When plotting your restaurant’s location, a prime consideration is visibility. Where will get me the most eyeballs on my dining room?
That’s why off-street restaurant locations, for so long, have been considered less-than-ideal real estate. But as the number of popular off-street restaurants — places like Lincoln, Cocotte, and Estela — proves, it’s certainly possible to operate a successful restaurant in a non-street level location.
According to Anthony Rudolf, formerly the director of operations for the Thomas Keller Group (which included off-street restaurants like Per Se and Bouchon Bakery), given the rising price of real estate in big restaurant cities, these sorts of spaces are the future of dining. “There needs to be a massive shift to these locations,” he says, adding that off-street spaces can come out to half the cost of street level ones. “Because of the lower price, you are getting six more months of runway on your opening capital. That’s huge.”
But with those cost savings comes an added pressure to make your restaurant as visible as possible. “You can’t live under the mindset that if you build it they will come,” Rudolf says. “You have to be proactive. With [an off-street location], your objective is to get people to break a routine and become aware of you.”
Here are Rudolf’s (and other successful off-street restaurateurs’) tips for maximizing success in an off-street location.
Lean into the tucked-away nature of your location.
It’s easy to think of a slightly hidden-away location only in terms of the downsides. But these days, people tend to really love those restaurants that require a little hunting down and aren’t so blatantly obvious from the street — this can add to the allure.
“I love the uniqueness of our space,” says Sebastian Pourrat, the chef/owner of Cocotte in New York, whose spot is located underground. “When you go down the stairs and enter the dining room, it is like those steps are a frontier between New York City and the experience of the restaurant. It separates the space from the city. It contributes to the vibe.”
Emil Stefkov, owner of the New York Japanese spot Omakase Room, agrees. Having a space underground, he says, “is Tokyo style. It’s the best way to transport guests to a different set-up, far from the city noise and environment.” In promoting the restaurant, Omakase Room leaned into this “hidden, exclusive, ‘in the know’ aspect,” which made the experience seem all the more unique.
Use lighting and other decorative elements to make the outside as visible as possible.
When Cocotte first opened, Pourrat started by hanging a few lights, flowers, and plants outside his restaurant — he soon realized that this was the main driver bringing people from the street into the restaurant, so he doubled down on these efforts. Now, there are lights strung on the trees outside the restaurant (visible from the highly-trafficked adjacent Prince and Spring Streets), and Pourrat has even optimized the lighting on the inside of the restaurant — adding shower lighting and candles at every table — to maximize its attractiveness to passersby.
Put strategic signage up in the area around your restaurant.
In addition to having an attractive exterior, it’s important to make sure that people know about your restaurant even from a few blocks away. Place as much signage with your restaurant logo as possible both outside your restaurant and in the areas surrounding it.
At Lincoln, for example, there are posters on 65th Street as well as on Broadway, both with Lincoln’s logo and location, to direct tourists and passersby to the restaurant. “Anything you can do to catch people’s attention and orient them and let them know that there is a restaurant nearby is helpful for maximizing foot traffic,” says Tanja Yokum, the director of public relations and marketing for the Patina Restaurant Group, which owns Lincoln. She has even tested out different colored signs to see what attracts the most attention. “Bright colors like pink and red seem to grab people’s attention more so than greys, blues, and greens.”
She adds, “Creativity is great when it comes to publicizing a restaurant that is not obvious to the eye. Whatever you can come up with that’s permitted by your landlord — you never know what is going to work until you try. I absolutely believe that.”
Menu boards are a must.
Posting a menu board outside a restaurant may seem old school, but every hospitality professional interviewed said that this is especially important for those operating an off-street restaurant, as it’s what’s going to propel someone to take the time to find your place.
There are ways to be strategic about where in the vicinity of your restaurant you place your menu. At Cocotte, “We put the menu on this one low window next to the sidewalk, which allows you to look inside the restaurant at the same time,” says Pourrat. “People can see inside and see how inviting and cozy the place is.”
Win over the locals.
When a new restaurant opens in a neighborhood, the first people to notice are almost always the locals. These are the folks who will notice an off-street restaurant when the rest of the city doesn’t. The way to gain a broader audience is to first appeal to those in the surrounding area.
“Make an effort to be part of the community,” Pourrat says, and this will have a domino effect. “If you are in touch with the locals, if it is raining, your locals will still come. And then people on the street passing by will see a crowd in the restaurant. And they will want to come in. And that’s how you will fill your tables.”
And don’t forget that locals also include nearby office buildings, says Rudolf. When he worked for the Thomas Keller Group, he made an effort to reach out to the offices that were nearby, like CNN, and to let them know about the restaurants his company ran inside the Time Warner Center. “You just have to be proactive about reaching out and letting them know and constantly reminding them that you are there,” whether that’s through flyers, mailers, or distributed coupons. Once you win over a few office members, word will travel — and word of mouth is always the best marketing tool, Rudolf adds.
If you’re affiliated with a larger institution, leverage that broader marketing to your benefit.
When Rudolf oversaw restaurants in the Time Warner Center, he made sure that each time a special event was happening in the space, he and his team were doing their best efforts to direct people to grab a coffee or lunch at Bouchon Bakery and collect emails for those who were in attendance.
Similarly, Lincoln benefits from the marketing efforts of Lincoln Center, which allows the two entities to team up on social media promotion, email newsletters, and mutually beneficial partnerships. Yokum recently oversaw a collaboration package with the New York City Ballet that included tickets to the show plus a reservation at the restaurant. “We found that people increasingly like those package deals,” she says. “They like everything, from the dinner plan to the show, to be taken care of in one shot.”
Photo credit: Mark Bussell (Lincoln).