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Restaurants gear up for Cinco de Mayo

Mexican food chains plan parties and specials to boost sales on holiday

Fred Kirvan, president of the eight-unit fast-casual chain Desert Moon Fresh Mexican Grille, equates Cinco de Mayo, the Mexican holiday celebrating the country’s victory over the French in the Battle of Puebla in 1862, with another American day of retail and restaurant excess.

“Cinco de Mayo is our Black Friday,” he said of May 5, which he called “the only day all year when all people are thinking about Mexican food.”

Desert Moon said sales on Cinco de Mayo are double a typical day’s revenues every year.

“We all look to take advantage leading up to May 5 and after,” Kirvan said. “We see people we may not have seen before, so we need to capture them as guests and get them to come back again. Our lines are always out the door.”

Mexican chains in all segments of the foodservice industry will attempt to capitalize on the popularity of Cinco de Mayo on Thursday, not only by running specials and promotions but also by creating a party atmosphere in the restaurants for revelers.

The timing of the holiday is especially advantageous this year, Kirvan said, because Cinco de Mayo will deliver a rush of traffic all day Thursday, which the chain can follow up with steady covers on Friday and Saturday going into Mother’s Day on Sunday. While Mother’s Day typically isn’t a big holiday for Desert Moon, it should book-end a strong week of sales, Kirvan said. His concept — which has locations in Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York and New Jersey — is forecasting an increase in weekly sales between 20 percent and 30 percent this week.

Desert Moon said it would rely on local-store marketing and social media to drive eight similar but different celebrations for Desert Moon — all likely complete with large sombreros, bounce-back coupon offers, mariachi bands, and games for kids, Kirvan said.

Other chains with a larger reach also will emphasize local marketing rather than a national push to promote Cinco de Mayo events and specials. A spokeswoman representing Qdoba Mexican Grill said the more than 500-unit chain does not advertise the same promotions nationally for Cinco de Mayo but encourages each local marketing team to promote the holiday in its own way.

For example, the brand’s Denver and Chicago corporate markets are running a catering offer through May 8, in which groups of 10 to 15 people ordering a hot-bar setup receive two free entrées and groups of 20 or more get four free entrees. Qdoba restaurants in Baton Rouge, La., are throwing an all-day celebration with a burrito-eating contest, a DJ, and free chips and salsa for the first 100 people in the door.

Casual-dining chains, meanwhile, are pushing drink specials for the holiday. On The Border got a head start on promoting Cinco de Mayo by hosting a “countdown party” last Thursday with specials likely to be repeated Thursday. On Facebook, the chain promoted parties with specials on margaritas and buckets of Mexican beers, as well as an appearance by an impersonator of Dos Equis mascot The Most Interesting Man in the World.

In the Northeast, the 24-unit Margaritas Mexican Restaurant casual-dining chain is hosting Cinco de Mayo parties themed with their brand mascot, Hector the Paper Mache Cockatoo, and specials varied from location to location.

The largest casual-dining brand with a Mexican bent, Chili’s Bar and Grill, used the week of Cinco de Mayo to tout its Margarita Madness promotion. Customers were encourage to order one of the 1,500-plus-unit chain’s 14 signature margaritas, take a picture of themselves drinking it and uploading the photos online. Winners drawn from those submissions could win $20 Chili’s gift cards or one of three trips for two to a Caribbean destination.

Back at Desert Moon, Kirvan said the time and money needed to maximize throughput while throwing a party for Cinco de Mayo are easily worth the potential to double sales in one day.

“Food court and fast-casual locations are built for speed; you can only have so many people manning the cold table or the register,” Kirvan said. “We’re going to add maybe one or two people on the floor at $8 an hour, so it’s a much smaller chunk on the labor side. Twice the sales don’t need twice the people. It’s more about the prep side.”

He noted that the extra traffic from new or lapsed users is just as great a benefit as the incremental revenue.

“It’s our holiday, even if it’s an Americanized version of a Mexican celebration,” Kirvan said. “It really presents a chance for us to get new guests. They think Mexican is greasy fried food, and we’re not that, so it’s a big opportunity.”

Contact Mark Brandau at [email protected].

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