2010 July: How Appetizing

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When you launch a new appetizer, you’re fighting on two fronts: getting the word out and getting the orders in. After all, just because people know you sell mozzarella sticks doesn’t mean they like them or are willing to pay for them. Still, there are things you can do to market your new apps successfully both in-house and out.

First, get your servers involved from A to Z. When possible, gather input –– or ideas! –– from your staff. Then have them sample the final product so they can provide feedback and firsthand descriptions to customers. “Whenever we introduce a new appetizer, we try to get our staff as enthused as we are about the new item,” says Patricia Kennelly, owner of Mediterranean Café in Colorado Springs, Colorado. “We encourage them to try it and they are welcome to give suggestions on how it can be improved all through the recipe development phase. When the appetizer hits the menu they are ready to suggest it and sell it because they feel they were part of the process.”

During launch week, help your staff make the big push with a little healthy competition. “A competition between the servers has also worked for us, whoever sells the most new menu items gets a monetary prize or an extra paid day off,” says Kennelly. “Also, the first few days of our new menu we give away the new appetizer to our regular customers; they are the best word of mouth advertising we have.”

For take-out, make sure your customer service contact is suggesting the new appetizers and/or that your on-hold message is promoting your new offerings with mouth-watering descriptions. Don’t assume that regulars know about your updated menu –– or that they won’t try something new.

Next, shell out for free samples. If you’re confident in your recipe, put your money where your customer’s mouth is –– and get feedback. “We’ve always believed the best way to promote any new offering is to let the taste do the talking,” says Pete Buscani, executive vice president of marketing for the Ohio-based LaRosa’s franchise. “So, we do lots of good, old-fashioned sampling in our dining rooms. We’ll send our better delivery guests a sample with their regular order. We’ll sometimes even include a short survey so that they can give us feedback — and many of them do.”

Give existing customers coupons. Not everyone agrees that free samples are the way to go. Jeffrey Baron, owner of The Dough Bowl in New Orleans, warns that they’re easily forgotten and sometimes customers aren’t so quick to pay for something they were once given for free. “The most effective way to introduce a new appetizer to the customer is to include the item in a coupon with pizza, virtually giving the item away at a discounted price,” says Baron, who just opened his second restaurant, the Crescent Pie and Sausage Company. “This, along with a mouthwatering picture and/or description, will lure in the customer. A coupon for a free appetizer is a better tool than a free sample and can even be tracked, which is an additional perk.”

Also, market to the health-conscious. Obviously, this isn’t going to work with your deep-fried onion rings. But promoting your feta and spinach-stuffed portabella mushrooms as “lighter fare” or a “vegetarian option” is a good way to attract new customers and possibly even convert your regulars who tend to skip the appetizers due to calorie counts.

Let the photos do their work. Table tents, menu inserts and even wall art can help sell your newest creations. “We love to integrate new items into our restaurants through rockin’ collateral,” says Brain Roach, director of marketing at The Rock Wood-fired Pizza & Spirits, a Washington-based franchise. “We utilize three-sided table tents, with one message for each, i.e. bar, entrée, and appetizers, and we have a lot of fun creating promotional messages on what might look like a tour poster (look a little harder and you’ll see these are the names of our stores, or our menu items!).”

Nix the stagnant Web site. While bigger franchises with dedicated marketing directors can put the time and money into promotions like scrolling news feeds to keep customers abreast of new appetizers, there are other options. Create links on a less frequently updated Web site to your active Facebook or Twitter account. (See page 54.) Or do like Ray’s Pizzeria & Ice Cream Shoppe in Lexington, South Carolina, which uses a simple “What’s New at Ray’s” link –– one page on the Web site that promotes new menu items, lunch specials and community news.

Finally, consider customer loyalty programs. Let your best customers feel special by notifying them of new menu items before they’re launched. “Our ‘Backstage Pass’ fans are always the first to know about our just introduced items,” says Roach. If you’re launching several new menu items at once, consider a V.I.P. tasting. It’s a good way to get regulars to try something new, and a great way to let them know you value their opinion. ?

Using Facebook & Twitter to promote your new appetizers

If you’re not using these social networking sites, you’re missing out. Among countless other applications, Facebook allows you to:

? write “mini-posts” about daily specials and new menu items
? create a fan following
? post your menu and photos
? link to your Web site
? stay up-to-date on what other pizzerias and restaurants are doing.

Here’s an actual Facebook post by Lonnie Tant’s Italia Pizza Café:

Lonnie Tant’s Italia Pizza Café: Try our new appetizer and let us know what you think!!!! Fresh Mushroom stuffed with fresh spinach, ricotta cheese, minced garlic and fried bacon … $3.99 can you say YUMMM???

Although Twitter is mostly used for short updates of 140 characters or fewer, it’s being used successfully by many. Here’s an example of an actual “tweet” from De Palma’s Italian Cafe:

De Palma’s Italian Cafe: The new Wild Mushroom & Grilled Polenta with Spicy Mascarpone appetizer seems to have been a hit on opening night at Timothy rd.

Wendy Burt-Thomas is a freelance writer living in Colorado Springs, Colorado. She writes for a variety of publications.