Our culture has an undying thirst for celebrities. New technologies such as social media and online gossip have only made our obsession with celebrities more insatiable. Any event, therefore, with celebrities attracts more people and results in more buzz than it would without celebrities. Like moths to a flame, customers want to rub shoulders with famous people.

Restaurant success may start with good food and service, but adding an extra kick of fun can do wonders to publicize your brand. Many of your customers flock to special events and blast out these events over social media. You can generate publicity, connect with your customers and create excitement in the community by hosting a celebrity cook-off or other high profile event. Cook-offs bring some serious spice to the table because you can get free airtime from radio and television stations as well as Internet media sites.

You can choose local or national celebrities to face-off against each other or pit them against the restaurant’s staff or amateur chefs from the community. Local sportscasters, radio personalities, news anchors and reporters often fuel interest among their fans who will show up to support their cooking efforts.

To Be or Not to Be a Celebrity

Celebrities draw crowds and generate buzz, but major celebrities are not absolutely necessary. You can host cook-offs between business rivals, local chefs, sports teams, schools, teachers or amateur cooks. Chili and barbecue cook-offs inspire tremendous competitiveness among cooks, so you’ll have few problems getting contestants who want to demonstrate their cooking skills. The point is that the event is well-planned and marketed thoroughly beforehand to ensure a good turnout by both spectators and press.

Partner with a Local Business

Your cook-off can be managed in-house, or you can partner with other restaurants, local businesses, charities or civic organizations. Fundraising cook-offs for charity brings a readymade audience of possible new customers and can set off a wave of publicity through the charity, local media outlets and social networks. A charity cook-off takes more planning than a simple competition sponsored by a restaurant, such as a barbecue on the restaurant’s patio. However, when organized and promoted properly, a fundraising cook-off increases business, builds customer loyalty and brands the restaurant in the community.

Promote a Seasonal Menu

Cook-offs are ideal ways to promote seasonal foods like barbecue, chili, soups, gumbos, lobster and crawfish boils, cakes and pies, harvest specialities, pumpkin-carving contests and holiday cookies. Use local fruits and vegetables at the peak of ripeness for cook-offs like strawberry dishes, peach desserts or apple or cherry dishes. You’re only limited by your imagination and celebrity contacts.

Steps for Cook-Off Success

The success of your cook-off depends on organization and promotion. You can sponsor a cook-off where celebrities cook their favorite dishes in front of your customers at the restaurant or hold a competition between celebrities, local chefs or amateur cooks. Steps in the planning process include:

  1. Define the rules by setting limits on cooking times, equipment, ingredients and advanced preparation.
  2. Decide whom to invite as participants and guests.
  3. Choose a cooking venue outdoors, at the restaurant or at another facility such as a local college, culinary school or major hotel or resort.
  4. Arrange for judges, or let your customers choose the winners.
  5. Offer tastings of the finished dishes.
  6. Provide worthy prizes or charitable donations for the winning cooks.
  7. If cooking outdoors, plan a rain date, or hire tents to keep rain away.
  8. Inform customers and the community of the upcoming event through digital and traditional marketing channels
  9. Record the event with either video or photos for future marketing purposes

Other Promotional Ideas that Involve Cooking

Cook-offs take planning, and if you’re holding a competition outdoors, cooperative weather. However, there are many cooking-related promotions you can hold at your restaurant throughout the year to engage your customers. You could build a booth or buy a food truck to sell food at fairs and festivals from spring to fall to promote your restaurant’s image, increase sales and find new customers. Other promotions include:

  • Hold a cooking class for kids or adults
  • Promote an exclusive dining event with a “one-of-a-kind menu.”
  • Open an underground pop-up restaurant for a few days or weeks.
  • Cater high-profile events where people can observe your chefs in action.
  • Take part in local or regional events such as chili cook-offs, barbecue competitions and cake-baking contests.

You don’t need to focus only on cooking events, but the increased interest in foodie lore, celebrity chefs and sustainable sourcing makes food-related promotions good choices for restaurants. You could also sponsor a celebrity meet-and-greet, introduce local athletes and sports teams or sponsor a celebrity fundraiser.

Celebrity cook-offs, fundraisers and nontraditional promotions have become standard tools in the restaurateur’s tool chest. You don’t have to abandon all your traditional marketing strategies to begin testing new ideas and high-profile promotions. A cook-off is a good way to expand your brand’s profile deep into the world of social events, digital-marketing promotions and mainstream press.