How do you find clients and customers?
Most people don’t know this, but… a couple years ago, I sorta “accidentally” helped to open a brunch restaurant here in Portland, Oregon, where I live.
How did this happen?
1) I fell in love with a sexy chef named Brandon.
2) One day, Brandon confessed that he’d always dreamed of running his own restaurant.
3) I said (with starry-eyed optimism) “Well, then let’s do it together! How hard could it be?”
4) And so we did.
5) And it was really hard. But also fun, rewarding, and amazing.
The restaurant, HunnyMilk, has been running for nearly 2 years. Like most new businesses, it all started as a teeny-tiny shoestring operation.
At first, it was just me and Brandon doing absolutely everything — shopping, food prep, shlepping food around in the back of my VW beetle, serving customers, and washing dishes by hand. In the beginning, we operated in the back of a pizza restaurant with a quasi-illegal bathroom and shaky electrical wiring that blew out repeatedly.
We built a reputation — and earned fans and repeat customers — one meal at a time.
It did not happen overnight. It happened slowly, gradually, and with a lot of butter, flour, muscle and heart, and hard work.
Eventually, we outgrew our original location and moved into a new space. As things got busier, we were able to hire 1, then 2, then 3, 4, 5, 6, and then 7 part-time employees. Today, I’m proud to say, the business is profitable and thriving. HunnyMilk has gotten local and national press, it’s been nominated for local foodie awards (OK, just an Honorable Mention, but still!), and most days there’s a waiting list to get a table. Things are going great.
Aspiring entrepreneurs sometimes ask us, “How did you find customers way back in the beginning? Back when nobody knew you existed?”
If you’re curious…
This is exactly what we did to spread the word and find customers:
1) LOTS OF EMAILS
Brandon and I both emailed every single person we knew (friends, family, colleagues, etc.) to let them know about our new business. That was the first step.
2) CONTACTING JOURNALISTS
We emailed every single local journalist who covers food, restaurants, and culture to let them know about our new business. Nothing fancy. Just a quick email letting them know that we’re open, and encouraging them to pop by sometime and check things out.
3) HANDING OUT TONS OF GIFT CARDS
Using our very slow and unreliable home printer, we printed 1,000 gift cards offering a free hot chocolate with homemade marshmallows or a free chocolate monkey bread. These two items are very tasty and also very cheap to produce. Our hope was… maybe people will stop by our new restaurant if we tempt them with a small freebie. And it worked! (FYI: 1,000 people did not show up. Maybe 50 or 60 people showed up. A small percentage, but that’s what we expected… and it was a great start!)
To hand out these cards, I personally walked up and down the streets of Portland handing out these cards to anybody who was willing to stop and chat. Some people were not interested. Some people were very interested. I spent several days doing this until all the cards were gone. It was very tiring, my feet ached the entire time, and in retrospect I probably should have worn comfy sneakers instead of cowboy boots! Haha!
4) SAYING “HELLO” TO LOCAL BUSINESS OWNERS
We also dropped gift cards at about 50 local businesses, like bike repair shops and vintage clothing stores.
Each time, we walked inside, marched up to the owner of the shop, smiled, and said, “Hi, we just opened a new brunch restaurant in the neighborhood and we just wanted to introduce ourselves and invite you to come by sometime! Here’s a card for a free treat.”
Most people were very nice and said “Congratulations! That’s exciting!” and some of them came by later for a meal.
5) LETTERS FOR OUR NEIGHBORS
We printed about 100 letters saying “Hi neighbor! We’re called HunnyMilk. We’re new in the ‘hood. Here’s our menu and a gift card for a treat…”
I put these letters into envelopes, decorated them with ribbons and cute little drawings, and personally dropped them off at 100 different houses in the neighborhood. Mailboxes. Doorsteps. Car dashboards. All over the place. I did this during the winter and I remember my hands were freezing so I walked quickly to stay warm!
6) GIFTS FOR THE MEDIA AND OTHER LOCAL BUSINESSES
We made tiny cakes, cookies, and biscuits, packaged them in pretty cardboard boxes with handwritten cards, and then dropped these boxes off at all the local newspapers and magazines and lots of other businesses, too. Each card said something like, “We’re HunnyMilk and we’re new in town! We hope you enjoy these treats!” with a link to our website.
We spent an entire day driving around town — in the snow — dropping off these boxes of cake. Most people were totally shocked and amazed and said, “OMG, seriously? Free cake? For us?!” This led directly to our very first newspaper review, which was a huge milestone!
7) DOING SOMETHING “WORTH TALKING ABOUT”
We made an effort to “do things differently” and “do something worth talking about” so that customers would tweet about us, talk about us, and rave about us to their friends.
For example, we put homemade coloring sheets and Crayons on every table. We did special brunch parties with a big movie projector screen and ‘80s cartoons. We made awesome music playlists and put vintage toys all around the restaurant. We hosted “Letters & Brunch” parties and gave our customers postcards, pens, and stamps, and encouraged them to write a letter while they waited for their food. We put birthday sparklers in people’s biscuits even if wasn’t their actual birthday, purely just for fun. We tried to make every single customer smile and have the best time ever.
8) ASKING FOR YELP REVIEWS
If a customer seemed especially happy, I made a point of thanking them personally and saying, “No pressure whatsoever, but if you feel inspired to write a Yelp review about us, that would be amazing. Thank you.” And often, they would!
9) INSTAGRAM AND MAILING LIST STUFF
I don’t use social media anymore, but Brandon does, so he decided to set up an Instagram account for HunnyMilk because he wanted to share photos of his food. He doesn’t post things constantly — maybe once or twice a week — but he does a great job with it!
Also, I set up a MailChimp email newsletter and we email HunnyMilk subscribers about once a month. In each newsletter, we include drool-inducing photos, announcements about new menu items, and usually a few silly just-for-fun things, like our favorite songs and TV show discoveries. Our goal with each newsletter is simply to make people smile and laugh… and remind them to stop by for brunch!
10) REALLY GOOD FOOD
We knew, at the end of the day, the quality of our food was the #1 most important thing.
If our food was underwhelming or boring, then obviously people wouldn’t come back. So making delicious food — and treating all of our customers with warmth and enthusiasm — was always the top priority. When someone eats an amazing meal, they’re probably going to talk about it to their friends… and word-of-marketing is the best kind of marketing that there is!
So, that’s how we spread the word about our new business and got customers to come check us out! We didn’t hire a publicist. We didn’t buy Facebook ads. We didn’t set up an email marketing sales funnel conversion strategy with SEO keywords blah bee bloop bloop. We didn’t do anything fancy or complicated. Mainly, we just marched all around town smiling and introducing ourselves. That’s what got things rolling.
WE ARE INTROVERTS WHO LOVE NETFLIX
I want to mention, Brandon and I are both quiet, introverted people. We’re not extroverts. We’re total homebodies. Our idea of a perfect evening is Thai takeout, Netflix, and snuggling under one million blankets. It took a huge amount of stamina for us to “put ourselves out there” like we did, be we just buckled down and DID IT, because we knew that we had to!
After all, if nobody knows that your business exists, then you’ve got to find creative ways to let them know that you exist! There’s no magic wand that will do this for you, and tweeting or emailing a few times is NOT enough. You’ve got to make a serious effort. This goes for any type of business — a coaching business, a writing business, a graphic design business — not just a restaurant business.
ARE YOU MAKING A SERIOUS EFFORT? OR BARELY TRYING?
If you’re struggling to find clients or customers, my advice is… make a list of everything you’ve done so far. How many things have you actually done? How many people have you actually contacted? Have you marched up and down the streets talking to people and handing out 1,000 gift cards — or something equivalent to that — or have you mainly been hiding at home behind a computer screen and complaining?
I don’t mean to sound bossy, but… if you’re serious about finding clients and customers, you’ve got to get out there and let people know what you’re doing, in as many ways as you possibly can. Emails. Cards. Letters. Flyers. Personal handshakes and introductions. Free samples. You gotta hustle. Yes, even if it feels a little uncomfortable. Even if your feet hurt. Even if you’d rather just watch The Great British Baking Show and stay home. Get out of your PJs, get out of the house, and do it, do it, do it.
As my friend Susan says:
“If you make a full-hearted effort, then you get full-hearted results.”
When it comes to finding customers, please don’t make a half-hearted effort. Put your whole heart into it. Then, if things still don’t work out, at least you’ll know that you truly made your best effort, and you can take comfort in that.
Full heart. All in. Yes, you can. And yes, it’s worth it.