Paid Restaurant Advertising


Before you begin to develop your restaurant’s advertising campaign, you should ask yourself whether you really need to pay to advertise at all. For some restaurants, building a solid PR campaign, merchandising and local store marketing is enough to drive business. However, many larger restaurants or chain restaurants can gain new customers and create brand awareness through the more traditional route of paid advertising.

Reasons to Advertise

Since people have caught on to the exploitative nature of paid advertising, they have grown skeptical. While a long-term advertising campaign can help build brand awareness, it will not necessarily create loyal customers. Advertising still works, but ultimately, the quality of your product and service will be the deciding factor in building loyal customers who will spread good word-of-mouth about your business.

However, paid advertising can be useful in getting customers through the door for the first time, especially tourists or those looking for a special evening. It can also help build brand awareness within the local community. The more times someone sees your ad, the more likely they will remember your restaurant’s name.

Paid Advertising Media

The main key to successful paid advertising is choosing the right medium to reach your trading area and your target market. You may want to ask current or potential customers which media they prefer and when they are exposed to it. You can advertise your restaurant through any of the following media:


You can advertise in the municipal paper or in a free local newspaper or booklet. The best time to advertise in the paper is when there is a special promotion or event coming up at your restaurant. People may glance at the ad and decide to attend. However, advertising regularly in the newspaper is usually more costly and less effective than a good local store marketing campaign. While it is possible to target local customers by purchasing an ad that will only go to one zone of the newspaper’s distribution, usually the zones are much larger than your actual trading area. You should only pay to regularly run a print ad under the following conditions:

  • If you hope to attract older customers. According to a 2004 study, about 72% of seniors over 65 read the newspaper, while only 54% of people ages 35 to 40 and less than 44% of people ages 18-34 read the newspaper.
  • If you hope to attract a lot of tourists. Since the newspaper has such a broad reach, and tourists may flip through the paper without knowing exactly what they want, they may happen upon your ad and become interested.
  • If you have more than one location. If you have several locations throughout the city, then a newspaper ad could be the best way for you to create widespread brand awareness.

If you do decide to run a regular print ad, consider whether you want to sign an annual contract, which will reduce the advertising costs. Remember that the more frequently you print ads, the more likely they will have an impact. Also, if the newspaper staff will design your ad, make sure they know exactly what you want. Otherwise, design your own ad, and keep it short, focused and uncluttered.


If you are trying to attract tourists or people under the age of 35, you should consider advertising on the Internet. You can use the following media:

  • Online newspapers. These sites often reach a wider audience than print papers. For example, gets about twelve times more visitors than the print newspaper has in subscriptions.
  • Pay per click (PPC). Although it can be expensive, you can bid for a place in the “sponsored links” section of a search engine’s results page, and pay a certain amount each time someone clicks on your link. The PPC ad should link to your restaurant website. The search engines auction off PPC rankings for specific keywords. Choose a keyword that will bring the most qualified traffic possible. For example, if you are located in Manhattan, do not bid on the keywords “New York City restaurants.” Instead, bid on “restaurants in Manhattan.” To determine the most qualified search terms, use a free keyword suggestion tool like Wordtracker. For example, Wordtracker shows that “restaurants in manhattan” is searched more often than “restaurant manhattan.”
  • Banner ads. It often only takes one viewing for an online ad to create brand awareness.1 If you are looking to attract new customers, consider putting banner ads up on relevant sites. You can use PPC banner ads or “per impression” banner ads. However, it is important that you watch your budget very closely. You never know how many people will see or click on your ad, so costs can be unpredictable.
  • Restaurant directories. Most local and national restaurant directories will list you for free, but you may have to pay if you want them to list your menu, coupons, photos or a link to your website. If your target audience consists of tourists and business travelers, getting listed in restaurant directories is always a good idea.


If you are located near an interstate or hope to attract out-of-towners, consider using billboard advertising. Billboards are often more effective than newspaper ads because they stand out. Furthermore, they can attract tourists who are traveling by car, and local people might drive by them multiple times in a day. The more times the locals see the advertisement, the more likely they will be influenced by it.


The phonebook is a great way to attract people from out of town, who may turn to the phonebook to find a local restaurant. If you hope to attract these customers, you could even invest in a full-page ad and include your takeout menu.


Most magazines have a national audience. However, advertising in local and regional magazines can be profitable, especially if you want to attract regional tourism or if there are any food and drink magazines in your area. Remember that consumers keep magazines longer than newspapers, so make sure that your ad will not become outdated within a few months. Ask customers or people in your target market which local magazines they read to find the best place to advertise.

Radio and Television

For restaurants in small towns or restaurants with multiple locations, a strategically placed radio or TV advertisement can really work. You will want to advertise right before or during lunch or dinner hours to get the most out of your airspace, since that is when people are hungry. For radio, the best time to advertise is when people are driving home from work, since you are more likely to catch people listening to the radio during commute, and they may not have decided yet how to spend their evening. For television, you should advertise on local stations around the dinner hour. With either medium, just make sure you advertise on a channel that targets your customer base.

When to Spend

During certain times of year, your ad will get more bang for the buck. Try advertising during the following times of year:

Tourist season

Depending on where you live, this could be the summer or the winter, or any time there is a special event in town. If your business relies on tourism the entire year, you should invest in continuous paid advertising. » Learn More

Near holidays

If you are open on Thanksgiving, Easter or Christmas, advertise a special holiday promotion. Since many restaurants are closed during this time, you can pick up a lot of new customers. Also make sure to use special promotions for Valentine’s Day and Halloween, like a costume contest or a special meal for two with a free glass of champagne. » Learn More

Before big events

If there is a festival or conference in town, you can attract a lot of out-of-town customers by advertising in the city or community papers. When you hold a special event at your establishment, you should advertise it for at least two weeks in advance. » Learn More

Advertising Budget

If you are spending the majority of your marketing budget on paid advertising, it is probably time to change your marketing plan to include more restaurant PR, personal selling, and local store marketing. However, if your business relies on attracting tourists and getting new customers through the door, you could allocate up to 70% of your marketing budget for continuous paid advertising. Your paid advertising expenses should depend on what your restaurant needs and not what you feel you should pay.

Perform an assessment

Since paid advertising is so expensive, it is especially important that you perform a restaurant marketing assessment to determine whether you have received a good return on investment (ROI). Perform an assessment during the promotion or after it has ended.If the advertisement has helped your profits, you can repeat it later. If not, you should try other forms of advertising or focus on other marketing techniques. » Learn More

1 Patti J. Shock, John T. Bowen and John M. Stefanelli. Restaurant Marketing for Owners and Managers (Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley and Sons, 2004).

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