No one has ever said that running a restaurant is easy. It seems even more difficult if you are an independent operator. Consumer’s tastes are changing, with more dining concepts available than ever before. New technology keeps popping up, but staffing challenges never go away. And then there’s the chains, which seem to get harder to fight against. Indeed, The NPD Group’s Fall 2015 Recount showed independent unit counts declined -2%, while the chains grew +1% from the year before.

With the chains gaining ground in overall units, how can the independent compete? Fortunately, there are weapons at your disposal. Check out these five tips:

Maintain high, consistent food quality

People initially select restaurants largely by food type and a perception of quality (more on this later). Give them a positive experience and they will likely return. Quality speaks to both the ingredients you use and how they are used. What do patrons dislike more than anything? Inconsistency. If they loved your signature dish, don’t disappoint them when they come back by saving a few pennies on lower quality ingredients, or by a slightly different variation of its preparation. It’s an investment, but teach your kitchen staff and waitstaff why you choose the ingredients you do – and make sure they consistently follow the recipes.

Market your story

What draws a customer into your restaurant for the first time? The second time? The big chains have big advertising budgets covering large regions to develop awareness for their brand. But do you know the difference between advertising and marketing? Advertising says, “Look at me!” Marketing is the message that tells why people they should look. What does your brand represent and how do you communicate it? If you haven’t thought about it for a while, try this simple exercise:

  • Write down three things that you think makes your place special. These are the reasons why people come.
  • See if you can find any of these things in your marketing, menu, website, etc.
  • Ask your servers for the three things they would list. Compare their answers to yours.
  • If these things don’t line up, you have an opportunity to market yourself much more effectively.

Manage your social media

Don’t kid yourself – you are on social media whether you do anything or not. Your online reputation is extremely important, so monitor and respond to what is said about you. Yelp is one of the first places people look to for information about your food quality and the dining experience others have had. Understand your stars! You can be creative in posting pictures of your food on Instagram, Pinterest and Facebook. Encourage customers to connect on Facebook and use it to offer a special to draw people back. This can all be done at very little cost.

Be local

You likely have more flexibility than the franchise operator to tailor your message and activities to the people in your community. Buy local ingredients (as long as you don’t compromise quality!) and let people know it – especially if it is part of your brand message. Support a local team, school or charity to earn the support of the community; it’s a two way street! You will draw in new customers and you’ll hear direct feedback about your restaurant.

Reinvest in your restaurant

As with most relationships, there is a point at which familiar and comfortable becomes routine and stale. Over time your customers and their tastes changed. Did you notice? If you haven’t done so recently, walk through the front door when the restaurant is busy and really pay attention to what your customers see. Do you need new items on a new menu? A fresh coat of paint or new bathroom fixtures? A different type of engagement with your servers?

As an independent, you can most definitely compete and win! You have powers and freedom that chain operators do not. You can connect with your customers in a way that they cannot.  You can nimbly respond to changing business needs. Your challenge? Periodically stay out of your business long enough to work on it.

-Lynn Corazzi