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Look for the hooks.

When I ran successful restaurants for two decades, I learned quickly that it was all about the hooks.  What am I talking about?

A hook is anything unique and eye-catching, different or just plain wild about how you do business — something that captures your customer’s imagination and sets your restaurant apart from the competition. It could be a drink, a secret recipe or even better, a marketing gimmick that supports your theme.  Ideally, it’s all of those things.

Before I started my first restaurant and then as I ran it over the years, I was always visiting the competition and other restaurants across the country (even around the world) for new ideas I could use in my operation.

It all started with the theme, which was wood-fired, brick oven pizza. Any restaurant can make pizza, but in my book real pizza is made as it’s been made for generations in Naples, Italy, and that means a traditional wood-burning brick oven. Not only that, but the oven is a showpiece, a work of art to be displayed where the customers can see the fire and watch the artisans tossing the dough and making perfect pies. Now that’s a hook and the way I did it for 20 years.

I used to visit this bar at a ski resort in Vermont. The bar was equipped with a moving conveyor belt loaded with pint glasses in front of the beer taps, then the belt would carry the glasses along the bar and out through a hole in the side of the building. Remember, it was the middle of winter, so when those pints came back in on the other side of the bar and moved up to the taps, they were chilled frosty and cold… ready for the perfect beer. Can you see where I’m going with this?

In my restaurant, we sold giant 60-ounce goblet drinks with catchy names like the “Ice Pick” and “Tumble of Death.” They were rum or vodka blended with fruit juices served in a fishbowl with a stem. We put a splash of grenadine or blue curacao to tint them and then dropped in a “glow stick” that would make them shine from the inside out. As servers carried them through the bar or dining room, everyone else wanted one and they sold themselves at $18 a pop: super fun and super profitable.

We found birthday candles that would shoot a tower of sparks three feet in the air off the top of the dessert. At every birthday celebration, the entire restaurant would stop and watch as we’d light those candles and sing the song. When the candle burned out after 30 seconds or so, every table would erupt in applause.

Live music was really popular at my place and the dance floor was always packed in front of the stage. We rigged up a snowmaking machine that actually snowed on the customers as they danced. Cool, right?

Traditional marketing is expensive and nothing but a shotgun approach. You never know what’s really working or if it works at all. But imagination is free and the most powerful marketing on the planet.

Every restaurant has potential hooks, but few restaurants know how to promote them to build their audience and brand. When you hit the jackpot with this form of marketing, your staff are selling more, having more fun and making more money, while your customers are having more fun and spending more money. Next thing you know, your customers are your best marketers, telling everyone they know about your place.

So sit down with your staff, come up with your list of hooks and brainstorm some new ones. Then get out there and watch your sales take off.

Read More articles by Roger Beaudoin on Restaurant Hospitality