitive functions that they may hold, such as monthly board meetings or post-game celebrations. Whether it’s twenty little soccer players and their parents having pizza, or twelve businesspeople having a productive lunch meeting, if they are happy to patronize your establishment on a regular basis to do it, even during your slow months, it’s good for everyone. (As long as the two groups mentioned never encounter each other.) If you have a separate banquet space or private dinning rooms that are frequently dark, any effort spent marketing them to groups that hold events regularly, especially twelve months a year, will be time well spent.

Besides trying to fill your restaurant year round with events directly obtained from various groups, it may make sense for you to get involved more generally with some organizations, through you and your employees volunteering time to them, or through sponsorships. Volunteering at the local food bank or at educational outlets put on by your local restaurant association is a great way to raise awareness of your restaurant by doing good work in your community. The same can be said of sponsoring a local softball, baseball or soccer team. Besides being a fun outlet for your staff and increasing your restaurant’s profile, this kind of community involvement will certainly make it more likely that people will consider your space for special events as well as simply an option for a meal.

Have some fun

To get large groups of new customers through your doors during the slowest times of the year, think outside the normal scope of your operations. Figure out what your regular clientele enjoys, exaggerate it and promote it to a wider audience than that which currently patronizes your business. You might want to consider working with the management of a popular regional band that typically packs venues. Ascertain if the band has a good track record of successfully promoting their events through their social media network. See if you can work out a deal with the band’s management that will be good for everyone involved. Find out how to successfully sell tickets from someone who has done it in a similar situation. Be honest about whether or not your facility and staff could handle the event if sales go as well as you hope they will. If you do your homework, you’ll be able to assess your risks sufficiently to know it you should pull the trigger. This whole scenario could also play out on a much smaller scale. Maybe your best bet would be to just book a good jazz (or country, rock, or folk…) trio on the weekends.

Depending on your concept, you might consider something like holding a family “Street Party” theme one afternoon. Perhaps the event could be partially held under a tent in your parking area or on an adjacent lot. If you have off-premise catering capabilities, you might explore holing it in another location entirely. A tie-in with a local charity could be a good idea. Live music, face painting, pony rides, inflatable rides, specialty foods and other family activities could be part of the fun. Effective advertising and cost control will be crucial for an event like this to succeed. If it does, it could easily become a much-anticipated annual event.

Putting on a contest, or series of contests, that would be fun for your particular client base could be just the ticket during slow periods. It could be anything that would pique the interest of your customers and their friends. A weekly karaoke contest that went on for six of your slowest weeks and culminated in a grand prize could be perfect for the right business (and a remarkable disaster in others – know your customers.) “The Best Original Cocktail” could be another elimination round type of contest that could go on for weeks and, hopefully, pick up momentum along the way.

So far, the ideas presented have been mostly focused on the idea of bringing in new customers to our restaurants during chronically slow periods. In many ways, a more efficient tack is to figure out ways to get our existing customers to come in more often, including those same slow weeks.

Work your Guest Database

One of the best ways to manicure your relations with your existing clients is to maintain an accurate database. Whether to send out actual mail or emails, keep track of anniversaries and birthdays, or note any number of pertinent facts about a customer, an accurate, up-to-date database is invaluable. You can start collecting your data by simply asking guests to put their business cards in a fishbowl to be eligible to win a free meal. A better option is to have your waiters ask guests to fill out a short survey when they present the check. This survey will include the guest’s name, phone number, email address, home address, birthday and anniversary, as well as a few short questions about their dining habits and experiences that will be useful to you as an operator. As an inducement to the guest to take the time to fill out the card and share personal information, they can be given something like a buy-one-entrée-get-one-free certificate. This alone will probably result in their return. Realize that it will take some time and effort to enter the data and keep it current, but it will be time well spent. There is probably already someone on your staff that would be a good candidate to do it.

This information can be the basis of many different strategies for encouraging these customers to return more frequently than they otherwise would. Some of the most obvious programs are birthday and anniversary offers. A couple of weeks before a client has either event coming up, an email or postcard is sent to them offering, for instance, a free entrée. A Repeat Rewards Program can also be set up, thanking regular customers by offering various inducements to come in and dine. Birthdays and anniversaries can’t always be counted on to occur during your slow months but, of course, some are bound to. Repeat Rewards bonuses, however, certainly can be given out when you’d like, admittedly with limited control over when they are used.

Stay in Touch

An interesting and attractive email newsletter sent every few weeks is a great tool with which to maintain your customers’ awareness of your restaurant. The key is that it actually be worth reading. Include information about new specials and how they were developed, with interesting stories about how the chef learned them at his grandmother’s knee, or how you tasted one for the first time during a recent trip to Italy. Your newsletter is also a perfect place to make your customers aware of special reasons to visit. If it makes sense for you to put together special wine or cigar dinners, do it. Do them even more during your slow weeks and nights. If you can set them apart from the competition by including a visiting wine maker to talk about his or her selections that will be served at your dinner, even better. If wine is not that prominently featured in your restaurant, how about a beer dinner, with a different brew perfectly matched to each course? Even if alcohol-related events in general aren’t something that fits your concept, come up with special food-centered themes. It could be a seasonal specialty like fresh crawfish served seven different ways, fresh soft-shell crabs, fiddlehead ferns or wild mushrooms. If none of your local seasonal specialties line up with your slowest month, there are plenty of special foods that are available all year long. How about prime rib night, caviar night or Berkshire pork night (or month)?

Every idea presented here has worked well for many restaurateurs in many different situations. But we should never forget that the simplest and most important thing that any operator can do to prevent his or her dining room from being a lonely place, no matter what time of year it happens to be, is to insure that every guest that walks in experiences it at its very best, every time they visit.

Joe Abuso is the chef/owner of Recipes & Rotations – Real Food for Mom and Dad, menus, recipes and associated tools to senior-living communities. He is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America and has cooked at some of the country’s best restaurants.