We’ve all heard the term “tourist trap.” When applied to restaurants, it’s generally a negative term that refers to places with high prices serving low quality versions of foods that made the area famous. Often these restaurants thrive because their customers are lured in by flashy signage, proximity to the main attraction or campy foods touted as local favorites.
Despite our collective Instagram-fueled food snobbery, we want to eat something special from the places we visit. We scour Google and Yelp and OpenTable and Trip Advisor for “real” local favorites…places where locals dine and trust. But those places become so well-known and busy that they eventually become tourist traps too. The owner of a newly discovered “hole in the wall” local favorite would be a fool not to capitalize on the new volume. Ride the wave, I say. But that often means sacrificing quality for speed while juicing prices…because you can. Heck, we only live once and retirement is on the horizon to some degree or another for every restaurant owner. Plus, everyone knows that you should strike while the iron is hot with restaurants because today’s hot new thing is tomorrow’s has-been.
So, here are 4 quick ways restaurant owners in beach towns can capitalize on summer vacationers:
- Offer a specialty menu item that tourists want. The strategy, therefore, becomes to first establish credibility among locals by serving good food. Tourist traps are only a swipe-left away from being spotted…and avoided… so credibility is not a nice-to-have, but a must-have. That said, it’s vital to serve some local item that tourists are coming to the area for. If you own a restaurant in Charleston, SC and you offer a low country boil that’s better than your neighbor’s, you’re at least in the game. Offering it at a better price than your neighbor might help. Making sure that what you offer is high quality and accompanied by other items at a similar quality is even better. Selling a great Spaghetti and Meatballs entrée may be nice for owners and locals so they don’t go too crazy eating touristy foods every day, but it doesn’t draw the volume when competition for butts-in-seats is in full swing.
- Expand local offerings to other meal periods and menu categories. Just offering a lobster roll on your Martha’s Vineyard restaurant’s menu isn’t enough. If you also serve breakfast, choose a few local Boston favorites like baked beans and linguica. For lunch make frappes instead of milkshakes, and for dinner offer baked scrod or linguini and clams. And don’t forget the booze! The latest craft-beer surge almost ensures that a particular area will offer a local beer, so putting it on the menu is a no-brainer. Cocktails, however, take a little more thought. Sometimes the win goes to creative cocktails that SEEM like they’re from the area, whether they are or not. Serving a Cape Cod in Cape Cod might be cheesy, but what if it’s done with intent and is the best Cape Cod anyone has ever made? Bourbon drinks are great for Kentucky,and every male sporting saddle shoes, a ponza hat and a seersucker jacket is sipping (or looking to sip) a Brown Derby, even though it originated in Los Angeles. The trick is to not go too far in pandering to visitors…but definitely pander. If you’re selling a grouper sandwich or stone crab soup in Key West, make sure the grouper is thick and fresh (i.e.– not the farmed, thin, frozen commodity tail piece) and the soup is delicious. Tourist trap or not, fresh food done well will always beat frozen food done poorly. By nailing just a few seasonal menu items, tourists will remember you and locals will appreciate the effort.
- Be Instagram-able. Tourists are often up early and out all day. That means most meals areconsumed at a restaurant. And tourists often want to tell everyone on social media where they went…usually right after they went there. If they say they went to the wrong place, they’ll be accused of not being cool enough to have found the right cool spot. By making sure the restaurant has some photo-friendly touchpoints – such as fun or unusual plate presentations, great glassware with memorable adornments, or a fun design element – the restaurant’s brand is sure to be spread throughout social media. If you don’t have whole lot to work with (i.e.– you’re a hole in the wall with nothing but great food to hang your hat on) then see below re: staff. A friendly, happy, fun staff that is willing to take pictures of and with tourists goes a long way to making your restaurant the topic of social media conversations.
- De-bitter your staff. Restaurant employees that live in vacation areas are often critical of tourists. Snarky…cynical…annoyed that they have to wait tables in order to support their beach addiction. Tourists know they’re tourists, and often they know they look like tourists. Not every Honolulu native wears a flowered shirt…but you can bet that most tourists pack a few (or buy a few) flowered shirts for the trip. Teach your staff to value the tourists and their flowered shirts, and force them to lay down their snide wit during their shift. Teach them to answer tourists’ questions patiently, acting as if they have not heard the question 100 times that day.
For resort town restaurants or vacation area restaurants, capturing summer vacationers follows the same formula as any restaurant in any town: good food and drinks, friendly atmosphere and an escape from reality. The difference is that vacationers are well aware that business is seasonal and that you depend on them, so for a great experience, vacationers are happy to pay a premium.
Ray Camillo – Founder & CEO, Blue Orbit Restaurant Consulting
As a restaurant owner in a touristy beach town, make sure you consider these 4 quick ways to capitalize on summer vacationers.