Monday, April 05, 2010

Carrie's Marketing Monday: Thumbs Up for Il Fornaio Italian Restaurants

Welcome to another installment of "Marketing Monday," my new blog column where I take a close look at recent marketing promotions and do a little deconstructing to see how the event, promotion, or offer held up, as well as offer my suggested "tweaks."

In our travels to San Jose during the course of last year, we happily stumbled upon Il Fornaio, a new restaurant for us with many locations in California but none back east, which is why we had never tried it before, nor had we even heard of it. Each of our visits has been better then the last one, with not only the quality of the food being superb, but the marketing proving to be unique and effective. The mere fact that we have already been back 4 times (twice just for appetizers) when there are so many restaurants to choose from in this area, already tells you something.

Outside of the food and excellent service, Il Fornaio gets the following right in their marketing:

1. Goodies for customers. The restaurant has a unique Passport program which celebrates a specific region Italy every quarter. We the customers bring in our Passports, get stamped, and are eligible for a trip to Italy! How cool is that? Not only that, but we get additional goodies that change every few months as well. The first time we dined, we received a risotto making kit, and more recently a bread baking kit. And I happen to know that coming up is a special Italian olive oil gift.  I'm already excited about that one. So one could say, they have the awarding customers aspect of things down pat.

2. Events and Buzz: We weren't exactly sure why, but we had gotten friendly with one of the managers on a recent visit, and he invited us to what he called a "party," a few weeks ago. It was a little mysterious, but that made it all the more buzzworthy. We didn't really know what to expect, but were quite pleased to see a large room full of happy people eating and drinking and enjoying what appeared to be on the horizon -- a free buffet. Yes! It turned out to be member appreciation wonder everyone was so happy. So we gladly joined in and enjoyed some delicious treats, including salad, pasta, several delicate meat dishes, a salmon dish, and large trays of desserts, and did indeed feel appreciated. Yes, large trays of cheesecake and chocolate pastries and such,  that kept reappearing like they were multiplying in the kitchen. That worked for us, plus the buffet was so generous I didn't have my typical buffet anxiety that all the food was going to disappear the moment I went back to get more. We'll analyze my buffet anxiety later. In the meantime, Forniao got big points for this event, as we had eaten at other restaurants of course, but never experienced this generous a reward back. We drove home feeling full, and special.

3. Customer connection and branding: The restaurant used their member appreciation night to connect with their audience and deepen their brand. Waiters went up to diners at their tables and personally connected with them, while one of the owners gave out even more giveways, (more branded items with the Fornaio logo), called his mother in Italy, thanked customers for sticking with them during these challenging economic times, and floated about the room like an Italian Robin Williams, making sure everyone was comfy and telling the occasional joke to loosen up the already happy crowd. I think it's safe to say the crowd was warmed up.

In many ways, Fornaio's marketing strategies are a great model for any online promotion you might be thinking of launching, and I'm going to keep it in mind as a framework for my new ideas as well. They succeeded in creating 3 key elements important for any transaction: *authenticity (yes, I believe these people are for real and I trust that they know what they are doing); *top of mind, or branding: everytime I open my kitchen cabinet and see the risotto and bread mix, I'm hungry for dinner and want to go back, in what now appears to be a Pavlovian response - I don't even need to see the name; *the priviledge of membership: instead of treating diners as regular customers, they treat the dining experience as a priviledge, and make diners feel like they are part of an exclusive club. The passport idea has a glamorous Cassablanca type cache, and succeeds in making diners want to participate and become part of their family. Well done!

A few tweaks:

I have only 2 suggestions for improvement:

1. Front desk hostess needs to be warmer. Everytime we have visited, the front end hostess has not been friendly, and not to be corny, but she does not greet us with a smile. We smile at her, but she does not smile back. A smile means a lot in the restaurant business, as it does in any marketing. As bloggers and publishers, we need to smile online all the time to create a friendly vibe, it's just the way it is. Also, the last time we came, she told us we needed to be able to leave our table in an hour due to an anticipated rush, making us feel less then warm and toasty. That situation needs to be changed.

2. Lack of new media at the member appreciation night. Fornaio has a Facebook page, and I noticed a lof of Fans posted photos from similar evenings at other locations. The restaurant could have gotten more mileage out of their evening by taking video, encouraging folks to tweet about it, and having yet another contest for those who posted photos from the event. Also, how about a Skype chat with mom back in Italy, projected onto a master screen? I wanted to meet her, and as the originator of many of their recipes, she was clearly important to their brand.

All in all, good work Il Forniao...mangia!


Kim said...

A wonderful article in every detail, but I must stand up for Il Fornaio regarding your "tweaks"... I am a regular at the Manhattan Beach Il Fornaio. I can assure you that your experience with the hostess was highly unusual! Our hostesses have always been the first to get to know us and have always greeted us warmly. We love it when former hostesses have come back to the member appreciation nights to say "Hello". It's like family, seeing them again!

As far as anticipated rush hours go, our wonderful hostess (and the manager and chefs), reserved our table for 6 for the best part of the night, on the busiest night of the year, the night before Mother's Day, knowing we were going to announce our marriage to my parents in a surprise dinner. The staff couldn't have been more wonderful! We never felt rushed, and the head chef sent over bites from the regional menu, in a leisurely fashion.

I also wouldn't want the special nights to become over-hyped or any more popular! Once when we did not arrive early, we had to take a table in the bar, but even there, service wass the best! Everyone coming by offered us more wine and small dishes or we helped ourselves to the buffet, joining in the festivities in the patio.

Unknown said...

Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Kim. I will be sure and try the Manhattan Beach location whenever I get the chance, and I also just received a very nice note from one of the managers thanking me for my post. I'm curious to try many of the other locations as well, and I hope you or someone you know wins the trip to Italy this year.