Restaurant promotions leverage presidential election

BLT Steak, Boston Market, California Tortilla, Legal Sea Foods and zpizza are using the upcoming election as a marketing platform

Pizza Hut may have elected to end its giveaway tied to Tuesday night’s presidential debate [3], but many restaurant brands are still finding ways to use election season as their own platform for promotions, increasingly for profit-driving ends like bolstering their loyalty clubs, but more often just for fun.

Laguna Beach, Calif.-based zpizza, a chain of more than 100 locations, is executing its own campaign in which brand founder Sid Fanarof is running for president on the “Pizza Party” ticket. Between Oct. 6 and Election Day, customers were invited to join zpizza’s loyalty club, zTribe, to be entered into weekly drawings for prizes.

On Nov. 6, the chain will roll back its prices to what they were in 1986, the year zpizza was founded, offering slices for $1.25.

The theme of “just prizes, no politics” was important to Fanarof, because he felt the promotion would have the greatest chance of succeeding if zpizza remained apolitical in appearance and intent. “There was a concern that people may take it a little too seriously,” Fanarof said. “But you just have to stay as neutral as you can. We modified our posters when they seemed to lean too much toward one party.”

For that reason, zpizza also opted against a popular style of election-year promotion, having two menu items stand in as surrogates for the presidential candidates and asking guests to “vote” with their orders. “We have people of both political persuasions, and they’ll vote their conscience regardless of what we do,” Fanarof said. “We don’t see any connection at all between our menu items and being able to predict the outcome of the election.”

But many chains are counting on people to take sides in their election-themed promotions by ordering one partisan menu item over another. California Tortilla’s quadrennial promotion to pit two candidates’ burrito bowls against one another this year features the Obama’s Chicken Teriyaki Luau Bowl versus the Romney’s Mexican Mitt-Loaf Bowl. The Rockville, Md.-based chain has 40 locations throughout Maryland, the District of Columbia and swing state Virginia.

Earlier this fall, Boston Market launched new Market Bowl menu options with an election season twist [7], asking consumers to cast a vote for either “right wing” turkey or “left wing” chicken via its Market Bowl Poll website [8]. The online votes will be tallied on Nov. 7 to determine the winning fowl.

Legal Sea Foods also will have dueling “Blue Plate” and “Red Plate” specials. The Blue Plate pays tribute to the president’s Hawaiian heritage with macadamia-coconut-crusted mahi mahi with roasted Brussels sprouts in a lime-butter sauce. The Red Plate plays off Mitt Romney’s experience as governor of Massachusetts and includes pan-seared cod with steamed spaghetti squash in bourbon-lobster-cream sauce. Both are priced at $25.95.

Roger Berkowitz, chief executive of 30-unit Legal Sea Foods, said in a statement that the “deliciously partisan plates” should appeal to both sides of the aisle. “Fish is healthy, so you have health care covered,” he said. “The price is attractive, so the economy will be bolstered. Both menu items are American-made, so it helps with jobs and the trade deficit. And as far as entitlements, we feel everyone is entitled to a delicious meal every day.”

BLT Steak, a chain of 11 high-end restaurants, is involving the vice presidential candidates as well with four signature burgers. The Obama burger tops a beef patty with grilled pineapple and speck, while the Romney includes Utah-style pastrami and “fry sauce.” The burger named for Joe Biden is topped with American cheese and Sloppy Joe meat, while the item in honor of Paul Ryan features Wisconsin Cheddar, Nueske bacon, grilled apple and beer-battered onion rings.

Fanarof of zpizza said the most important objective of this promotion for his brand is to reinvest whatever gains come from more loyalty club members or higher traffic on Election Day. While he opted against getting customers to vote through the menu, he said he still wanted the brand’s customers to be aware of their civic duties.

“There are political implications to the cost of pizza, because commodity inflation and global warming are linked closely with politics,” he said. “So even with pizza, it’s hard to stay apolitical sometimes, but we’ll leave those decisions to the voters. We just want people to know they have a choice.”

Contact Mark Brandau at [email protected] [9].
Follow him on Twitter: @Mark_from_NRN [10]