The oldest question in business ownership is “How do I effectively advertise my business?” The wrong answer leads to a failing business depending on how deep your pockets are. Restaurants and food vendors must be marketing every second of every day. In America we have crossed the 1-BILLION-dollar mark for total Food Truck annual sales. Even tossing in the trailer, tent and cart vendors there are enough hungry guests to go around. The challenge is to convince a potential guest to try your food over the guy down the road.
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As a street vendor you should follow in the B&M guys footsteps. There is no reason to re-invent the marketing wheel for your business. Here are some of the best practices used by successful street vendors. Consider marketing as your personal invitation to your street vending party once they accept your invitation and stop by for a bite it is up you to build a RELATIONSHIP via great tasting food, fast, friendly memorable service all in a clean, sanitary and safe environment. That Relationship is what will keep them coming back often.
Your food, service and cleanliness must be superior to your competition before you even consider inviting guests to your business. You also need to understand a cart or truck vendor does not directly complete with a B&M restaurant. Never has. Mobile food vendors deliver taste and convenience as key points of difference from a B&M. Only very poorly ran restaurants are afraid of food trucks and carts. They are also afraid of the grocery store selling ready to eat foods and the convenience store selling pizza held under a heat lamp, cooked in an E-Z Bake Oven. Having said that a truck, trailer or cart has to be superior in flavor, speed and have a personality. People shop from memory. Associating great flavor with a fun serving experience creates a strong memory for your guests. Don’t waste money on advertising unless you are confident your food is delicious, and you deliver on fast and friendly.
Start with the basics. Your signage around your cart, tent or trailer should establish what you sell and at what price in as few words as possible. It should also be easily seen from a distance. How far depends on the location. You must provide enough information to entice your potential guest to decide to eat with you without slowing down, whether driving or walking. A picture of a hot dog combo with a price starburst works, it communicates your main product with a price point. This allows the guest to decide based on food and price. If you in an area where the view is obstructed by trees, hills or buildings you must have extra signage that leads guests to you. If the speed limit or traffic is high around your location, you need even more space and signs to give people a chance to notice you and safely exit traffic long before they actually pass your business. Burma Shave style signs work well to demonstrate a little personality while guiding your guests to your business.
When designing your menu board absolutely DO NOT use stock photos, even if they perfectly match your food. Today’s technology makes producing your own high-quality photos simple and easy. The cover of my book, “Putting the Cart Before the Dog”, was taken with using a Galaxy S5. I have also used many iPhone photos for print and internet ads. One of my most commented-on menu photos shows my hand holding a sandwich. As you can see nothing fancy, but it started a lot of conversations, especially since the sandwich was made and photographed exactly how to would be served to any guest. Make sure your menu board is easy to read from at least two to three people back from your order taking area, otherwise you create a bottle neck of people reading your menu when they should be ordering.
Use social media to develop a following and to find new guests. Learn each how each platform works and who the "influencers" are for your area. Set a daily goal to DM a small number of "influencers" and recent check-ins for your area, sincerely compliment something they posted you really like and invite them to stop by for a free signature item from your menu. A tiny portion will stop by and a small portion of those folks will post something about your business or a picture of your food. Everyone of those you messaged that does visit give them something for a future visit, BOGO (buy one get one) works best because it requires them to bring someone along for the next visit. Then have something for that return visit for both people (these are referred to as Bounce back coupons).
Keeping up with your social media will take up some time in your workday and you must be, well, social. Meaning a conversation must take place. When you receive a review comment back to the reviewer and if you remember the interaction be specific with your comments. If you get a less than stellar review comment on it as well. Invite them back, apologize for the issue and turn the poor review into an outlier that gets ignored by other potential guests. Modern day guests are quite savvy folks and know 100% positive reviews means FAKE reviews from friends and family mixed in with some real guest comments. People understand the delete button as well. When they see the outlier poor review they feel more confident about the good reviews. If the business owner acknowledges the poor review in a professional manner a potential guest feels even better about the business an is more likely to give them a try.
As well as, responding to comments and reviews, you will need to start conversations on your social media. Keep adding new photos with your logo as a water mark, show pictures of your guests eating, comment on weather, traffic, sports team success anything that could start a conversation. Add hash tags sparingly to your posts when necessary. I recommend social media twice daily. Once well before opening to remind people where are and when you will open. The second should be after you have either slowed down for the day or after you have closed. This time should include the response to all comments, all reviews and any local events or news that you think others are talking about. Search local happening and make some comments to get conversations started.
You can have a Bounce back coupon promotion to use in conjunction with any special event or location you don’t normally visit. Bounce backs can be as simple as several coupons printed on an 8 ½ by 11 sheet in black ink. Make the offers profitable for you and enticing for the guest to want to keep the coupons. Remember to list your address locations and hours of operation.
Loyalty programs or punch cards encourage frequent visits. There are many app addons for your POS systems that will track points, visits or purchases what ever you want to reward. Remember to account for the cost of the addon fees in your marketing budget. Punch cards are cheap and easy to use. Simply offer a free sandwich or other item in return for purchasing a certain number of the same item. You then punch or mark the card in a manner that is not easily duplicated. When the correct amount is reached by your guest, you give them the free item. Just make sure your profit margin can handle the discounts and freebies or you will market yourself out of business.
Become involved in your local community. Getting your name out in your community is essential to business success. I know of one restaurant in a dying, economically depressed town of 11,000 people that took sales from bankruptcy level $7,500 a week to over $12,000 just by getting involved with school fund raising events on a near weekly basis. What ever the schools were doing they were there showing support and creating a “presence” demonstrating being a part of the community rather than just a faceless restaurant out to make a buck.
Help with fund raisers, set up reading programs with elementary schools. Support high school teams, Little League sports or other civic minded groups. Run promotions where part of your profit is donated to the group during a certain time frame if that group helps to increase sales over your normal sales during the same time frame.
Take inspiration from your competitors and then do their marketing programs better. Be the go to food vendor for open houses, ribbon cuttings, parades, firework shows and any other local event. Make certain you have menus, coupons and little logo items to pass out at these events. Selling food at a parade may be profitable but imagine if 10% of those people become loyal guests because you gave them a menu with a coupon inviting them back to your regular location.
I could go on and on with methods to market your business, but you get the idea. You must be actively seeking new guests, working to impress current guests and rewarding loyal guests every single day you are in operation. Just like you need a marketing budget set up (minimum 4% of net sales) you need a daily time budget. I recommend a minimum of one hour each day. If you are aggressively doing things on this page as well as looking for new ideas, monitoring results of your marketing events and looking for ways to improve your operations to the satisfaction of your guests you will grow your business.
I have had a passion for helping people since an early age back in rural Kentucky. That passion grew into teaching and training managers and owners how to grow sales, increase profits, and retain guests. You’ll find a ton of information here about improving restaurant and food cart/trailer operations and profits. Got questions? Email me at Bill_Moore@live.com