How to smash a Soho restaurant launch on a small budget

The mission

Create huge amounts of awareness for the launch of CHIK’N second site in Soho on a limited budget.

The founders of CHIK’N described the launch of their 2nd restaurant in Soho as ‘the launch that will make or break us’. This wasn’t an exaggeration – CHIK’N is an aspiring chain and  the location was crucial here as it needed to be a place that would cement the brand from newbie into a cult brand that is firmly on the foodie map. If it doesn’t work in Soho then that’s most likely the end of the dream.

So no pressure then…

The perils of offers

The original launch of CHIK’N was a huge success in terms of launch goals – see the case study here: http://www.sixeightagency.com/portfolio_page/chikn/  However one of the key drivers for this (apart from my incredible marketing…) was the fact we had some very strong offers. The first 50 people in the line would get free fried chicken for a year and we had a 50% off soft launch that we used to capture 5000 email addresses

National news from the launch of the first CHIK’N

The interesting lessons learned here were that the offers attracted the wrong kinds of people – often they were deal hunters who never came back. Also we created so much hype that we couldn’t keep up with the demand. Not only did we run out of food (which we turned into a positive story) but the food was way too inconsistent at that volume. As we were a brand new restaurant with a brand new team and systems we quite simply couldn’t cope

The line around the

This ended up turning a lot of people off as we were next to KFC and a more expensive version and we had to be on point every time otherwise people would naturally compare us and we’d come off as worse value

Even with all that, would I say it was a mistake? We still managed to get a huge amount of awareness and put ourselves on the map. For all the negatives, for a first store launch I think you need to make as much noise as possible. If we could have delivered better I think it would have been worth it but overall I think getting that much attention and not being able to service it did more harm than good.

But a very interesting first lesson – as always you learn nothing if you play it safe and on that level there are no regrets.

Soho – aka the place that makes or breaks restaurants

Fast forward 2 years and we were ready to open in Soho. It should be noted that it took 2 years of constant refinement, menu changing and even a small rebrand to be ready to open in Soho. For those with dreams of rapid expansion as we had (we should have been many stores in after 2 years) the reality of running a restaurant can be very sobering. 

Anyway, that’s an interesting post for another time…

Soho is exciting and daunting at the same time. It’s where you put a brand on the map. One of the biggest challenges we had with Baker street was that a lot of the ‘right kind of people’ who will cement you as a cool brand simply never came to Baker St. Soho yes, Shoreditch yes, even Peckham yes. But Baker Street no – it’s not somewhere you’d go to unless you had a good reason.

But Soho is a place that everyone passes through at some point, often with the express purpose of eating. As its so central you can get all of London coming and talking about you. It’s also much easier for people to visit you more regularly and thus grow the essential emotional attachment needed to boost your word of mouth

However, the rents there are punishing, the competition fierce and you just can’t ever not be busy, at the very least during the week. It’s why so many restaurants have come and gone in Soho.

The plan

We had around £8,000 to spend on the launch. For some smaller restaurants that sounds like a lot but from a marketing perspective it’s very little if you’re looking to make big noise in central London

Everyone has their approach – with CHIK’N we call it the wall of noise. We try and do as much attention grabbing activity as possible so we’re seen everywhere and everyone is talking about us. That requires a lot of creativity and time and most importantly, you need a reason to stick in people’s heads and get them excited – if there’s no story then why would anyone care about another fried chicken restaurant opening in town?

So our objectives would be:

Primary objective

  • Build awareness
    • Wall of noise
    • Get the right people talking about us
    • Drive key messages

 

Secondary Objective

  • Drive sales coming in
    • Social ads 
    • Local marketing

 

Building the hype on social

Instagram is our key communications channel and we’d be telling the story of the launch here. Anyone can post pretty pictures with boring  captions (and they do) which serves some kind of ill-defined purpose but for me social is there to spread ideas and position you in a way that sticks in people’s minds above your competitors.

Chart your journey 

Tell an honest journey about the launch and the struggles because launching your second restaurant in Soho is bloody hard! We’ve always been transparent and real in our communications. We’re a small and growing business figuring it out as we go along – most of what we do is great but sometimes we screw up and there’s nothing to hide about doing that as long as we say how and why and what we learned. 

We find people get much more emotionally connected and supportive of us and if anything are much more forgiving when things go wrong as they understand that is the restaurant business. If you play it safe and pretend that everything is amazing all the time you’re just like everyone else and in our case that means bland, faceless chains. We have real people running the business and we want that personality to come through in all our communications.


This was a video of all our failed dishes

Also doing a launch is a unique and fascinating experience – people are really interested into what goes into it and the more exciting it is, including the lows, not just the highs, the more they get swept up in your story and build those emotional connections.

Reinforce key messages

As we’re going out to a new audience it never hurts to start pushing your key messages – what makes you special and different from the rest. In short – why would you go to CHIK’N?

CHIK’N is not a brand to play it safe and humble, we know that we’re one of the top fried chicken restaurants in the UK and the brand has a lot of attitude, so after a bit of internal debate we just came out and said it ‘The best f*cking fried chicken sandwich in London’. 

Not everyone’s going to agree it’s the best but you’re not going to ignore a message like that and you know you’re not dealing with a timid brand. The ultimate goal was always to make each sandwich the best ever and keep innovating to push it further so no need to be shy about it.

Build anticipation and excitement

We wanted people to be besides themselves with excitement for the launch and for it to really feel like an event. With no visible offers and no budget for huge parties on launch week.

We’re very lucky that CHIK’N are obsessed with innovation and development and are always updating the menu and trying out new things. This is a huge asset as 

  • It helps position you as leaders, you don’t play it safe like your competitors
  • It shows your obsessional dedication and passion to the craft 
  • It helps justify your costs when people knows what goes into the food.
  • It’s fun! People are fascinated about what goes into planning a new menu and love becoming part of the development process

 

The menu was being completely revamped for the launch and a lot of tweaks done to existing menu times including using state of the art pressure fryers to take the chicken to the next level

The more you can get customers involved in the process the more they’ll get swept up in your journey. A launch is an amazing opportunity to get people emotionally connected and really understand who you are and what you’re about.

We got people to share their opinions on the new items we were trying out. It was amazing to see how involved people got – when it comes to food, everyone has an opinion and they’re more likely to share it when they know they’re being listened to

I still think its amazing how few restaurants talk about their development process. It’s such an interesting and defining part of a restaurant and 

Due to time pressures with the development process there was almost no time to take good photos as the food was coming out very quickly (see learnings). A really bad photo of a stained menu full of specials ideas still got 76 comments as people were so interested in these ideas and the journey

 

Use stories

We also started using stories nearly every day too. Stories were an incredible way to go behind the scenes and show our development process. 

I love using stories and customers have said how much they enjoy them. But stories can be time consuming and sometimes it can be hard to justify the value of the time you put into them. That’s why it was also important to use interaction elements like polls and questions to prove how engaged people are with them. You can even use that to make business decisions based on customer feedback

We started posting twice a day on the grid and doing daily stories in the lead up to launch as well to build our reach. 

Wins

  • Big rise in engagement over launch period especially with development ideas – 60% increase in comments
  • Increased post reach over launch period – 1.4M impressions
  • Succeeded in building hype and anticipation especially with local Soho market
  • Key messages picked up by customers 
  • Insta stories impressions up 500% and replies up 400%


Social ads

We need to reach a new targeted local audience in a very short amount of time. Social ads are by far the best way to do this online (backed up by local marketing on the ground). However, there was no way I was just throwing ads up there to get as many views as possible without driving action as many others do.

There’s nothing wrong with that and awareness certainly has it’s place but I also needed this campaign to show the value of using ads for the future and there’s no way to justify that value if all you’re looking at is how many times people saw your video. How am I meant to know how much to invest in ads next time then?

To figure out the value we needed people to take action in a way we could measure. None of us love deals/offers and after the launch of Baker St we said that CHIK’N would never be a deal lead restaurant. However, when testing the effectiveness of an online channel you need to see a response and having an incentive is the best way to get people to respond.

You need to make sure you don’t look desperate and needy and as long as the offers don’t live anywhere they can be seen permanently (ie only as temporary social ads) then it shouldn’t harm you in the long term. The more you can make the offer seem like it’s because you want to promote something specific or bring joy to more people rather than giving your food away as a tactic, the more it can be seen in a positive light. Humour works well too here.

We decided if we were going to do an offer for testing it needed to be a good offer that would drive action – so we’d offer a free loaded fries. We’d frame that within we were so excited about opening a restaurant we wanted to share that joy with as many people as possible. 

To get maximum value from the campaign, the only way to get this offer would be to sign up to the mailing list or a chatbot so we could then chat with customers beyond launch.

We’d use a retargetting strategy where we would send videos to a cold audience to spread awareness and we’d only send the ad offering a free fries to people that had seen the ads or were already ‘warm’ from previous interactions with us. The idea here is that someone is much more likely to take action when they know what you’re about already. If you come in straight with an offer to a cold audience it feels too spammy and hard sell and people will most likely ignore you.

I’ll share the good bits with you though as the campaign was a real success on a few levels

Raising awareness

Our ads got seen by 169,000 local people with 500 people sharing our posts. Awareness can be a hard thing to measure but from discussing with customers when we opened, we know that a lot of relevant, local people saw the ads. 

Just as important a high number of them watched at least 3 seconds of the video so we could retarget them with the next ad

Driving action

This was the bit I was really happy with. We got over 2000 people to join our email list which was a great response.

In terms of redemptions, we had 12% people redeem the fries offer which is a high level for a campaign like that. If every one of those people came once and bought a meal, based on average spend the campaign would have paid for itself. However the average person comes back multiple times so this was a profitable campaign

Learnings

We went pretty deep in the testing of this campaign so Im going to spare you all the details here and put that on another post for those that find that kind of thing interesting. A few highlights though:

  • Using a chatbot to redeem the offer and communicate the offer worked well with a high opening rate for future messages (compared to standard newsletter open rates) and likelihood to take action and click.
  • The landing page getting people to give their email address for the offer needs its own testing strategy. It had a 50% conversion and small improvements beyond that can significantly increase the number of sign ups – no time on this campaign to explore further.
  • Insta story ads were the cheapest in terms of getting people to respond to the offer, nearly half the price of regular ads. This isn’t going to last forever so now really is the time to go all in on Insta story ads .
  • We tested low quality videos to see what stuck before committing to more expensive videos and they were fine. You really don’t need to go all out on production if your message and offer are good and certainly don’t do that before you have tested what works.
  • What made this approach and structure great was it is now much easier for CHIK’N to see that social ads work and be ready to commit more to it with a clear idea of how much they could expect to get back on their investment as we had a clear lifetime value for each customer that redeemed the offer (which we have the app to thank for)

 

Events

One thing we’re really lucky is that Carl and David are always up for doing fun and attention grabbing events, it’s how they met and how the whole fried chicken thing came about. Originally they did a bunch of attention grabbing pop ups all over London that eventually turned into Chick ‘n’ Sours. It’s still very much in the brand DNA.

The two main events were:

Chikfest

This was an event I set up last year which was a way to test out new menu items on some of our biggest supporters of the restaurant, both customers and the industry. I love Chikfests – they’re a really fun way of giving love back to your supporters whilst being a brand that does stuff at the same time. 

For this one we did 2 sittings – one for our customers and one for industry people including Sophie Michell, Karan Sethi from JKS Group and Neil Rankin

Sun and Cantons pop up

We wanted to do a series of events in Soho in the lead up to launch to introduce ourselves to the community and start building a bit of buzz. 

Doing a pop up event at the Sun and Cantons was the perfect choice for this. Sun and Cantons is a great space that’s known for celebrating up and coming chefs in its residence series so had a lot of cred. We did a tray of our new food for a fiver only (amazing deal) and the best bit was all profits went to Shelter charity

Like any event you crap yourself a bit in the run up but we had a really good turnout, a good level of chatter on social and really positive feedback from our local community and the foodies that came. It was a great way to launch CHIK’N to Soho

We did a competition to win a free spot to the event. The fact we had 288 comments to win a £5 prize show the level of excitement people felt about this

We were going to do a one day pop up event at the Soho Food Market which would have been awesome but fell through at the very last minute due to a complicated situation out of control. Shame. 

Wins

  • Both created a real sense of anticipation and saw spikes in activity
  • Sun and Cantons was packed out from opening, bearing in mind noone knew us in Soho then
  • One of the highest ever levels of engagement for Sun and Cantons event competition and prize was really small

 


Influencer invites

I don’t even like using the word but do ‘people of influence’ make a difference to a restaurants success? It’s a big question and everyone has a different opinion on it. It doesn’t help that the word ‘influencer’ has been severely degraded and with good reason. 

If you want your restaurant to stay very small and culty by all means ignore this bit. However, if you want to make a big impact, you need the ‘right people’ to know and love your restaurant.  Defining this is a big one but ultimately it’s people that influence other people’s decisions. The key people here:

  • Journalists/media
  • Industry people
  • People with big followings (doesn’t have to be Instagram) that others listen to. Primarily foodies for obvious reasons

 

Where the degradation has happened is in a bunch of people taking over Instagram, describing themselves as ‘influencers’ with no idea about food or restaurants and hacking their way into the landscape whilst offering dubious value and their engagement primarily coming from each other to boost each others accounts. 

For journalists and industry people – of course having an amazing product is important. However there are plenty of amazing restaurants that have been and gone that never got on anyones radar. For me as a restauranteur/chef I do think you need to invest the time in building proper relationships with people in the industry. Firstly, it’s just nice to be part of a community – it’s bloody hard being in this biz, one of the perks is how extremely nice and passionate most people are.

Secondly and in relation to growing a restaurant, the only way industry people will know about your restaurant is if you get in front of them and tell them about it both online and in person at events. These people will in turn have far more good will to you as your progress in your journey. It’s up to you how confident you feel about that and how you manage your time to be able to build relationships but I really think it puts you on the backfoot when you stay invisible. 

I could talk about this subject for days so to get to the meat of it – Carl and David have excellent relationships and reputation in the industry so they had that part covered and you really feel that when doing a launch. Which publications decide to cover you, which other chefs publically support you etc. All that filters down to the masses. Our events are a great way to cover these.

I  believe that there are enough genuine foodies that it’s worth the effort but some level of filtering is needed. I sent out a bunch of invites to those with the following criteria:

  • Follower counts didn’t matter, it was about engagement and  the level of comments and who was commenting – the comments weren’t just from all the same instagrammers to bump up each others posts
  • Some with more niche focus eg burgers, chicken, asian food etc
  • They clearly cared about restaurants and food and had a basic level of knowledge – not just the usual selfies and boring captions

We did experiment with inviting non-foodies too to broaden the reach but the level of time invested in this to find the right people soon made it clear it wasn’t worth the effort on our budget. 

Comments from an influencer post by other respected people in the space

Wins

  • Very positive reviews and content which can be reposted
  • Lot of engagement with posts of people that came
  • 96 people invites were sent, 50 people came. Good ratio, show that people are really interested in us (imagine if you were a new restaurant how many people would care enough to respond, also bear in mind as Insta DM a lot of people miss these messages)
  • A lot of influencers use hacks and comment on each others posts in engagement pods. It’s hard to measure exactly how much value they had to potential customers

 

I think for the food costs outlayed its worth doing this as it certainly does no harm. However I think to really justify the costs you need to track the activity – to do this in a formal, structured way can be time consuming and pricier.

I will still continue to recommend doing invites as part of a launch strategy

Local marketing

As sexy as Instagram is, for real local community building, you need humans meeting humans IRL. Most people hate local marketing which is fair enough because it’s hard, time consuming and just not that fun for those that aren’t super confident and care deeply about the business.

However so many restaurants fail in this and have done nothing to introduce themselves into the local community. Firstly being part of a community is a good thing for all humans to do, it’s just good karma. Secondly if you’re relying on local business for your restaurant, your number one goal is to get in with your local community as they are the absolute core of your business. Thirdly – a human connection is worth so much more than an online connection – that is how you build a true fan for life.

We did the following

  • Walked into EVERY local business and gave a scratchcard offering different prizes – something a bit more fun than a standard flyer. The key here is to use this to start a conversation and explain what we’re about. If you just dump some flyers and jet you’ve wasted the moment
  • We provided the staff meal to our favourite restaurants in Soho
  • Went into some of the key local offices, introduced ourselves and gave some food to try whilst having a chat. We tend to frame this as food feedback and give notes to fill in which gives us awesome feedback on the food and people generally love critiquing food. Plus all the awareness and chatter it generates. 
  • Again really important to use this opportunity here to chat to people and introduce what you’re about whilst listening to their wants and needs. It ticks a lot of boxes.

 

Conclusion

The campaign was a great success within the budget and we punched above our weight, looking like a much bigger operation.

It showed that having a great story, exciting food and a laser like focus on the right channels to get that story out meant you could acheive amazing awareness on a small budget.

It felt like every office/local business in Soho and surroundings was aware of us and more importantly of what we were about. We controlled the story they were telling, not the other way round.

The Social ads campaign proved it worked as a model for events and campaigns and now the return on investment has been proven, it’s opened up the possibilities to use ads to drive other things like loyalty app downloads.

The day time traffic and deliveries have been great since launch. The next challenge is weekends which are a different crowd and a slower burn to reach in Soho. Weekends in Soho are mainly full of tourists and out of towners visiting with a much lower number of residential people, so it’s time to think of some more creative campaigns to reach them!


Dan did an amazing job for us, going way above and beyond which we’ll always be grateful for. Launching us in the right way in Soho was no easy task and Dan proved he’s got the chops to successfully launch a restaurant in one of the toughest locations in the world.

Carl Clarke
Founder ‘CHIK’N’
Evening Standard: Maverick Chef Of the Year