This year the Sydney fine dining restaurant Catalina, situated by the water in Rose Bay, recognises its 20th anniversary. It’s a significant milestone given the challenging times faced by the restaurant industry over the past few years have been most cruel to upmarket establishments. But owner Judy McMahon and her team have plenty to celebrate, including stronger growth than they have experienced for many years. In the past five months alone, McMahon says, Catalina has managed a 25 per cent increase in turnover. On weekends the restaurant has a waiting list from two to three weeks out and during the week, dinners and lunches previously considered ‘quiet’ boast two to three times as many bookings as the same sittings 12 months earlier.
How have the staff and management of Catalina achieved this? Actually, it’s quite simple. They have employed
a few basic quiet-night strategies to combat the periods of low bookings, whether they’re expected or not.
And those strategies have been paying off handsomely.
“I was originally quite sceptical about the idea that an offer to your database can make a difference, but decided to do a trial, almost as an experiment,” McMahon says. “That was a discount deal for 25 per cent off the food portion of the bill. And the response was fantastic!” McMahon had always ensured she kept a database of past and present customers, but she then actively went about building that database. Along the way she developed the Catalina Club, which she says is far more attractive an offering than simply asking for people’s contact details. In 12 months the database has grown from 10,000 to 23,000 people.
“We market to people for their birthdays, where they get a free meal for their birthday up to a certain value, depending on what the people who dine with them order. The offerings have to be generous or you’re simply perceived as being mean.”
During the traditionally quiet period of mid to late January, McMahon organised the photography of a summer cocktail, an Aperol spritz, and sent out an invite to her database offering the drink and olives for free to anybody that came into the restaurant. If they decided to follow up the drink with a meal then they also received a small discount. Once again, rather than spending the month staring at empty tables, the restaurant staff were run off their feet.
But it’s important, McMahon says, to ensure the deals and offers are only for the quiet periods, otherwise they will cut into the restaurant’s usual revenues rather than adding to them.
“Our weekends are momentous, and have actually become much busier since we began our quiet-night strategies,” McMahon says. “So we keep the deals, including birthday offers, to Monday to Friday. Now those days are beginning to book out, too.”
Restaurant advisor and author of More Bums On Seats, Howard Tinker, says quiet-night strategies are vital for restaurant success, whether you’re running a five-star establishment or a coffee shop. But don’t just go and jump on any bandwagon.
“A lot of people were burnt quite badly by the daily email deal offers that were all the rage a few years ago,” Tinker says. “Some deals simply remove too much revenue from the equation, making it impossible for the restaurant to make any money no matter how many people come through the door.
“Whatever you do, it all has to begin with a strong database. If you don’t tell people about the offer, they’re not going to show up. You need that database first. Then the delivery of the offer simply becomes a part of the overall strategy.”
Tinker says many restaurants have turned quiet times into profit. Pilu at Freshwater in Sydney’s northern beaches, for example, turned lunchtimes into booming business when they developed and marketed to a database of 14,000 their ‘Tour of Italy’ lunches. The meals and their ingredients and accompaniments are themed around a specific Italian town or region and are changed on a weekly basis. These days customers ring to ask where the tour goes to next week, and of course to book their table for the gastronomic journey.
Steakhouse Mumu Grill at Sydney’s Crows Nest fills quiet nights, such as State of Origin game nights, with themed events that have catchy names, such as ‘Lambageddon’, ‘Porkestra’, ‘Holy Cow’ and ‘Rib Fest’. Of course, these nights are marketed to the database, which at Mumu Grill includes over 29,000 people.
“Sometimes Mumu Grill will offer all-you-can-eat deals for $40, and on each place setting when customers sit down is a simple list of around seven craft beers. For a guy who’s likely organised to come to this restaurant with several mates, that’s a very tempting list,” Tinker says.
“But the real magic is in the naming of the special nights. It’s humorous and memorable and it gives the event some character. The name makes the product more special. ‘All-you-can-eat pork chops’ isn’t very special, but ‘Porkestra’ is.”
One strategy Tinker has seen utilised in CBD restaurants in the UK, but not yet in Australia, is one that offers discounted meals to those who come in after work and leave by 7pm. The diners are not forced out at 7pm—they are simply offered the choice to stay and pay full price instead.
“The deal attracts corporate types who may just be looking for a relaxed meal after work or who may decide to make it a night and spend a lot on drinks and desserts,” Tinker says. “Of course it also brings in the crowds for the 5pm to 7pm time slot, solving the issue of that usually quiet period. And that’s what quiet-night strategies are all about.”