How do you get attention for a new restaurant?
Even for chains with a healthy advertising budget, existing brand awareness, and some pent-up demand, this is a challenge.
But for independent places with none of the above advantages, it is a whole lot harder.
Because while we all need to eat, we are also spoiled for choice. In most cities, there are restaurants that serve pretty good food around every corner.
This helps explain why so many go out of business. Even in a good year, the proportion of restaurants that fail is three times higher than other kinds of business.
This was the problem facing Howard Wein when he moved to Philadelphia in 2004 and decided to open a boutique steakhouse.
Wein had plenty of experience at the top end of hospitality, having helped launch the plush W hotel brand.
But this restaurant, which he named Barclay Prime, would be without any corporate support.
And although it was located in the right part of town, had an interior to die for, and a menu that included such delicacies as line-caught Halibut FedExed overnight from Alaska, Wein knew this far from a guaranteed success.
As Jonah Berger recounts in his book ‘Contagious’, Wein knew he needed to cut through the noise and get people talking. He settled on a hundred-dollar cheesesteak.
This was no ordinary cheesesteak. It featured “thinly sliced Kobe beef, triple-cream Taleggio cheese and shaved hand-harvested black truffles.” According to one customer, “it was like eating gold.”
But mostly, by elevating a humble dish to an expensive luxury, it created a buzz.
“The Discovery Channel filmed a segment for its Best Food Ever show. David Beckham had one when he was in town. David Letterman invited Barclay’s executive chef to New York to cook him one on the Late Show. All that buzz for what is still, at its heart, just a sandwich,” explains Berger.
“The buzz helped. Against the odds, the restaurant has not only survived but flourished. It has won food awards and is listed among the best steakhouses. But more importantly, it built a following. Barclay Prime caught on.”