It’s never too early to start thinking about how your restaurant will open for business. After spending months hunkering down and building your business, throwing a grand opening event may be low on your priority list. But grand openings matter.

They are the first real marketing events for your restaurant, and a well-executed opening event launches your brand and builds buzz around your restaurant to sustain it during its difficult first year. The best grand opening ideas are memorable, shareable, and encourage first-time customers to become regulars. Here are a few ideas to get your creative juices flowing.

The Soft Opening

This is the standard advice for a reason. A soft opening is an exclusive event with a limited menu, usually a dinner, and many restaurants hold a few soft openings before their restaurant opens to the public.

Your initial soft opening might be for family and friends, designed to test how your restaurant performs for the friendliest of audiences. In return, your family and friends will give you honest feedback on your restaurant’s food, staff, and overall ambiance. Ask them to take pictures and post reviews on local-first sites like Yelp and Nextdoor.

Then you can make any tweaks before your next soft opening event, which will be for local influencers.

Who are considered influencers? If your restaurant is located in a metro area, they would be local celebrity and media influencers and those in high-profile industries (local musicians, social media influencers, athletes). If you live in a rural area or small town, your local influencers might be college sports stars or pastors.

Roll out the red carpet — no, seriously, maybe rent a red carpet — for your influencers and arrange your seating to facilitate schmoozing among your guests. Set up a selfie station with your restaurant’s name in the backdrop and have a dedicated “photographer” at the station nearby to take flattering photos. Encourage your guests to share their experiences with their friends and followers by tagging your restaurant on social media sites like Instagram, Twitter and Facebook and promoting the date you will open your restaurant to the public. This is known as user-generated content, and this “free” publicity is key to building brand awareness for your business.

The Stunt

Classic marketing stunts are alive and well. In your case, the most important criteria is the number of eyeballs your stunt will reach.

If you’re a new restaurant located close to the local high school, consider announcing your grand opening at a championship sporting event—the one that attracts nearly every resident of your town. If your restaurant sells chicken sandwiches, for instance, a man in a chicken suit might have a dance battle with the high school’s mascot during half time. Or your pizza parlor could hand out raffle tickets to every fan as they enter the game, and deliver pies to winners as they are sitting in the stands.

And who knows? Maybe your stunt will take on a life of its own and become tied to your restaurant’s brand. Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest, now a national event broadcast on ESPN, began as a humble advertising stunt. The goal? Ending up in the local paper. If you’re a new business owner opening a restaurant soon, we’ll bet that’s your goal, too.

The Special Offer

Consider giving your target audience limited-time coupons that will compel them to bring friends to your restaurant or return later to redeem their offer. Buy-one-get-one-free promotions bring in the extra foot traffic, and limited-time offers (ex. “Get a scoop of ice cream with lunch if you come back this week”) can turn initial customers into regulars.

Direct mail, that restaurant marketing workhorse, is a wonderful vehicle for coupons, as long as the coupon offer is sufficiently enticing. A 2018 survey showed that 30% of people will try a new casual or fast food restaurant when mailed coupons, and 25% would try a new pizzeria or fast casual outfit if mailed a coupon.

Because your direct mail coupons will be mailed to residents who live close to your restaurant, each coupon is an invitation and a grand opening flyer that will draw your potential customers to your new restaurant for the first time.

Even if a direct mail campaign is outside your budget, you can advertise your promotion on social media for very little upfront cost. Spending even $20 a day to boost advertising about your promotion on Facebook can be very effective due to the platform’s targeting capabilities.
If your special offer is a success, you can use it as a starting point for future promotions and loyalty programs. Use your point of sale system to determine your busiest and slowest times are and use coupons to boost sales during slow periods.

SEE ALSO: Restaurant Start-Up Costs (A Breakdown For New Restaurateurs)

The Partnership

As a brick and mortar business owner, you have much to gain from partnering with local businesses. As a new entrepreneur, you’re part of a community now, and nurturing fellow businesses will pay off as you develop regular customers.

For your grand opening, consider getting creative with your partnership. If you are trying to attract pedestrians from the local dog park, maybe you set up outdoor seating and partner with a local pet shop to serve dog treats alongside sandwiches for humans. Or partner with a local movie theater to throw a creative ‘dinner and a movie’ event.

Building partnerships with these businesses, even other restaurant owners, now will pay off later as you band together with other local businesses to compete with nationally-owned businesses with much larger budgets.

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The PR Push

When you’re opening a new restaurant, your goal is attention, and the most valuable attention of all is being covered in local media outlets and blogs.

Unless you live in a very small town or rural area, “new restaurant opening” is probably not compelling enough to get press on its own. But consider all the different angles from which a reporter might cover your restaurant. If you use healthy, local ingredients, that’s intriguing to wellness reporters and business reporters who cover agriculture. If you are the first to bring a specific cuisine to a region, that story might appeal to culture reporters. If you offer a play area in the garden of your restaurant, the family section of your local newspaper might pick it up. You can then amplify any positive coverage on social media sites like Facebook.

Though it’s a bit out of your control, you might want to try to launch your restaurant business during a “slow news” time to boost the possibility of press coverage. During the holidays, for instance, the lifestyle reporter at your local news affiliate will have less bandwidth to talk about a new restaurant.

It’s important to remember that most coverage in the media does not happen by chance. PR professionals (or small business owners like yourself) pitch tailored stories to journalists to turn businesses into stories. And stories bring in customers.

SEE ALSO: Top 10 Things To Get Right When Opening a Restaurant

So there you have it: the soft opening, the stunt, the special offer, the partnership and the PR push. Use these ideas as a jumping off point for your own event. Even if you’re low on cash and time, a little creativity goes a long way in announcing your brand new restaurant to the world and making your opening day a success.

Amy Allen ShopKeep Copywriter

Amy Allen

The digital copywriter at ShopKeep, Amy understands that small businesses are the cornerstone of our economy and that independent entrepreneurs need smart solutions to compete in the marketplace. She has created award-winning work for major brands.