Spread the word

Roger Fowler (pictured) of The Stokehouse believes offering the right mix of services, food, drinks and atmosphere keeps people coming back.

Roger Fowler (pictured) of The Stokehouse believes offering the right mix of services, food, drinks and atmosphere keeps people coming back.

If there’s universal agreement that positive word of mouth is the best marketing ploy for any restaurant, how do you measure its effectiveness? Miles Clarke reports.

With the exception of restaurants that cater mostly for business travellers or tourists, the restaurant that continues to advertise after three years in business should perhaps be looking more closely at its offer in term of consistency of service and quality of cuisine.

This is the view of veteran restaurant consultant and industry commentator, Tony Eldred of Eldred Hospitality in Melbourne. “Word of mouth recommendations and repeat customers are the lifeblood of any restaurant. Lots of figures are bandied about with regard to the effectiveness of word of mouth, but it’s safe to say customers will recommend a restaurant to around five to 10 friends and colleagues for the two months after a positive dining experience. When it comes to a negative experience, they’ll tell up to 20 people over the same period.”

Eldred says restaurants who continue to advertise after three years are wasting an opportunity. “The only way to test your word of mouth marketing is to simply stop advertising and promotion for a few months,” he says. “If your client numbers start declining, it’s a sure fire indicator that you need to look at the standard of your operations. Restaurateurs should spend no more than seven years in a particular business. Any longer and they stop recognising faults in their operation.”

One restaurant that has never advertised in any way yet manages to serve around 650 covers a day for upwards of eight months a year, is The Stokehouse located on the beach in Melbourne’s St Kilda.

The Stokehouse has been in operation since 1989 under the current management. There’s a casual bistro downstairs seating 200 and a more upmarket section upstairs. There is a core group of 60 staff, whose ranks swell to 100 in high season.

“Competition has certainly hotted up in this area in recent years,” says proprietor Roger Fowler. “We’re open seven days a week, with Christmas and New Year’s Day being the only exceptions. We’ve never promoted ourselves for Mother’s or Valentine’s day and I believe we offer the right mix of service, food, drinks and atmosphere that keeps people coming back.”

The Stokehouse is one of the few East Coast restaurants that enjoys a view of the sunset over water, so its location is certainly a good selling point. The company has a comprehensive website with a compelling home page, which has the sound of the surf and the squawk of seagulls to convey some of the feel of the place.

Fowler says another important factor is the floor staff that have been with him for a long time and are recognised by his regulars. “I believe this assists very much in our return clientele.”

Trained economist and opening executive chef at Sydney’s celebrated Otto Restaurant in Woolloomooloo, Nino Zoccali of Red Hot Pears consulting, cites surveys which say that 95 per cent of diners rely on the recommendation of friends and families when taking a decision on which restaurants to patronise, so the bottom line is once more the consistency of service and quality of product.

“There’s certainly a place for public relations (PR) to help build a brand and raise awareness in a crowded market. Once the PR has done its job and there’s no positive word of mouth, it’s time to take a good look at your products. Location is always important. An example is the siting of a pizza restaurant nearby cinemas or theatres. There’s a good market in capturing business from people who want an inexpensive and quick meal before taking in the show and some excellent word of mouth can really help set you up.

“Some outlets develop such a reputation that they are able to trade on word of mouth from a worldwide audience. I’m thinking perhaps of Harry’s Bar in Venice or Sardi’s in New York.”

A spokesman for Sydney’s deluxe Aria Restaurant at Circular Quay says measuring word of mouth is extremely difficult, though the restaurant does run its email address on its bills and any comments are followed up.

“We know our guests have great expectations when they dine with us and we always respond to any complaint and do our level best to achieve a positive outcome. I think word of mouth certainly does help with regard to international guests who may be recommended by friends who have dined with us. We also get excellent assistance from the 5 star hotel concierge who will recommend us.”

Max Hitchins of the Hospitality Doctor is such believer in the power of word of mouth that he advocates including it in the profit and loss figures for a restaurant. “Everything that a restaurateur and his team do is marketing in one way or another and there’s no doubt that there’s a place for word of mouth marketing in your figures, difficult as it might be to put an exact price on it.

“Recognition by service staff of regular customers also promotes positive word of mouth. An effort should be made to remember faces and names. Remembering people by name flatters them and helps improve the quality of word of mouth recommendations. If there’s any indecision between one restaurant and another, the chances are that the ones who know the customers by name will be the ones to gain the patronage.”

Last word goes to Jane Ferrett, marketing manager for Pier Nine seafood restaurant on the Brisbane River at Eagle Street. There are a further two restaurants in the ‘group’—Cha Cha Char, offering mainly a steak menu and Il Centro, an Italian specialist.

“We’re known in the corporate world as the ‘Bermuda Triangle’—if you can’t find someone at one restaurant, they’re probably at one of the others.”

Pier Nine has been in operation for 17 years and does minimal advertising to achieve its average of around 260 covers a day. The restaurants market is evenly drawn from the business sector, tourists visiting the city and locals who use the venue for special occasions such as birthdays and anniversaries.

“We have the back cover of the A5-sized Dining Out Brisbane, which is aimed at the tourist market. We also schmooze the concierges from the major hotels in the vicinity and have them around for dinner from time to time. They’re invaluable in spreading the word about us to business travellers and tourists in town.”

In January and February, Pier Nine runs a radio advertising campaign to highlight its ‘salmon and crab’ annual promotion and from time to time will advertise its cooking school. For the rest, the venue trades on its reputation, location, a monthly online newsletter to its database and information in the restaurant’s bill folders about the cooking school and any upcoming promotions.

“It’s difficult to measure the value of word of mouth marketing, but we do have people who tell us ‘we’ve been hearing about this restaurant for ages and finally we’re here’, so there certainly is evidence that word of mouth is an integral part of our overall marketing effort,” says Ferrett.

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