When Tad Peelen and his partners at Joe’s Real BBQ opened in 1998, they set out to create an institution in Gilbert, AZ. To achieve that, they decided to ignore most conventional wisdom and do things their own way. The formula worked, and they’ve built an incredibly successful, profitable institution that serves over 1,000 meals every day.
Tad explains how they used unconventional marketing to help drive word of mouth buzz in Gilbert: “We only half-jokingly tell the army of sales people who call on us that our annual advertising and marketing budget is zero.
“We really run very few ads, and we really do rely heavily on word of mouth to grow our businesses. The handful of advertisements we do run are usually as a courtesy to an organization or business we really care for. That said, we spend a bunch of money on marketing. We just don’t do it in conventional ways.
“We have an annual Customer Appreciation Day, when we open our doors and serve as many people as we can for free. We streamline the menu, offer canned sodas instead of fountain drinks to keep things moving along, and have served more than 6,000 free meals during the day of the promotion. Free Days around here usually mean someone is getting a free meal every six seconds we are open. It’s a pretty cool thing to watch.
“We do this to thank our loyal customers for their patronage, and at the same time attract new customers. The buzz created by this annual event is pretty overwhelming. We’ve had years when every TV news channel in town picked up the story, as well as radio stations, blogs, and the social media crowd. Obviously feeding 6,000+ people isn’t cheap, but we think the investment pays off pretty quickly. It doesn’t take many converted first-timers for this approach to pay off.
“We are also the “Home of the Free Birthday Meal,” offering guests $10 to buy anything they wish on their birthday. Since we also own Joe’s Farm Grill and (Peelen’s partner) Joe Johnston is a partner in Liberty Market across the street from us, we have created the #bdaytrifecta Twitter hashtag to encourage people to go to all three places on their special day.
“People generally think we are nuts, especially in encouraging people to eat three meals without paying a dime. But the truth is people don’t usually like to eat alone. They will likely spend more than $10, and they rarely celebrate the passing of another year without friends or family. So what happens is we end up seeing a very happy group join us at all three places, and everyone from the happy group shares their story via social media and among friends.
“We think it is probably our most successful marketing tool. People seem to like it too, as we give away over 1,000 free birthday meals every month here at Joe’s Real BBQ.”
While it may not be wise to turn a blind eye to all conventional wisdom, Tad and his partners have proven that just because an idea isn’t conventional doesn’t mean it won’t work.
Wil Brawley is a partner at Schedulefly (www.schedulefly.com), a company that provides web-based restaurant staff scheduling and communication software. He recently interviewed 20 successful restaurant owners from all over the U.S., and published those interviews in a book titled Restaurant Owners Uncorked: Twenty Owners Share Their Recipes for Success.