No such thing as a free meal - Ashdale Business Consulting

No such thing as a free meal


It doesn’t matter which country you live in most of you will be familiar with a store or a company which seems to continually be running promotions.  In the UK for example I challenge anyone to find someone who has bought a sofa or suite from a well know furniture retailer at full price?

And that of course is one of the problems about running promotions.  If you run them all the time they stop being promotions and become part of your everyday pricing.  Customers then become conditioned to only buying when prices are at these lower levels.

However if you use promotions or special offers wisely they can be a great way to encourage new customers to your venue or provide existing customer to try something new.  They can also be used to get people through the door when things are very quiet.

As always one-size will never fit all.  That said there are some clear do’s and don’ts when it comes to running a promotion in a restaurant, bar or other similar outlets.  Without wanting to sound too negative I thought it would be worth mentioning a few things which you should never do or at least think twice about before running them.  We can then move onto some more positive ways to market your business.


You would think it would go without saying but number one on this list is don’t break the law.  Or perhaps it might be better to say don’t do anything illegal.  Customers love free things and special offers but be careful that your activity doesn’t promote excessive drinking or similar anti-social behaviour.  When advertising your promotions you also have to make sure you don’t use inappropriate images or slogans.  If in doubt consult an industry expert or a local licensing officer.

While all-you-can-eat deals work sometimes, restaurants must be very careful to make sure they’re not losing money.  It’s important to do your research in terms of how popular a promotion might be and be sure of your costs when you plan everything out.  Many Chinese/Oriental restaurants use this type of promotion but on close inspection you will see that much of the food is very low cost.  They also look to make back the margin on additional spend on drinks or non-prompted items.

Offering coupons or rather printing lots of them should also be avoided.  If you feel the need to go down that route then make sure you have a clear closing date so as not to set yourself up for providing discounted meals for a long period of time.

Finally remember that not all PR is good.  Make sure that any promotion you run doesn’t risk your restaurant or bars reputation.  A company I previously worked for used a well-known sporting personality to promote a low-alcohol beer they had just launched.  Unfortunately the whole campaign had to be pulled when the individual concerned was stopped for drinking and driving.

Know your customers

As with the food you serve and the drinks you make, knowing what your customers are looking for is key to being successful.  The same is true when it comes to running promotions.  Different customers will respond to different activities.  You also have to be very clear in what it is you are trying to achieve.  Without this knowledge at the outset then you will never really know if you have been successful or not.  You are also less likely to have the right sort of promotion in place.  Are you trying to attract new customer?  Fill your venue on quiet days?  Or is it just to raise your outlets profile in the local area?

Make it fun

No matter what sort of promotion you decide you want to run, make it fun.  People usually go out to eat and drink to have a good time.  The promotions you run need to reflect this fact.  You are more likely to get better engagement levels that way compared to if it’s just a boring money off deal.  Similarly it should be fun for your team to talk about and deliver.  If they are having fun it will help create a much better customer experience.

The most commonly used promotions are usually price based.  Typical examples would be two-for-one offers or happy hours.  Alternatively it might be a fixed-price or limited menus before a certain time in the evening.  Pasta, chicken and certain cuts of meat and some seafood can be quite good when it comes to considering these options.  The key here is to use the opportunity once you have customers through the door to upsell.  This may be by trying to encourage the ordering of a dessert, a coffee or even a couple of extra drinks during the course of their meal.

Events are another thing you can use to link your promotion to.  These also have the advantage of feeling more like one-offs and less like a regular occurrence.  The calendar already provides opportunities for this such as Mother’s Day and Valentine’s Day, although there is an argument to be made that you shouldn’t have to promote during these times as hopefully the demand will already be there.  Outside of these dates there is nothing to stop you having special themed events.  Special menus celebrating cuisine from other countries or regions, French, Spanish etc. can also provide an opportunity to offer different drinks compared to those which your customers might ordinarily order.

Not appropriate for everywhere but live music or other forms of entertainment might also provide an occasion to run a promotion.  Alternatively depending on where your restaurant or bar is there is also the opportunity to piggy-back on other local events and activities.  For example offering a 10% discount to any customers who have tickets to a local sporting event or concert is another way of promoting your venue.


At the risk of repeating myself, whatever mechanic you look to run make sure you fully understand your costs and margins.  Generally speaking, it’s best to promote items which provide you with higher margins and revenue.  These dishes or drinks provide more flexibility when it comes to offering discounts whilst still maintaining a degree of profitability.  They can also be used as a lead into other items on the menu.