Everyone loves your pizza, but sometimes people need another reason to visit on a weeknight. Some operators find that theme nights are a good way to attract customers on a slow night, create buzz about the restaurant, and most importantly, build relationships with people who become repeat customers.
Chris Ransom, owner and manager of Grand Avenue Pizza in Laramie, Wyoming, was having trouble getting customers to come in during the week. “This is a college town, so it’s kind of hard to get anybody out except on weekends,” he says. “We were doing the majority of our business just on Fridays and Saturdays.” The local movie theaters offered Tuesday night student discounts, so Ransom decided to make Tuesday night Couples Night. Two people can order one appetizer, two entrées and one dessert for $20. “Now you can have dinner and a movie, so it completes the whole night,” Ransom says. Couples Night was a success. “We are full most every Tuesday night.” He promotes Couples Night with table tents, Facebook and on the restaurant’s Web site. He adds that the key is to make the theme night welcoming. “It has to be something that appeals to a wide range of people, not a small demographic. You can’t have a Star Wars night, because then you alienate customers,” Ransom says. Not only can theme nights bring in people on a slow day, but they can also attract new customers.
Doug Fricano, who owns Fricano’s Pizza near Grand Rapids, Michigan, says he started Tuesday Cruise Nights in 2004, a year after he opened the restaurant. People who arrive in a classic car get a free soda and a parking space in a roped-off, but very visible, area of the parking lot. “People drive by and they can’t help but come in and see what is going on,” Fricano says. The crowd of Baby Boomers and car enthusiasts mill around, listen to the DJ play oldies, and, inevitably, sit down and order Fricano’s pizza. Fricano gets the word out by distributing fliers at car shows.
“West Michigan is known for gear heads,” he says. Cruise Night has grown from about 15 cars the first year to 150 or more cars now. The evenings also include raffles for prizes such as synthetic oil, shop towels and other items that Fricano buys before the event. Anyone can participate in the raffle, even if their car is technically not a classic. “The hot rodders see a 2004 Corvette and say, ‘Don’t let him have a raffle ticket,’” Fricano says. Frato’s Pizza, in Schaumberg, Illinois, hosts Wednesday Cruise Nights. Michael J. Kudrna, president of Frato’s, says motorcycles are allowed, as are all classic, muscle, and antique cars. Attendees get discounts at Auto Zone, and free ice cream at Frato’s. Kudrna decided to bring back Cruise Night as a car and bike night when he purchased Frato’s Pizza a few years ago.
The previous owners had let the theme nights dwindle, so Kudrna hired Fuzzy Dice Automotive Events to organize and promote the weekly event. “You have to choose the right DJ,” Kudrna says. “It has to be someone who takes it seriously and is a professional.” Kudrna gets the word out about Cruise Nights by calling local car clubs and by posting information on Frato’s Facebook page. He also does e-mail blasts that are tied to the online ordering system. Now sales are up 10 to 12 percent on Wednesdays, and Frato’s has more than 1,000 likes on Facebook. Also, carryout orders are up during Cruise Nights.
Some customers do not want to be bothered with all those cars, Kudrna says, so they pick up their pizza to eat at home. The events happen over the summer, but he sees long term benefits. One car enthusiast placed a large catering order. “You are trying to create buzz. It’s more about marketing than helping the bottom line for that day,” Kudrna explains. “If we make extra money, great, but we also make sure we establish relationships.” Car nights are popular, but some operators say offbeat theme nights work well, too.
Chubby Ray’s Original Louisville Pizza Company in Louisville, Kentucky, hosts cornhole nights on Thursdays during the summer. Cornhole consists of tossing a beanbag into a hole in a wooden platform. Participants pay a $5 entry fee and play in a tournament for first, second and third place prizes. “In Kentucky you can’t charge for games of chance,” says Ray Perkins, the owner of Chubby Ray’s.
“But cornhole is considered a game of skill.” Perkins promotes cornhole nights on the restaurant’s Facebook page. “It’s inexpensive,” he says. “We’ve got 5,000 followers.” Chubby Ray’s Original Louisville Pizza Company also hosts Monday Poker Nights, which Perkins says are similar to the televised tournaments, but on a smaller scale.
He might discontinue Poker Nights though. “Too many people are doing them now,” he says. “Everyone jumped on the bandwagon.” He might start a trivia night instead. The key to any theme night is to keep it fresh. “You have to introduce new things to customers,” Perkins says. “Our food is great but dining out is not only about the food. You have to give them something different that you can’t get other places.
There are Rules
Sometimes you have to set down certain rules to make sure the theme night goes smoothly for everyone. At the classic car events at Fricano’s Pizza in Grand Rapids, Michigan, car enthusiasts are not allowed to perform smoky burnouts, or the wheel spinning that causes the tire rubber to burn, in the parking lot. “It is a spectacle to behold, but I had to put the kibosh on that last year,” says owner Doug Fricano. He also has an internal rule: all employees must work on Tuesdays during Cruise Night season, which runs from Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day week. He makes sure as early as April that all 22 employees are committed to working those events.
Nora Caley is a freelance writer specializing in food and business topics. She lives in Denver, Colorado.