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Getting patrons to foot the marketing bill

LOUISVILLE Ky. Nearly every marketing program is expensive—unless you get your customers to pay for it.

Napa River Grill here did just that prior to moving from a nearly 40-year old building to a custom-built facility in June. Seeking to position their California-themed, fine-dining spot as the town’s top table, co-owners J.D. Rothberg and Simon Fields created the Vineyard Club.

The strategy was simple: 24 members pony up $25,000 apiece to receive $33,000 in food and beverage credits. Members also would get pampering nonpareil: concierge service for event planting; in-house floral service; exclusive wine sourcing and cellaring; and first dibs on prime seats at Napa’s outdoor fire tables and its exclusive Vineyard Room.

Knowing birds of a feather flock together, Rothberg bet well-heeled Vineyard Club members would entertain their equally affluent and influential friends and business associates, and give newcomers the chance to taste, see and enjoy Napa River firsthand.

“On a $25,000 membership, when you factor in our margins, we’re probably giving away $3,000 dollars,” said Rothberg. “To me, those are marketing dollars spent showing off our place to new people. Club members are influential people in this town, and so are their friends.”

Rothberg said he and Fields got the idea for their club from Cincinnati-based Jeff Ruby Culinary Entertainment (parent of five fine-dining restaurant concepts, including Jeff Ruby’s Steakhouse), whose Platinum Members club functions similarly. Rothberg sought Ruby for advice on starting Napa River’s version, but he got no response. (Calls made by Nation’s Restaurant News to Ruby were not returned by press time.)

Ironically, the Vineyard Club marketing plan needed its own marketing, which began last year as private discussion with Napa River regulars to gauge interest. Lobby signs were posted in the restaurant shortly before shuttering the old facility, and detailed brochures were made available to several hundred attendees of a lavish ribbon-cutting party in June. Rothberg said he’ll soon start buying ads in a Louisville publication targeted to business executives.

“We want to see if [business press advertising] can’t get us three or four new corporate members,” said Rothberg, adding that he’s halfway to his goal of 24 total members. “Right now, I’ve got three corporations in town who are members, but I think there are many more who don’t know what we’re doing. Once they understand the plan, I think they’ll find this attractive.”

Colin Underhill does and made his company, Underhill Associates, a member early on. The commercial real estate development firm serves business owners who prefer confidentiality when doing business around the dinner table. Napa River’s private dining rooms have private phone lines and high-tech audio-visual equipment suitable for presentations.

Underhill plainly admits he likes the TLC Vineyard Club membership affords.

“It’s nice to take people I do business with to a really nice restaurant where we get this kind of preferential treatment,” he said. “They make you feel a lot more important than you are, and when you’re around people you’re trying to have some influence over, it makes a really good impression.”

Not that Underhill is beyond using the club for fun, too.

“There are times when we’ll have a big family birthday party, 25 people, get a whole room for ourselves where we can sing and act like idiots if we want,” he said. “Recently I called the restaurant because my grandparents needed to get in on short notice, and they handled that. They know who you are and they take really good care of you.”

Still, both Rothberg and Underhill are businessmen who demand a return on their Vineyard Club investments. Rothberg said the interest-free cash infusion undeniably benefits the business, and since members aren’t likely to use all their credits quickly, that leaves a short-term cash cushion to help pay for modifications to the restaurant.

Underhill called his membership fee “an investment that returns 30 percent” and allows him, in turn, to market his own company. “Paying $25,000 and getting $33,000 worth of food and drinks makes a ton of sense. Where else in the market are you going to get a 30 percent return on your money? It’s a great business decision for us.”

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