If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? If you've done your wizardry in the kitchen but no one sits at your table, will your operation be successful? The answer to the first question is debatable, but the answer to the second is not. To keep and grow your customers, promotion is key. Tactical promotion builds temporary interest while strategic promotion helps achieve long-term business goals.
A combination of the two boosts interest quarter to quarter while building a lasting customer base. Read on to find out how this mix of operators uses promotions to meet a variety of goals.
Strengthening the Vendor Connection
Maine Medical Center addeda wider variety of protein to its salad bar to appeal to low-carb diet customers.
Hold vendors accountable for sales and you'll see results. That's the approach Director Mary Keysor and Retail Manager Gerry Goulet take at Maine Medical Center, Portland.
“We put the vendors to work,” says Keysor. “We tell them up front, ‘we are paying you a lot of money and giving you prime real estate in a very tight space. Prove to us that it's worth giving you that space.'”
So far this tactic has worked. Recently, for example, Keysor and Goulet worked closely with a major snack-food vendor to reorganize the snack area of MMC's retail venue, Impressions Cafè.
“We wanted to create a different look and add new products without detracting from the success of the products we already stock,” says Keysor. The vendor brought in a new display rack system and was instrumental in helping promote new brands, and also in tracking sales and profits. The result was an 11% increase in snack food sales.
Keysor and her team are very methodical in their approach to working with their vendors, particularly on the retail side. Each year the staff establishes a retail plan that essentially spells out what needs to happen to meet the department's overall budget and revenue targets.
Goulet meets with one vendor at a time to review costs and profits, and also to communicate the department's expectations for the real estate that each vendor occupies. In addition to providing quarterly sales/profit reports, each vendor is expected to help increase sales by bringing in new products and marketing them effectively. As Keysor points out, floor space in each retail area is limited, so “no sales, no service—no space!”
While the vendor connection is certainly an important part of the overall strategic plan, it's not the only part. Keysor and her team are constantly developing promotions and programs to keep up with customers' changing demands. For example, the low-carb craze has been the springboard for several new retail promotions. One example, a new line of fat-free/sugar-free gelatin and pudding parfaits, is going gangbusters, bringing in as much as $800 per week. “When we introduced the parfaits, it was only to see if we could bring in a low-carb dessert that would cost little to make, but still bring in a profit,” says Keysor. Initially the parfaits were meant for the patient side of the business, and were introduced into the cafè almost as an afterthought. Turns out the desserts were somewhat of a bust on the patient side but a boom to the cafè. Some promotions, such as the parfaits, aren't designed to be long-or short-term,” says Keysor. “They are simply a response to what we think will work.”
Others are clearly long-term commitments with long-term benefits. Take, for example, another Atkins-inspired promotion, a protein-packed salad bar recently introduced in the main cafeteria. “We changed our salad bar dramatically, adding up to eight new sources of protein, including chicken, beef strips, tuna, low fat cottage cheese, turkey, etc. It is a huge commitment,” says Keysor, and one that the department has no plans of abandoning. “We are not promoting the low carb diet but rather increasing choices for our customers who want more protein choices for their salads, hoping to sell more salads. And we are and I think that is a good thing.”
Other recent retail successes have included additions to the beverage line, which gave beverage sales a healthy 4% boost, and a new candy line to take the place of bulk candy. “The bulk candy was serve-yourself and we were very concerned with sanitation,” says Keysor. “Getting rid of the bulk candy was a big change for us and we received a lot of customer complaints at first, but it was the best thing we ever did. The new system keeps the floor much cleaner and we don't have sanitation issues.”
Education Through Promotions
Fairfax County Schools' Energy Zone “Fitness Challenge” is keyed to encouraging physical fitness among students and their families.
As Director of Food and Nutrition for Fairfax County Public Schools, Fairfax, VA, Penny McConnell lives by the philosophy, “We talk nutrition, we serve nutrition and we teach nutrition.”
“This is the foundation of all promotions in our child nutrition program,” she says. “Every promotion, which has the ultimate goal of increasing participation and, in turn, business, must have a nutrition base.”
For example, to keep fruits and veggies top-of-mind, monthly menus are adorned with character fruits and vegetables, and each month celebrates a different variety— some familiar, some not so familiar. The program is called “Give me Five! Colors that Jive!” Special K-6 nutrition education activities are designed to help reinforce this message in the classroom. Teachers can also go online for fruit and veggie trivia to supplement their lesson plans.
New this year, Food and Nutrition Services is rolling out Calcium 3, a customized promotion touting the benefits of calcium at every meal and showing how to select snacks wisely in order to assist middle and high school students to make wise a la carte selections. Specially designed posters hang in the dining rooms and new activities, such as puzzles and lesson plans, are available for classroom use.
While nutritious food is certainly key to a healthy lifestyle, just as important is physical activity. Enter the Energy Zone Fitness Challenge. In its fourth year, the sixmonth program is aimed at getting students and their families up and moving through physical activities. This year's Challenge is based on “10,000 steps a day.” Faculties from five elementary schools will work with the Energy Zone Team to pilot the new program. Participants are given a nutrition booklet and a stepometer to record how many steps they walk on a daily basis. Each school is responsible for coming up with prizes for the winning faculty. Meanwhile, every participant who completes the challenge gets a T-shirt and kudos from McConnell and her team. “This activity promotes the role of food and nutrition services as the voice for nutrition and wellness in the school district,” explains McConnell.
Another program, 5 Star Lunch, is designed to not only help primary school students understand lunch choices but also to realize why selecting a complete lunch is so important. Colored stars are used to identify the five components of a reimbursable lunch—blue for milk, red for meat/meat alternative, yellow for bread, and two green stars indicating fruits and veggies. In the classroom, teachers are doing their part by instructing K-2 students on making wise lunch selections.
“Promotions like these add excitement to our program, which in turn, increases participation and revenue,” says McConnell. “Ultimately, this ensures that we remain a self-supporting program.”
Promos in Provo
BrighamYoung University promotes its Legends Grille on weblinked CD-ROMS that explain meal plans to students and parents.
Brigham Young University, Provo, UT, has a two-pronged approach to promotion, seeking to attract the ever-changing student segment with short-term incentives while also appealing to long-term faculty and staff with extended-run deals.
One way BYU foodservice builds loyalty over the long haul is “A Taste of Catering,” according to Dean Wright, director of dining services. The event is held each fall, with major catering clients as well as department heads and staff assistants receiving two tickets with more available for purchase by the larger university community.
“In a three-hour block, we conduct a food show where we display all of our foods in a tasting-type setting,” he says. “Guests receive a 12-minute orientation and then are led to a banquet room into different areas, each a theme such as holidays or tailgating. It is one of the most enjoyable programs we on campus and people really look forward to it.”
The payback on A Taste of Catering and similar promotions is not a tangible increase in sales, according to Wright, but a means to stabilize sales and retain a solid customer base. Another example of that is Juice for Life, which promotes benefits of juice.
Beginning November 30, an American Idol-type contest will allow contestants to perform songs or create commercials touting the health benefits of juice. First-place winners will receive $1,500 in Delta Airlines tickets, with second-place winners earning $1,000 worth of Amtrak tickets and third-place finishers walking away with $500 gas cards. The prize budget for this promotion tops out at $5,000, and the timing of the contest draws interest from students looking for an economical way to get home for the holidays.
There is no direct monetary gain from the contest, but the focus on healthy juice and the awarding of prizes builds a sales base of juice drinkers as well as a sense of loyalty to BYU foodservice from participants.
Of course, other BYU foodservice promotions pay big to the bottom line. One is Juice Bucks, where students collect a Juice Buck with every purchase, to be used in an auction at the end of the semester. The prizes often in to a local theme. For example,” recalls Wright, “when Salt Lake hosted the 2002 Winter Olympics, we gave away tickets for the Opening Ceremonies, and students really excited about that.” How excited? Wright estimates Juice Bucks results in a 150% food-sales increase.
Also expected to boost sales frequency-card campaign, scheduled for rollout this fall. After nine purchases, the card redeemed for a free food item. We could give away a sports bag full of jerky and people are just as excited,” he offers. Students visit a specially built website to find out if they've won.
The program is promoted in commercials and short movies played on the football stadium scoreboard as well as on web-linked CD-ROMs that explain meal plans and allow students and parents to link directly to a website sign up.
“The cost to produce this CD is one third of what we've spent in the past to send printed material,” says Wright.
High-tech has a high payoff at BYU, but the foodservice operation is not afraid to go with the tried and true. A relationship with local sportstalk-radio host Bill Riley is a moneymaker for BYU. On Friday nights, Riley hosts his popular show at the university's Legends Grille, a sports restaurant without a bar. During the show, dinner sales at the restaurant jump by $500.
Another example: pizza coupons. Wright estimates that 18% of pizza sales result from coupons placed in a local paper at least once a week, and non-coupon sales surely have benefited from the publicity of such print advertising.
” Two years ago we went an entire semester just advertising once every other week in the newspaper,” recalls Wright. “We discovered a 40% drop in pizza sales and attributed that to the decrease in couponing. We gained back that 40% sales loss just by placing our ad back into the paper at least once a week. We did not change the pricing or the recipe, it was just the notion that you've got to keep the concept of food in front of the public.”
To reach customers outside the university, the foodservice operation airs short spots on local public radio and television.
“In one spot, we say, ‘for over 50 years, the BYU creamery has been making ice cream,'” explains Wright. “If we run it at 10 p.m., just before the station runs its halfhour BBC news program, by 10:45, after the news, we see an increase in people coming in to buy ice cream.”
In all of these promotions, you'll notice the lack of discounts on food items. “We'll bundle meals and offer combination meals and such, but we try our best not to give discounts,” says Wright. “We feel that our pricing is fair, and I believe that if you discount, you're admitting that you charge too much.”
Putting the ‘Cool' in School Lunches
Aramark's “12-Spot”promotion was designed tomake healthful eating “cool” to students.
Good promotion need not result from a solitary quest—partnership can pay off. Case in point is the Wilkes County, NC, school district, with 10,700 students spread over 21 schools. It agreed to be one of the first districts to adopt three promotion programs launched by its foodservice provider, Philadelphia-based Aramark Corp. All three— U.B.U. Lounge, 12 Spot and Celebrity Lunch Lady—are designed to make healthy eating cool for middle-and high-school students. The programs mesh with the district's goal “to increase participation of students in the Type-A lunch program,” says Donna Cartwright, district foodservice director. “We are trying to take the stigma away from school lunch, and these promotions do that very effectively.”
The programs resulted from Aramark research showing that students didn't feel like they fit into typical school lunchroom environments, according to Carolina Lobo, Aramark vice president of marketing for school support services.
For grades 6-8, 12 Spot (referencing 12 o'clock noon) features healthy menu items in entertaining packaging. Menu choices in 12 Spot include the Meatball Bomber, spaghetti and meatballs wrapped and baked with mozzarella cheese in a pizza-dough pocket; The Inside-Outer, a grilled cheese sandwich with a twist-grilled inside out on a hamburger bun and served with tomato soup; and Beef-a-yaki, beef slices cooked with sesame seeds in a teriyaki sauce and served with rice.
“The 12 Spot is a place where students can hang out with their friends in an environment that reflects their lifestyle,” says Lobo.
Images in 12 Spot locations integrate sports, music and seasonal activities, and switches the menu to reflect the seasons in a school year.
“You'll have soups and sandwiches for the fall, carve stations and comfort foods in winter and lighter fare such as salad shakers and yogurt parfaits in the spring,” she explains.
Like 12 Spot, U.B.U. Lounge focuses on environments and healthy dining, but is geared toward high schoolers. U.B.U. Lounge features bright wall colors, sophisticated lighting, new food packaging and student-lounge areas complete with furniture, music and huge graphics of fellow teens. Here, students can feast on fare such as Chicken Grande, which includes chicken, rice, beans, salsa and cheeses wrapped and baked in a tortilla and served with a cilantro lime sauce; Santa Fe Turkey, featuring turkey, ham, bacon and cheddar cheese baked with chili mayo in a sub roll; and So-Sesame Chicken, where diced chicken is cooked with sesame seeds in a teriyaki sauce and served with rice.
Though just being implemented in Wilkes County and many other districts across the nation, Aramark reports that early indications nationwide show that the two programs have resulted in increased meal counts and participation rates.
The third program, Celebrity Lunch Lady, targets students in grades 6-12, by featuring young celebrities—singer and actor Aaron Carter is the first—as “lunch ladies” who promote nutritious eating through in-school advertisements, point-of-sale collateral, posters, book covers, vinyl clings, food packaging, signage and a new website, www.celebritylunchlady.com (Note: Web site is no longer live).
“The promotions are fresh and new, and the students are responding to that,” says Cartwright. “The bad word is ‘stagnation.' You never want to get to the point where students know what to expect.”
Don't Stop Banging the Buck
In pricing, the cost of an item is whatever customers are willing to pay for it,” believes Paul Caron, director of dining services for Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield in North Haven, CT. That's why when it comes to promotions, he plays the numbers game, always searching for the magic number that sells products and still brings in a profit.
“Pricing specials make customers happy because they feel like they are getting something more for their money. Everybody likes a deal but as an operator, you still have to make a profit,” he says.
This philosophy has definitely paid off for Caron, who has seen sales increase each of the 24 years he's headed this self-operated B&I facility.
Pricing specials and interesting promotions put the cafè in a positive light, says Caron, “I want people to see the cafè as a place that offers good value, good food and good pricing.”
To help promote his own promotions, Caron enlists the services of corporate communications via the company newsletter. Cafè Corner gives employees a menu rundown and a heads-up to cafeteria specials. He also works closely with Human Resources to ensure new employees get the full cafè tour, and he has even partnered with the department to provide new associates with free lunch their first week on the job. “You've got to get brand new customers on the bandwagon,” he says.
One of the employees' favorite “blue-light” dining specials involves the ever popular salad bar, offered at 10 cents less per ounce. “I try to offer items that have a higher perceived value, including cabbage, barley or couscous salad, which are also heavier items,” explains Caron. “The customers are happy because they are getting a lower salad bar price but I am making the same or higher profit margin because of the things I'm offering on that salad bar.”
Another favorite deal is one that bundles two slices of pizza with a free 20-ounce dispensed beverage. Because the department makes its own pizza from scratch, the promotion is inexpensive, yet brings in a healthy profit. Says Caron, “We are selling as many as four extra pizzas per day through this promotion so it's paying for itself.”
To keep the menu fresh, Caron keeps a watchful eye on QSR menu trends, often visiting area mall food courts to see which specials are attracting customers and duplicating those items in his own operation. “I learn from the fast-food guys,” he says. “They keep specials going until they stop banging the buck and then they change to something else.” Caron cites a new popular fast-food selection, the crunchy chicken salad, that he plans to imitate using a cost-effective popcorn-type chicken. And who does all his promotion? “The big guys on T.V.,” he says. “I'm just making my customers comfortable by offering them the same foods here that they eat at home on the weekends.”
Caron advises other operators to be flexible and creative with the menu, and willing to experiment with pricing. “When I introduce a new menu item I usually price it a bit low and tweak it as its popularity increases,” he explains. “Eventually I know I can't go over a certain amount and that's when I've found the magic number.”
Building Community through Branding
USC's Michael Gratz developed a long-term promotional plan to support a re-naming of the Hospitality Services department.
The University of Southern California is looking at the value of a name. To communicate the consistency the Hospitality Services team has achieved and to continue building customer-loyalty, the department has been renamed Trojan Hospitality (the university's nickname is the Trojans). And in the process, a unique brand is born.
“Trojan Hospitality is a brand name that instills a sense of quality to the campus and supports the university's academic mission in a much bigger way,” explains Director Michael Gratz. “The attributes that we wanted to reflect through our brand are professionalism, performance excellence, Trojan spirit and a sense of being a part of the Trojan family. By reflecting these attributes, the brand promise to our customers supports the overall USC brand promise that we are delivering on.”
Creating the brand has been a partnership between USC and an outside company that specializes in brand-identity building. “We've identified key areas that will drive our business and help us internally to become a stronger partner with USC,” explains Gratz.
A new custom-designed Trojan Hospitality brand system now adorns not only foodservice employee uniforms, but also all campus signage, menu boards and communication materials such as newsletters.
“The idea is to have one seamless brand identity linking all of our facilities,” says Gratz. “We want to maintain consistency across campus and build our professional image with the students.” Creating an emotional link to the “Trojan family” was a key part of the plan.
“This is a big rollout for us,” he adds, the timing of which coincides with USC's 125th anniversary celebration. “On average, we generate anywhere from 25,000 to 35,000 transactions per day. As we generate each one, we want to make sure that our customers are exposed to high quality levels,” says Gratz, “and that they understand that foodservice is just one more example of how USC as an academic institution is constantly raising the bar.
“This is an important strategic goal,” he adds. “We have to support USC's academic mission as the university moves forward.”
One way in which foodservice serves a strong supporting role is by catering to the tastes of its large international student population (21%). “That clearly drives our menu,” says Gratz. “On the culinary side, we try to keep our ears to the ground, not just in what students want, but also in terms of what ethnic restaurants are featuring and how those items could be applied in our environment. Our chef typically frequents ethnic restaurants to create different palates and menu items.”
Really understanding what it is your customers want is part of the successful promotion equation. Gratz and his team conduct yearly surveys, paying particular attention to two questions, What do you eat when you eat off campus? and Why do you use our campus foodservice facility?
“For the last three years, the number-one reason why customers eat on campus is that they believe we have the best quality,” Gratz proudly states. One example of a customer wish come true is a new sub sandwich concept called Malibu Subs that opened this fall under the Trojan Hospitality brand. With its extreme sports motif and high quality sandwiches, the sub shop holds a lot of promise. Gratz and his team did their homework on this project. “Before opening, we did regular tastings on campus to make sure the flavor profiles and quality of the sandwiches met customers' expectations,” says Gratz. “We expect this promotion and other developments to increase customer loyalty, boost the number of transactions, and, through word of mouth, really build our brand.”
When it comes to promotional advice, Gratz has plenty to say. “The best way to meet your customers expectations is to really learn what they want, on and off campus. Build on their expectations and don't hold back,” he says. “Continue driving your culinary program and become a partner in the process; understand your customers.
“I believe we in the college and university segment have an opportunity to be very creative because we have an audience that's willing to consider new things,” he continues.
“Our market offers tremendous opportunity for test marketing and showcasing new products and, in the process, building long-term customer loyalty.”
Dean Wright, director of dining services at Brigham Young University, offers these tips on optimizing the sales drive: