Operators spur sales, boost brand image with free meals

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Frank Minier loves to joke about not getting a slice of the government's $750 billion bailout pie this year, but that's not stopping him from giving friendly freebies to his customers.

To spur word-of-mouth marketing for his two Laguna Grille restaurants on Long Island near New York City, he launched his "Bailout Program," in which he comps the meals of guests at one table per shift, per restaurant. No one knows who will get the prize until Minier draws that table's number from a pot.

Just one day after he launched the program, crowds — with TV news crews in tow — packed his restaurants hoping for some gratis grub.

“The lady in the couple who won, she said to her husband, ‘See? I was right when I convinced you to come out today, and something good happened!’” he said. “Maybe he didn't feel like coming out, maybe he was down because of this economy, and now this happens to them. Nothing makes you happier than that.”

Despite the ample warm fuzzies his giveaways generate, Minier said it's all about marketing, all about making his brand more familiar.

Mike Jacobs followed that same line of thinking when he launched his “Pink Slip Payback” program at his Beef 'O' Brady's franchise in Sunrise, Fla. Until March 15, any unemployed person who brings a termination letter to the restaurant will receive a free entrée and unlimited non-alcoholic beverages. Guests 21 years or older can choose between one free draft beer or glass of house wine. The restaurant has wireless Internet access, which allows visitors to job surf while enjoying their free meal.

“The point is to get more traffic, get more customer e-mails, get more people off the fence and generate trial,” said Jacobs, who got permission from Beef's corporate offices to launch the promo. So far, a mix of jobless blue-collar and white-collar workers has enjoyed the offer. “As a company, Beef 'O' Brady's stresses getting involved in the community … and doing things that create goodwill and repeat guests,” he said. “We expect this will do that.”

Miami-based Pollo Tropical launched a more formal meal giveaway Jan. 5 at all 90 of its units. Through bag stuffers and tray liners, the chain is promoting a “Families Eat Free for a Year” program that drives consumers to its website to sign up. Customers get a chance to win $800 worth of free food, which equates to a meal a week for 52 weeks, while the chain gains permission to market to them through e-mail.

Senior director of marketing Kim Miller said a similar program run last year reached out to new customers, but this one rewards current customers.

“Taking care of the folks who already are good to you is marketing 101,” she said. Helping customers save money is only one goal of the program, while development of the chain’s Web marketing arm is the larger aim, she said. “Our customers tell us in our surveys that they want to be alerted [through the Web] to deals we're offering,” she said.

Of the conditions Minier placed on his Bailout winners, providing an e-mail address or other contact info wasn't one of them.

“I just didn't want to do that, didn't want to ask them to give something back to us,” he said. “But I do ask them to tip the server at least 50 percent, and I asked them to promise to tell their friends about it.”

Since Minier has no idea which table's bill will be comped — “It could be a party of two or maybe a party of six, but it doesn't matter,” he said — he estimates he'll give away between $1,000 and $1,500 in menu-priced food and drink weekly.

When Jacobs tallied his potential investment, he said he figured it at $1,000 “of raw food cost. I'm guessing about 20 people a week will come get it.” Whether they choose an order of wings or Beef's most expensive steak “doesn't matter to me. If that's what they want, they can have it,” he said.

The appeal of Minier's Bailout promo, which is scheduled to run through April 30, made carryout customers at one store envious of the sit-down crowd. So now he's considering extending the favor to diners eating on the hoof.

“Ninety percent of the business in my Woodbury store is takeout, and one of my customers said, ‘Hey, Frank, what about doing something for us?’” he said. “Why not? It could be a great thing. A free meal for the fiftieth carryout customer — that can work.”