Firebirds' Secret to Being the Unchained Chain
One of the challenges of scaling a mid-sized restaurant chain is the notion that, well, you’re a chain. Beyond the power of recognition that crosses state lines, how do you compete with local, independent spots that appeal to the community-based diner? How do you unchain the chain, in other terms, and erase the sterile stereotype of corporate eateries?
Perhaps the most compelling tool is local-store marketing, an approach that can ultimately determine if your restaurant chain is just another location in the community, or truly part of the community it serves.
At 49-unit Firebirds Wood Fired Grill, Stephen Loftis, the chain’s vice president of marketing, says local-store marketing is where the team “really had to plug in and roll up our sleeves.”
“And figure out how to attack 49 very unique markets and really, almost, 20 [designated market areas] where we’ve got to work back through.”
What Firebirds, a FSR 50 top emerging chain, did was create a robust print and digital local-store marketing reference guide for its operators. The constantly evolving material leads the owner through the complex process from day one, offering references and tips for each step along the way, and much more.
Start with the mission
Callie Murray, a marketing manager at Firebirds, says the team defined what local-store marketing really meant before putting words to paper. Essentially, it can be very different marketing to Niles, Ohio, than Jacksonville, Florida. And how do you account for that variance and make it feel authentic by zip code?
“A lot of that is obviously growing traffic and sales, and then establishing the brand and just creating a local relationship in the community,” Murray says. “Whether that’s with local businesses, our mall partners or center partners that we’re located in. And also just our guests who are already in our restaurant.”
Word-of-mouth marketing is the place to start. Murray suggests looking at the dynamic like this: If your brand establishes a good relationship with one person in the community, the guest is likely to return with another diner, or maybe three or four. The typical average party size at Firebirds is 2.5, with a per person average of $26.50. “So if you’re reaching that one person you’re not only reaching that one person—you’re reaching the person they’ll bring with them and the people they’ll tell and it only grows from there,” Murray says.
By the numbers, if you say four people results in 10 total guests (four parties of 2.5 people), it’s an additional $265 in sales. That divided by $10,000 equals a 2.65 percent sales increase. “The impact we view from just speaking to one person and making a great impression on the brand is huge,” Murray adds.
At its core, local-store marketing is best defined as driving guest frequency through established relationships. This traffic can arrive via community outreach—inviting locals to dine at your chain. It’s a different approach than mass media spend, like TV, radio, out-of-home advertising (billboards), and deep discounting. Simply, it’s a strategy to sales along a grassroots path.
But while the term “grassroots” can sometimes paint a picture of spontaneous and combustible marketing, local-store strategies at the chain-restaurant level need to be specific, measured, planned, coordinated, and executed all year long, Firebirds says. This is how a restaurant becomes a community landmark, not just the “hot spot” worth trying when it first opens.
Firebirds’ guide also lays out in-store marketing tips, and what to look for in brand ambassadors who can deliver food samples to the community, whether that’s hotels, businesses, schools, car dealerships, apartments, and so forth. The guide details the types of food items Firebirds would like to make a first impression with, when the best times to do so are, and how brand ambassadors can follow-up promptly with further opportunities.
Store by store
Becky Hall, also a Firebirds marketing manager (Hall and Murray each cover a specific regional footprint), says the brand deploys SWOT analysis and has local teams fill out information on each market to make sure efforts are location specific. They look at the area as a whole around each location. What other businesses are nearby? What’s the competitive intrusion?
“We talk about the external,” she says. “The strengths inside the four walls. The opportunities that are within a 4-mile radius. And then threats that are external in a 4-mile radius as well. We have our local teams fill those out because they know the market better than we do, because we’re here at the corporate office in Charlotte. We then use that SWOT analysis on a regular basis to gain insight into the market and learn how to actually market that individual restaurant.”
In the chain lexicon, presenting a local feel needs to be approached with a careful hand, however. There’s an entire section in Firebirds’ local-store marketing guide on remaining brand focused.
“We want to maintain that brand awareness,” Murray says, “and just make sure it’s all really in line with the polished casual brand that we go for. [The guide] has all of our logos. It explains that [the operator] can get our logos from either Becky or myself since they don’t have access to those necessarily. Mall partners, whoever it might be. If they’re doing a private dining event, or something like that, they come to us.”
The guide features a page noting what Firebirds stands for as company, and how that applies to multiple touch points. Everything from verbiage, typography, design, pricing, e-blasts, posters, and more. And this all goes through Murray and Hall.
Additionally, on the note of brand equity, Firebirds includes a section on public relations. It’s a crisis management and media relations protocol outline for local teams.
“Everything they need to know in case the media comes calling for whatever reason,” Hall says. “We have these guidelines, and they can give us a call pretty quickly so we can manage the media in case of an emergency or unfortunate situation.”
This runs through topics like fires, guest injuries, ill-prepared food, accidents, disputes, criminal acts, poorly behaved employees, and more. Firebirds provides operators contacts and the exact corporate employees to reach in case of crisis, along with some information to gather before reaching out. This way Firebirds can respond collectively, quickly, and effectively.
Firebirds sponsors athletic teams, schools, and local events. The chain’s locations have a visible community presence to stay active in each market. Hall and Murray work closely with the local teams to evaluate each opportunity and make sure it’s the right fit for the brand.
Firebirds supports Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation on a national, systemwide level and has raised over $1.2 million to date. But there are also local efforts, like a recent Charlotte 5K event for the Isabella Santos Foundation. Firebirds had a VIP tent with its chef cooking up food, and helped raise more than $255,000 to fight childhood cancer.
The social media effect
Firebirds curates individual Facebook pages for every location. Christine Lorusso, Firebirds’ digital marketing manager, says the chain’s social efforts allow it to connect with the community and guests on an uber-local level. And it’s a major element to new store openings. One example: Firebirds recent Oklahoma store—a first-to-market entry—started with a Facebook page, which generated fans before the doors even opened.
Firebirds can also create ads for local pages and build out its e-club program—the Inner Circle—before grand openings. In this case, Firebirds started its database with more than 1,000 members, Lorusso says, before business got underway—thanks to social media efforts.
Once the restaurant does open, though, it allows each location to share those aforementioned community efforts. Using the Oklahoma restaurant as an example again, Firebirds invited all of the local first responders in on 9/11. “They could come and try Firebirds and also we could show our appreciation to them. And we were able to promote that on social media, and share our photography from the event,” Lorusso says. “And really just get plugged into the community where somebody might not know Firebirds that well.” Firebirds also used social for its hiring efforts.
Building a Facebook page for an upcoming location is important for search engine optimization and general awareness as well, Lorusso adds. The corporate team handles the postings internally. Hall and Murray will communicate with the local team and Lorusso, who then makes sure all of the social communications are current and relative. Lorusso says Firebirds handles the tasks internally to ensure brand voice uniformity, and so the manager can focus on the business, not on social media.
This line of community is critical across the guide’s elements. Operators have learned from the book, and have the information at the ready, and are able recognize an opportunity and then send it back to the corporate team before proceeding.
“[Hall, Murray, and Lorusso] spend an inordinate amount of time really providing a point of view back,” Loftis says. “Hey, does this make sense? Does this fit the brand? Are we getting a return here?”
“Whether it’s Isabella Santos or something with a local school, or even our national charity, Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation, we’re constantly reviewing things and making sure it fits our brand guidelines. And there is quite frankly, a return on investment. Either it’s a cash trade, food, or whatever it might be. There’s a return and it makes sense for the brand.”
Keep it evergreen
Loftis says Firebirds had an informal version of this guide dating back six, seven, eight years, and then formalized it about a year and half ago. Originally it was an online guide, but Firebirds wanted to offer operators something tangible.
Murray adds that operators are constantly offering feedback and appreciate the guide’s backbone of support.
“They know what’s important. They don’t realize what all goes into it, and all of the different buckets and all the different little things that they really should think of and consider when evaluating opportunities or going out into the community for things,” Murray says. “The book is a very good source for them to refer to whenever they’re looking at events before they even send to Becky and I. Whenever they’re thinking about events or delivering food.”
“There are some tools in here—some spreadsheets, tracking mechanisms, etc, that really help them guide their thoughts and help them think strategically about what they’re doing instead of being out there willy nilly and trying to do a little bit of everything,” Loftis adds.
Murray says Firebirds is working on a fresh edition. They’ve done a few iterations to keep it updated from a seasonal perspective. For instance, updating a tool kit section that shows different items they can order to take out in the community, whether it be a sales flyer or different seasonal menus.
Firebirds hosts quarterly calls with local teams, talking to each restaurant, one by one, to chat about the overarching process—whether competitors are moving in, staffing, and if marketing or social can help ease those concerns.
Loftis explains the holidays are both an opportunity and challenge for marketing. Gift cards. Online ordering. Seasonal items. “So how do you curate that conversation, and all the different touch points that we have ongoing? It’s a big time of the year for us and the tool helps guide that conversation as we close out the year,” he says.