Case Study: Restaurant Focuses on Online Menus, Reservations

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New restaurants have a notoriously high failure rate — with statistics showing that nearly two-thirds of such establishments shut down within three years of opening. In Brookline, Mass., La Morra has beaten the odds for the past nine years thanks to the savvy online marketing tactics championed by Jen Ziskin, the restaurant’s co-owner. Ziskin says she relies on a combination of email marketing, OpenTable, and menu management platform Locu to spur interest long before customers walk through her doors.

What are some of the biggest marketing challenges you face as a restaurant owner?
We have an email list that we use, so that has been the best way we’ve been able to reach out about upcoming eventsthrough email marketing and Facebook. Email marketing is way more effective than Facebook at this point. With that, the only challenge is you have to write the emails and send them out. We also send [emails] out through OpenTable. But when you send them out, they come to a lot of people as junk mail. That can be a problem. Because it comes from [OpenTable] and it doesn’t come from [a company] like Constant Contact, it does come out as junk.

Have you found a way around that or are you still working it out?
It hasn’t been a huge problem, so we haven’t really tackled it. We book all of our events [through OpenTable], and we do great with the list.

Besides relying on OpenTable, how else do you gather customer email addresses?
We use comment cards at the restaurant, and we also [use] another company [that] provides us with little cards that link to our Facebook page and our website, and [that’s] where people can sign up for the mailing list directly.

I know you use Locu for menu management. What was it about the platform that made you want to give it a try?
They just approached me with this basically free product and asked if I was interested in being a beta tester. That’s how we got involved. [I liked] the fact that we could edit our menus in immediate time. If we [want to] make a menu change, we can go on Locu and make an adjustment to the menu, and it automatically goes to our mobile website, our Facebook page, and our regular website.

How were you making menu updates before Locu?
We used a webmaster. One of our friends used to do it for us, but it would take [between] 24 and 48 hours for it to be updated. We paid in trade, but we were still paying for it, so this has been amazing. It’s such a great product.

How frequently do you update your online menu now?
The whole menu gets updated four times a year, and we have a prix fixe menu that changes about every three weeks. Sometimes we tweak the menu here and there, but basically [we have] a big rollout of the new menu four times a year.

Why is it so important to keep your current menu updated online?
People expect it now. We do a lot of takeout, as well. In the past, if you didn’t have a menu on your website, you would have to stand there and read the menu to [customers who called in]. Now, people can just click on the website and [see] the current menu of the evening. It’s so much easier with takeout, and we do a ton of takeout. That’s the main thing. I think for people who are exploring restaurants, they expect to see the current menu on the website so they can plan out what they are going to have that night.

You don’t really get a sense of the restaurant if you don’t get to look at the menu. I think that’s the most important thing [to put on the website]. Then the hours are really important and the phone number. For people who make reservations, as well, OpenTable is great to go to directly from the website.

Are more people making reservations online now than when you opened nine years ago?
Yes. We started with OpenTable, I want to say over seven-and-a-half years ago. It’s incredible. Especially for the big holidays, most people are booking by the web instead of calling.

What other big changes have you noticed, as far as restaurant marketing is concerned, in the years you’ve been open?
For us, we don’t do any advertising. So everything is word-of-mouth and through social media and through the mailing lists. So for us, it’s been a growth in the mailing lists that has been the major change. The more people join the email list, the busier we are.

For new restaurants just now opening their doors, what are your best tips or pieces of advice?
I think comment cards are great [as a way to get] the positive and the negative feedback. We have used OpenTable. We spend so much money on OpenTable that I hate to market for them because it is so costly. But it has definitely been the best form of marketing for us, just because it is so easy for people to access. If they’re in a location and they’re looking in Brookline, it will automatically bring them to us. I feel like joining websites like that is a very useful tool for marketing, as opposed to other tools like just putting an ad in a magazine or using LivingSocial or Groupon. I’d rather see people invest in something like OpenTable.

Stephanie Miles is an associate editor at Street Fight. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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Stephanie Miles is a journalist who covers personal finance, technology, and real estate. As Street Fight’s senior editor, she is particularly interested in how local merchants and national brands are utilizing hyperlocal technology to reach consumers. She has written for FHM, the Daily News, Working World, Gawker, Cityfile, and Recessionwire.