Food & Drink

What problem does your restaurant solve?

Ptomaine poisoning. What a great problem that was. It’s what some people thought killed President Harding.

Since then, we’ve discovered that ptomaines—a group of amine compounds in putrefying animal and vegetable matter that stink and taste bad—aren’t actually what cause food poisoning. However, if you were travelling around before reliable refrigeration was common, you had to size up a restaurant before trusting it with your gut.

Food safety and hygiene were really clear, really horrible and really great problems that restaurant and restaurant marketing could help solve.

Over and over in history, smart people see a problem, and solve it with a restaurant.

When people began travelling so far they couldn’t rely on word of mouth to determine which restaurants were safe, clever problem-solvers installed shiny, easily cleaned surfaces everywhere, in their restaurant. There was often a counter where you could sit and watch the cook grilling your food, and see for yourself there was no funny business.

One showman and founder of what became a well-known chain would interrupt the lunch rush to bring in barrels full of good-looking, freshly butchered meat (back when everyone knew what good-looking, freshly butchered meat ought to look like) so the largest number of people would spread the word that the burgers served there were trustworthy.

That’s marketing.

When consistency was a problem, familiar names began appearing, with the reassurance that the same standards were being met by any given restaurant—every location met the same requirements, consistently, or those employees answered to actual restaurateurs named Howard Johnson, Harland David (Colonel) Sanders and ol’ Bob Evans.

If only your problems were as obvious as ptomaine and inconsistent fried chicken.

Modern eaters have problems, but they’re subtler.

Still, solving problems is very core of marketing. That’s where all your promotional efforts should start. You can always spot a piece of marketing that’s relying on silliness or blind hope instead of a solid understanding of what people literally and truly need from your restaurant and how your restaurant is responding to that.

A lot of times, you can tell that all the marketing team did was glance around at what everyone else is doing. What else explains the sudden appearance of molten desserts at practically every quick-service restaurant concept a few months ago or the rush to put sliders on every menu?

That’s not solving a problem. That’s just keeping up with the Joneses, or perhaps the Krocs. Ask yourself: what are some good, juicy, modern problems?

Making An Action Plan

For each modern problem, some clever person has come up with a promotion, an initiative, or an entire restaurant chain to solve it. Maybe that’s you.

But maybe you’ve lost sight of the original problem, and the mission has changed, and now your restaurant is just a machine set on “auto” that operates today because it operated yesterday.

Or maybe time has passed your concept by, and now it’s too limiting.

Value meals, healthy kid’s programs, gluten-free menus, 2 for $20 dinners, 6-Meals-Under-600-Calories promos: they’re all responses to problems. But they’re all-too-common now. Already. Life moves fast.

It’s hard to keep up. Maybe a self-examination would help.

Question One: Do you actually do anything different that addresses a real problem?

From speed of service to unusual methods of preparation and delivery, there are a ton of opportunities to become integral to people’s lives. Or you can just recycle the same fish-for-Lent promo you did last year.

Question Two: If you are doing a good job solving a problem, does anybody know?

Sometimes there’s something you’re doing, or you’ve been doing, that hasn’t been advertised. Did Wendy’s get credit for being fresh-never-frozen before they started saying it a few years ago? Probably not. But that solves an issue some people have with fast food, and makes Wendy’s actually differentiated.

Question Three: Can you point out a problem that nobody noticed or thought about much, until you brought it up—then solved it right then and there?

Eating in the car is a hassle—oh wait, here’s KFC Go Cups. Antibiotics are injected into innocent caged animals—hold on, Chipotle is antibiotic-free (for now) and fights for humane conditions. Create the problem, then solve it. It’s an old ploy, but an effective one.

Question Four: When you talk about the problem you solve, do you sound like everyone else?

If every restaurant is trying to solve the same problem—lunch diners in a rush, for example—every restaurant should also communicate that in a branded tonality unique to their brand personality. If you sound like everyone else, people will assume you’re just like everyone else. At that point, you better hope for good real estate.

In any case, before you open your mouth and speak, make sure you’re talking about something that shows you know what your customers are struggling with when they’re deciding where to go eat.

Then make sure every location of your restaurant really delivers.

Otherwise, you might have an even bigger problem.