Restaurant owners have been frequently reminded that it is substantially more cost-effective to market to current customers than acquiring new customers. Restaurateurs should keep that in the back of their mind during every major marketing decision. But this insight is not the only basic principle that owners too often overlook. One of the most glaring mistakes is that owners attempt to build their restaurants around their desires and not their customers’ desires.

When owners fall into this trap, they forget to expand and market what they already do well rather than placing inducements to lure customers out of their routines.  Sometimes, restaurant owners remind me of mothers trying to bribe their little children to eat broccoli and spinach.

Typical Mistakes

We often hear a restaurant owner complain that Friday and Saturdays are fine, but how about Mondays and Tuesdays. The message is clear: the owner wants market aggressively (and expensively) to fill up the restaurant on those days. At this point, it is good to take a step back and look at the big picture. This is where a good analysis of the situation will save time, money and disappointment.

We should go back to the framing promotions ONLY through days of the week. First, there is less business across the board on certain days at certain times. You cannot change that. Let me say that again: you cannot change basic customer behavior. So on those days, your competitors are trying to do the exact same thing as you. Almost always, when you do attempt to dramatically change the business on a slow day, you put more into it than you receive back. Sure, Monday may be busy but everything is so cheap you end up worse off than if it was quiet and lightly staffed.

Of course, you can maintain and keep a larger staff by doing this. Good staff require hours. Without giving them hours, they won’t be around for days with more traffic and higher margins. But you should remember that is why you are running a promotion on Monday or Tuesday.

I’d like to give you the example of one particularly stubborn owner. His restaurant is situated in community with particular characteristics and demographics. It is a young community that loves certain aspects of city life, but do not necessarily fall in the class of professionals nor working people. One common element is that they are passionate about brunch and he is fortunate to have a restaurant that has a popular brunch. His weekend brunch fills up and does much better than other times.

Now you’d think that it would make sense to try to branch out. Brunch is good so why market it. In fact, putting resources to maintain and grow the brunch make more sense, even if the restuarant eventually turns people away. The brunch is the doorway for how many customers are introduced to his establishment and having the same old regulars get the same old tables is not necessarily in his best interest. In that community in particular, brunch is the time of the week when he is most likely to capture new customers as friends invite friends to the brunch. If they like the brunch, many will visit the restaurant at other times of week. But brunch is the doorway for new customers and increased excitement, and it is much easier to market through doorways than walls.

Going Deeper Not Wider

What your restaurant excels at will be the primary way you acquire new customers and grow. Simple enough. Your menu may include many other items, but normally a restaurant’s growth relies heavily on a few food items or a certain offering, like brunch. The point is not to market other parts of your restaurant to make them be equal to customer’s favorites but to take advantage of the best qualities and aspects of your restaurant, even if you have to turn people away. Going back to the previous example: if customers want to try your food, the brunch-goers may start coming at other times to avoid waiting. Waits cause customers to come at other times. They will not blame you for being popular, (although if they got a reservation, that is another issue).

Around NYC, there are many new restaurants that do just one thing, making one food instead of an entire cuisine. Whether macaroni and cheese, rice pudding or falafel, these restaurants do an excellent job at giving customers what they want. These businesses have their limitations but the lesson to appreciate is that they are focused and do fine without trying to please everyone. Choice, variety and incentives always take a backseat to originality, authenticity and quality. It is not about your restaurant being a one-trick pony and only good at one thing. It is that your customers’ desires and behavior are mostly outside your control and that you should build your restaurant around them. And when you have a few trusty ways to drive business, don’t take them for granted, but strengthen them.