How to make a small town restaurant successful

by John Jones | Feb 16, 2023

Taking on or starting a restaurant in 2023 has its challenges, but none more so than in a small town. The disadvantages of operating in a smaller village or town are obvious, but there are advantages, too. In this short blog we will discuss some of these challenges and suggest ways they can be turned into opportunities.

Operating a restaurant, pub, cafe bar or pub in a location best described as small comes with many challenges, including – potentially – not enough customers. It is important, therefore, to establish a solid product offer and get the brand into the hearts and minds of the local population.

The small town’s inhabitants are not only a customer-base just waiting to be enticed in, but they are also the restaurant’s best potential advocates. Small towns often “suffer” from a concentration of branches of the same family and, to be blunt, “people talk”. It is essential, then, to establish a good rapport from the get-go because one things is clear: if the local population is not on board, the restaurant will struggle.

Restaurateurs need to get the locals “on side” and this can be more difficult than it seems, although that; s not usually down to a stubborn or overtly negative local population. It is simply that it takes a lot of time and effort to really engage the townsfolk to the point where they are at first listening, then curious, then booking. 

Becoming a community beacon at the centre of the action will help to generate an engaged, positive and supportive audience if the restaurant puts considerable effort into a strong social media presence. Broadcasting and re-posting community news, talking about all-things local and highlighting town events will position the restaurant as “one of us” and, as such, indispensable. 

It may be tempting to start a small restaurant in a small town, in a misguided attempt to match like with like. A word of warning here: don’t. Sure, splashing out on a 300 cover restaurant might not be the best way to go either, but even in small towns the restaurant has to have the potential to scale and grow without limiting its capacity from the start. Tables and covers are the true indicators of potential earnings, so it is important that the building and its physical layout will support the required level of revenue. There’s a simple check to be done here: if it is too small, it is too small. Period.

Much has been written about the need to be different in order to succeed. We would agree with that sentiment, but also offer an alternative point of view. That is, be distinctive.

So, if a restaurant is the same as the others, what does distinction look like? It simply means better. Restaurateurs looking to open in a small town could of course decide to create something very different, but if it is too specialised it may not appeal to the majority of the local population we mentioned above. Specialised is great, but only with a steady flow of customers.

Instead, owners and operators of small town restaurants might want to consider going down the tried and tested route (let’s say, a traditional restaurant with a standard menu) but with an underpinning mission to do it better than anyone else. Usually it is the little touches and small details which get people talking and generate the right reputations, so restaurateurs would do well to focus on responsiveness, service levels, technology and tactile things like colours, look & feel.

Just because a restaurant is in a small town doesn’t mean it has to have a small town mentality. Far from it, in fact, because a modern and forward-thinking restaurant is often defined by the way in which it marries the meeting of customer demands with contemporary thinking. Customers in towns and cities small and large do not want to hear “we don’t do that” or “we’re too small for that” from their restaurant owners.

For example, fast, friendly online table booking not only offers a great option to customers, but it shows the restaurateur to be in touch with current trends rather than assuming a small town mentality when it comes to tech. The same goes for offering a dine-out service beyond knocking on a window and waiting to see what will emerge – modern diners expect a click & collect or delivered option to be be bookable online.

The one thing which none of the above recognises is the need for great food and drink. Naturally it goes without saying that better décor and ambience will never trump a poor culinary offer, so it is vital the menus and their dishes are not only selected for their appeal to the locals, but are cooked and presented to perfection. Restaurants should naturally focus on safe choices based on local research, but one or two carefully selected signature dishes will go a long way to building a great reputation and brand. It is all about balance.

Let’s say that our small town restaurateur has done everything right so far. They’ve adopted a soft-touch approach to their outreach and won over the hearts and minds of the locals, becoming a shining star at the heart of the community. The restaurant’s reputation, in part because of its distinctive nature and great food and drink is going from strength to strength, so what’s next for it?

Well, the next step is to attract diners from outside of the town to visit. In many ways this is an organic process driven by reputation and the principle of “if we build it, they will come”. But steps can be taken to accelerate this extension by paying close attention to online reviews, special offers, awards, community activity and simply thinking a little outside of the box (for example, doing deals with local taxi firms will appeal to customers who cannot or do not want to drive) while exuding an overall aura of “thinking big” with, say, directions and train times on the restaurant’s website will create a virtuous circle of demand and positivity.

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