Courting traffic

Guests, media respond to free lunch entrée offer for exonerated customers

Last month’s “Innocent Until Proven Hungry” promotion at Bay Area family-owned diner Buttercup Grill and Bar was an utter failure — and a complete success.

Buttercup’s owners, the Shahvar family, offered a free lunch entrée to any customer who brought in a “not guilty” verdict from the traffic court next door. Not one exonerated motorist took them up on it. But the promotion’s novelty — how often do restaurants tie in with traffic court? — whipped up so much interest from local media that Bay Area residents showed a renewed interest in Buttercup’s 22-year-old location in Walnut Creek, Calif.

“It’s different, and that’s the point,” said Benjamin Shahvar, who runs operations for Buttercup and is one of two sons working alongside owners Debbie and David Shahvar. “We have to think of other ways to give people a reason to come in and to promote our business. We thought we’d introduce a fun promotion that would stick out.”

Media circus

In that sense, the offer exceeded expectations and piqued the interest of the local media, Shahvar said. Two TV stations reported on the program, as did two local newspapers.

The goal was to get Buttercup’s name circulating around the Bay Area again, he added, because while customers at the Walnut Creek diner and the company’s four other restaurants had been loyal, casual customers hadn’t heard much out of Buttercup for a while.

“I thought we’d always done a good job operationally, we just needed to get people coming in,” Shahvar said. “I would say about 80 percent of our customers are repeat. Once people try us, they tend to come back.”

He adamantly believed that the promotion worked, despite zero redemptions. While he couldn’t peg a concrete number for traffic increases or same-store sales to the offer, he added anecdotally that traffic court staff loved the idea and that many of the new faces in the diner said they stopped in after hearing about “Innocent Until Proven Hungry” on the TV or radio.

Who needs metrics?

Andrew Freeman, chief executive of San Francisco-based Andrew Freeman & Co., the marketing firm that developed the offer, also didn’t worry about its lack of statistics for measuring return on investment.

“When we decided to do it, we knew it wouldn’t drive that much business,” Freeman said. “We did it more for the public relations. The media attention has been hysterical … and the media glommed on to it because they hadn’t heard from this restaurant for a while. If it pops sales at lunch, that’s secondary. Other things are driving covers.”

Buttercup has started to get meaningful redemptions from its Dessert of the Month loyalty club, and the restaurant will increase its use of direct mail and e-mail marketing to encourage repeat business. Debbie Shahvar also has won over many local media members by dropping by their offices with one of Buttercup’s pies whenever the diner features a new flavor.

“My No. 1 marketing rule is: Walk outside, look left, look right, and walk around the block,” Freeman said. “Ask who else is here that I could partner with where it would be a win-win for us both.”

Another local-store marketing advocate, Linda Duke, chief executive of San Rafael, Calif.-based Duke Marketing and author of “Four Star Restaurant Marketing Cookbook,” agreed that every restaurant is located next to something, and therein almost always lies an opportunity.

“Whether it’s Buttercup next to traffic court or another restaurant next to a jail, every single brand has something unique in its 3-to-5-mile radius,” Duke said. “No matter how old your restaurant is, finding something relevant locally and creating a promotion for it can breathe new life into your brand. It’s never too late.”

Even if nobody showed up with a “not guilty” verdict for the free entrée, she said, the promotion worked because people still showed up after hearing about it.

“PR pays off, period,” Duke said. “Whether they’re inviting convicted felons in or whatever, what you want is to create awareness or drive sales. They would’ve been more successful if the offer had been more easily redeemable, but it was so catchy. The sweet spot is creating something that’s very PR-worthy and with something to redeem.”

A favorable judgment

In the end, Shahvar said, getting the staff ready for the promotion and the renewed interest in Buttercup did not require much incremental training or planning.

“The only training involved was how to handle the local Fox affiliate calling, because I can’t be at the restaurant 24/7,” Shahvar said. “So when a reporter calls and asks, the staff needs to know all the angles of the promotions.”

The Shahvars and Andrew Freeman & Co. still made sure to cover all the angles of the offer and to preserve as much flexibility as possible to modify or extend it if needed.

“We were a little skeptical at first because it was so unorthodox,” Shahvar said. “I’m vice president of operations, so I was concerned about the ops side. What would be the rules, what do [customers] bring in, and when do they bring it in? But once we worked out the details, we thought it’d be fun.”

Solidifying ground rules also clarified the crucial exit strategy, Freeman said.

“Make sure there are no loopholes and that you have the proper restrictions,” he said, while acknowledging that no would-be crooks tried to swindle Buttercup by redeeming a “guilty” verdict. “Put a short time limit on the promotion, too, because if it’s successful you can always extend it. And if it’s too successful, you can cut it off and say, ‘It was a great success, and we’ll bring it back next year.’”

Contact Mark Brandau at [email protected]