Are Grand Openings Worth Doing?
One of the grandest visions people have about opening a restaurant is doing a huge and beautifully staged Grand Opening. This is when the city leaders come, the family poses together with a bunch of well-dressed politicians and employees behind flowers and balloons in a glamorous photo. This is the picture of success, and what many people dream of. All the hard work is seemingly paid off. Friends and family visit, bringing flowers, gifts, cakes and candy. It’s joyous celebration for sure, just like when a baby is born. Except this “baby” is a new business. It’s easy to get infatuated with the glitz and glamour such an occasion elicits. But we often ignore the simple question one must ask as a business owner: Is it all worth it? And what’s the ROI of throwing such a party? We’ll discuss the return on investment a bit later, but for now I want to show you a few things we have done in the past to promote the opening of a new restaurant.
Here are a few ideas to help you throw a successful Grand Opening ceremony.
1) Post a few inexpensive signs and flags on the lawn outside your business, preferably on a busy corner of the shopping center where the most cars with people will be able to view them.
2) Distribute small fliers to every customer a few weeks before the event.
3) Send out an email blast to the entire list of emails you have gathered. If you don’t have customer emails consider hiring a local press and/or customer relations company to email an invitation to their people. Just make sure it’s a reputable company. Ask for referrals and call their previous customers to see what their experience was like before you decide which company to go with.
4) Promote the event on the restaurant’s web site. Make sure it’s a banner on the home page, as many people will miss it if it’s hidden on the locations page or elsewhere. Of course you also need to promote it on your social media presence. Make sure the way you do this is coherent and done in a well-organized way.
5) Join the local Chamber of Commerce. There is usually a few hundred dollars in the form of a fee to join them. They will be happy to email all the businesses in their portfolio (usually people like you that have done grand openings themselves in the past). Just be aware this will increase the number of uninvited solicitations as well.
6) If you have the resources and the grand opening is especially important, consider a radio ad the morning of the grand opening. Radio ads are very expensive, and we have usually steered clear of doing them, but there is nothing wrong with a very small, targeted campaign specifically for a gran opening. Mention something like a free drink to those that hear the ad and mention the radio station. Choose one with music you like.
7) Rent a billboard. We have done this in the past, and it has brought a tremendous response. We rented a billboard in North Hollywood during the opening year. It helped us increase gross income by about 10% every month we had it up. Needless to say billboards are very expensive in Los Angeles. They range from a few thousand dollars a month to over $20,000 a month in west LA and century city. Who would pay $20,000 a month for renting a billboard? A range of businesses can make their money back quickly. One expensive watch company I know of has done this and made their money back with 3 watches sold. The rest was pure profit.
This strategy works great if your restaurant or business is located in close proximity to a freeway or major intersection. People can’t tune out billboards like they can TV commercials.
8) Purchase TV commercials. My father purchased many TV ads years ago for our store in van Nuys. He must have spent $200,000 on TV ads in total back in those days. Was it worth it? Yes because ultimately it pushed that store to a very successful place ever since. TV ads are important if you know how to target your audience, at the beginning of a business. And inviting them to a grand opening is a nice way to start. It can be the beginning of a larger strategy in which you continue the campaign later.
9) Prepare a press kit. This is a small packet that describes what your business is all about. It can be just a nice folder packed with your restaurants menu, the catering menu, your business card, and a nice one page invitation to the entire staff of the local newspapers and other media companies. Offer them all free food. Not only might you get free publicity if they come and tell their friends, but you may score a well-written review by their staff. Nothing compares to a juicy article in the food section written about your restaurant. We have had the honor and privilege of being featured in LA Weekly, LA Times, LA Daily News, and just about every local newspaper of the cities we have opened in.
10) Try to have a theme for the Grand Opening. Is it a wedding hall? Is it a steak house? Choose a nice theme and also choose 2-3 colors. The balloons and flowers will be these colors. A nice theme give stye place a great, cohesive look. Let people know what the theme will be so the dress accordingly. Even if there is no theme your employees should dress their best for this day. And the owners should all be in suits and ties. People don’t always do this, especially in laid back California, but dressing formal is how I think a business will look professional.
Your strategy doesn’t have to be just one of these things or all of these things. We have done many of these, and often at the same time. Which of these ideas you use is up to you. They are tools to use that can benefit your business if done correctly. You don’t even need to have a grand opening if the timing is not right. If you are going through financial or other problems, people may not be in the mood for a grand opening.
There have been times we have thrown these grand openings and there were times we didn’t. In the early days, when we first opened the Hollywood store for example, it wasn’t about such extravagant things as grand openings as much as simply surviving. My parents and grandparents sold the old Zankou Chicken in Lebanon, what is now called “Halwa Chicken” in Beirut, and came here without much money. My grandfather was considering opening a dry cleaning business, but my dad hated the smell of detergent so he was against that idea. My father pretty much hated all scents. He would not wear cologne because it would give him headaches. My dad convinced his father and mother that opening a Zankou Chicken in the heart of Hollywood would have much better chance of success than starting a dry cleaning business, something they knew nothing about.
And so Hollywood Zankou was born out of such humble beginnings in 1984. It was a hole in the wall on Sunset and Normandie, a place where artists and hipsters could grab a bite to eat that was fresh and healthy. As you know, even to this day, fresh and healthy food does not exist in Hollywood, so when we arrived on the scene it was a huge hit. My grandfather came up with this idea of passing out coupons for chicken. It was printed on very simple, pink paper. I remember how cheesy it was, but people still loved it and used it. “Buy one get one free” it said for a whole chicken. In 1984 our whole chickens were $5, so to get two chickens for $5 was a deal people could not pass up. It also came with bread and garlic. Those cheesy pink coupons were a hit!
They didn’t ever throw a grand opening in the sense we know of today, but on opening day there were huge lines. People that had emigrated from Lebanon to the United States were so happy to see Zankou in their neighborhood. It was like a family child that was gone and had now returned. And the Armenians from Russia and Armenia learned about us very quickly and became life long customers. It was Armenians, Jewish people, Arabic people, and Persians that came first. After a while they brought many friends and family, and our customer ethnic makeup grew in diversity. Today, our customer base is as diverse as the ethnic makeup of Los Angeles itself, a rainbow of different peoples and cultures and religions.
Back in those days people didn’t think of doing Grand Openings as much as they just prayed to God the business survived after opening. Think of the consequences if it didn’t! It’s easy now to look at it in retrospect and assume it was easy but it wasn’t easy at all. My dad and grandfather were usually very stressed out. My dad used to work 14 hours a day, often going 3-4 hours without a bathroom break at the peak lunch hours. My dad used to make the shawerma and cut the meat himself. He also made the plates and sandwiches himself, sweating profusely in the heat and hard work. We often take for granted now everything they did to bring this business where it is today, but having seen what they went through firsthand I can tell you that it was very difficult. They gave a good chunk of their life for this business to succeed.
One thing you will notice if you ever do a Grand Opening is that you will find a lot of new people coming in. You might spend a few thousand dollars on balloons, flowers, and presentation. You may also need to get a nice cake for the photo opportunity, as well as paying for a press release. You can hook up with promotional and other publicity related companies. That can put you in touch with a celebrity for a few thousand dollars. What does a celebrity bring to the table? Word of mouth advertising, social media explosion in terms of people talking about your restaurant, and also they offer your brand to their followers. It might be worth doing if the price and timing is right, especially if this celebrity has some kind of relationship with either your brand or your customers.
In Burbank we had a beautiful grand opening. The city leaders from Glendale came because we knew them better than Burbank. The mayor of Glendale came, as well as a few dignitaries from Burbank and some employees from Burbank’s Department of Water and Power. We also had amazing flowers and balloons everywhere. It was a joyous occasion. Burbank’s Zankou is the most beautiful building we have, since the landlord spent millions of dollars and has won numerous architectural awards.
The Burbank Zankou and that entire property is the most beautiful building in Burbank. It looks like an Italian villa, with huge columns, a grand exterior, a $150,000 tall dome with a blue glass top ceiling, and has the busiest drive-through Starbucks in all of southern California. We went all out with that location, hiring an artist to hand-paint the dome ceiling of our restaurant. It was modeled after a church dome painting in Turin, Italy. They bricks were hand-layered and the interior design was created by a professional design firm. No detail was overlooked. So this combined with a sweet Grand Opening in which we spent a few thousand dollars on balloons and flowers made for a beautiful site. People that came that day were flabbergasted. One guy told me, “Wow, this is the most beautiful restaurant I have ever seen! It looks better than a sit down restaurant! Can we buy a franchise?”
I said, “ No sorry, we don’t franchise, but thank you so much for the compliments. We actually worked hard to make his place look great for you guys.”
And we did. We had worked 4 months on the design alone, working with the designer, Eddie Bitton of the Bitton Design group. My brother Steve, my mom, and myself had picked out the tile colors, the lamp colors, and the wall stones. We made sure everything was a nice, earthy tone and that everything matched. It was important that we got it right because we were only going to do this once. What we did with Burbank would set the stage for all future stores. It would be the model to follow in terms of design and branding. We figured we would work very hard to set the standard, and once the standard was set, it would be easier for future stores to just copy that mold.
It was fun and we had a great day in Burbank during that grand opening. For many of us it was a dream come true to have helped create such a beautiful restaurant. We finally had the high ceiling we wanted, the excellent design and sophistication we always felt Zankou customers deserved. But along with all the hype and hoopla you often get needy characters that show up at these events. So many people come just to pass out their business cards.
Dealing With Uninvited Guests
Air condition companies, furniture suppliers, food vendors, soft drink manufacturers, delivery people, credit card merchants, printing and sales people, the local newspaper advertising department, the local coupon book company, and many more of these sorts of people will show up. You can expect them all to be there, and only hope they will not be too pushy. Maintain your calm and composure, always smile and be as polite as possible. As with most business, the best people are hard to find so I don’t suggest you do any business with uninvited people that show up just to hand you business cards. This is especially true if they come only to hand you business cards and don’t have the common courtesy to order something.
To me this is like someone coming to your house during a party, without bringing a gift, only to pass our promotional material. It’s rude and inconvenient, particularly when you have to say no and they are pushy. These people need to realize the principle of reciprocity. You can’t have something for nothing, and showing up and acting like that is just not how business is done. So keep on the lookout for that.
If you think in terms of pure ROI, throwing a grand opening may not be in your best interest. If you think of it like a great party you throw to celebrate the work of your team, to increase morale and boost your spirits, and just as a general occasion to have a great time with your team, it’s worth doing. Ultimately it’s about what you expect out of this event. As far as marketing goes, grand openings are not a good long-term investment. You need to do a lot more than a simple grand opening. But sometimes they go a long way to generate word of mouth advertising, to energize your employees, and also to help the business get off on the right foot. Just don’t expect it to be more than an extravagant party with a few uninvited guests.
And that’s the funny thing about LA. We love our celebrities, we love random guests (that are nice and cool, not ones that come just to pass out business cards and not buy anything), and we love new beginnings. We are very grateful Zankou has had such humble beginnings in the City of Angels. Our hope is that it grows from these humble beginnings and branches out all over the United States, in every great state and city across this beautiful country from New York to Florida. We hope to have the excitement and curiosity in those other cities and states one day, and be welcomed by its inhabitants just like we were welcomed by the awesome people of LA.
People don’t live in Los Angeles because we are tied to the same old, same old. We live in Los Angeles because of the intoxicating energy of new beginnings that permeate our city.