Small town restaurant ideas

Straight from my email, meet Benjamin M. Martin. He’s looking for help with a small town restaurant:

I live in Clarendon, Arkansas, population 1,700 or so (yes, seventeen hundred, lol). It’s in eastern rural Arkansas, commonly referred to as the Delta. The vast majority of people here are farmers and ‘old school’ where the fast food from McDonalds, Subway, etc just doesn’t appeal to them and they aren’t willing to drive 40 miles roundtrip to get any fast food. So, they’re used to the home cooking such as grilled burgers, plate lunches, mashed potatoes, etc. Consuming healthy food is like asking them to sacrifice their first born.

Anyway, we have two very small sit down restaurants here that seat about 25-30 each. Both offering the small town food that is cooked on the grill like burgers, fried fish from the local river, chef salads, chicken fried steak, etc. There is also a small Tastee Freeze as many people have known them over the years. You just go up to the window and order, wait five minutes and you have it. There are no places to sit down or anything of the sort. It’s named The Lions Den (after the local high school mascot) and been in existence since 1968. My grandfather originally built it and my father ran it for a few years before selling it. So that’s where my interest in seeing it succeed comes from.

December 1st, it was bought by a couple my age (early 30’s) and, just this week, they completely replaced the entire kitchen – a FIRST since it was built. Yes, it was waaay past time to do so. With the local rumor of a Subway coming to town, I want to get them to change some things and enhance their offerings so they don’t panic and make some wrong decisions when Subway does open. The problem is, I’m just not sure which direction to go in and I’m just not sure how locals will be willing to change. So with that said, here are a few of my ideas that I’d like you to look over and see if any of them might work, in your opinion.

1) The Lions Den has been successful for 40 years now. Why change anything at all? Well, with all small towns in the Delta, population is dwindling and the economy is really affecting everyone. So what changes can be made?

2) Offer some healthy offerings. Since all sodas have a huge profit margin, perhaps offer various fruit Smoothies? The local teenagers and semi-heath conscience young adults would like this, I feel. Anything fruity seems to always sell.

3) Local advertising is a waste of money, in my opinion. Everyone knows of The Lions Den and it’s in a prime location so any advertising would be pointless. The Chamber of Commerce is nothing but a political circle so those membership fees are pointless, as well.

4) There are no posted specials whatsoever. Like Sonic, perhaps offer a Brown Bag Special. Two cheeseburger, two fries and two sodas for ‘x’ bucks. There is a large wall next to one of the ordering windows where a large piece of plexiglass can be installed with a large menu of sorts behind it advertising just the specials. They can offer variations where they an offer 1 burger/fries and 1 chicken basket or something of the sort. Having ‘numbered’ specials works at every other fast food place in the world, so why wouldn’t it work here?

5) Happy Hour. Back to Sonic, I know. They offer Happy Hour every day from 3pm-5pm where drinks are half off. Your cost of a drink from the soda fountain is about 8-10 cents so you’re still making a huge profit even at half price.

6) Offering local flavor I’m not sure is possible other than continuing to offer the greasy burgers they’ve done for years, lol. This area is known for it’s fish from the White River and the two cafes have that covered.

7) I’d love to see them give some sort of reward system for kids who make the honor roll or something of the sort. Maybe, if they bring their report card there, they get one free meal?

8) Gift cards. I think a great advertisement of “Don’t let your child/grandchild go hungry this summer,” would be fairly effective since the area kids are always roaming the streets during the summer. They’ll head over to Grandmas for a free sandwich or something. By buying them a gift card, this is a gift that will last and not be thrown out in 30 days like the latest CD/DVD. The drawback to this is, without an electronic scanning system like McDonalds has, how do you regulate this? Do you have a special stamp or the owners signature to make them legit each time a kid redeems it? I’m just not sure how to go about doing this.

I think there are two main areas to look at here:
1) Can you get small-town, simple-minded, people to change the way they look at food and actually make healthy choices?
2) If so, what are some low-cost, high-profit items that can be offered on the menu?

Thanks for any help you can provide,
Benjamin M Martin

Me? I like the idea of a new specials board. Seems like a very low cost area to immediately make more sales.

What do you think?

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About Becky McCray

Becky started Small Biz Survival in 2006 to share rural business and community building stories and ideas with other small town business people. She and her husband own a retail liquor store in Alva, Oklahoma, and a small cattle ranch nearby. Becky is an international speaker on small business.

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  1. says

    Sounds to me like replacing the kitchen is a terrific start. With the emphasis on local foods, I’d encourage the owners to try to source more ingredients from local farmers. The taste difference will mean plenty to people.

    I worry about the attitude regarding advertising and the Chamber of Commerce. If you want the community to support you than you have to support the community, too. I can’t imagine the chamber doesn’t want the drive-in to succeed.

  2. says

    Hi Becky –

    Just Tweeted you this link, but I think it’s really worth encouraging them to claim their Yelp page – it’s absolutely free and a great way to market your business to locals, and tourists (17 million people visited Yelp in the past 30 days alone). You can add photos, coupons, announcements, and there’s an “About” section that can address what you’re trying to do with your business: ie – in this case – healthier eating and why. As well as who you are, and more. It also let’s you engage with your customers – a great way to get feedback.

    Hope this helps – don’t hesitate to contact me should you have additional Qs.


    Chantelle K.

    Yelp for Business Owners

  3. says

    If the concern is with a national chain of standardized product offerings – then I like the idea of focusing more on local and regional cuisines, and where possible, sourcing from local farms and ranches. Together, that provides a clear competitive distinction between Subway, Tastee’s etc. I like the other idea suggested above of daily or weekly specials. And finally, don’t be afraid to ask frequent and infrequent customers what they think – they might surprise with some great ideas!

  4. says

    I would keep the old time flagship products if they’re selling and ease people into new things, maybe with specials.
    My big thing, esp for a business of this type, is to find ways to make it easy for your customer to do business with you.
    Accept phone, email, even Twitter orders. Heard a great story abt a coffee shop owner that was listening on Twitter, got an order from a friend, and soon was getting lots of business. That way. Ok in rural South, that might not be big, but you see my point, right.
    Can you do a drive-thru? If not can you have a kid run orders out to the car?
    Do they accept credit cards or let people run an account?
    In other words, always be thinking about ways to make life easier for your customer, NOT YOU!

  5. says

    In response to a few comments above:

    When I mentioned local farmers in the original email to Becky, I meant farming such as soybeans, cotton, rice and corn. Farming on a large scale, not in your backyard – although there are a few of them. So using local crops, as far as I can tell, really isn’t possible.

    Me mentioning that the Chamber is nothing but a political circle, well, it’s dead on. With the size of the town, the yearly dues are only about $50 or so, so with the few businesses here, there isn’t a lot of money to do anything. For instance, they had to solicit donations just to have a Christmas parade last month.

    This town is fickle. It really is. Very small-minded, narrow-minded, simple thinking is the norm. Anyone who strays from the norm is seen as different/crazy/unrealistic/whatever. The fact that I’m soliciting this idea to be over the Internet, *gasp*, would knock them off their rocker, so to speak.

    The bottom line is I’d love to see The Lions Den prosper and continue to do well despite the downturn in population and economy. I’m just unsure exactly how to do it and, if we can convince local customers to think healthy, what low-cost / high-profit items could be offered.

    Thanks for any input,

  6. says

    I like the specials board too. There’s nothing wrong with copying the ideas of Sonic and other fast food restaurants, obviously they’ve done something right.

    I also don’t know that going a healthy route would be a good idea. Healthy eating is great, but for that kind of establishment, people want their burgers and fries. Subway is already seen as the healthier choice, so why try to compete with them. You are really in two different markets. Smoothies seem like a good idea though. You can always test some healthier items to see what works.

  7. says

    You’ve got some great ideas!

    Can you run the ideas by current customers? They may be willing to tell you exactly what they are interested in seeing.

  8. says

    Help them connect to locals and fans by creating a Facebook Group for the business. It could be started by them, or maybe you’ve got more time. This will let them and their fans connect, and even with the size of your town you’ve probably got 2000+ Facebook members within 20 miles – that’s a lot!

    When the Group is established, you can message members regularly with specials and news, add photos, share stories etc – make it more than just boring sales pitch…

    Have fun – Ken

  9. says

    When we bought our cafe we were advised not to change a thing for at least a year, but – I’m guessing like most folks – we didn’t really listen ;-) What we *did* do was 1) install a point of sale system which would provide us with all sorts of reports so we could track not only $sales but specific food items, options, head count, etc. 2) get rid of the old fast-food style formica booths and replaced them with tables and chairs so it looked a bit fresher as well as gave us the flexibility to seat larger/smaller groups, 3) bought new tableware – brightly colored mix ‘n match that looked more inviting than the standard white dinerware (not a typo), and 4) – this was probably the most controversal as well as expensive – we installed an espresso machine.

    Then, we gradually started changing a few of the recipes. Rather than the home fries being cooked in bacon grease, we cooked them in olive oil, garlic and rosemary. We added a waffle bar. We switched to 100% butter in the kitchen instead of a blend. We still had all the old favorites on the menu, but now we also had some stuff that would appeal to a new crowd. We have veggie chili as well as the hearty meaty kind (we make ours with pulled pork). We have a chicken caesar salad wrap and a veggie wrap, along with great burgers, pulled pork, reubens, chicken salad, and everything else you’d expect to find on the menu. The younger kids might like something a bit more ‘contemporary’ like smoothies, even if the old timers don’t care for them. We gradually improved the quality of the coffee we served. We didn’t make big announcements, but people started saying “hey, these home fries are really, really good! what did you do?” or, “this is a great cup of coffee!”

    And the whole time we treated each and every customer with courtesy and respect, greeted them with a smile, and made sure we gave them the best service on the planet and made them feel like they were the only customer we’d ever had.

    We’ve more than doubled the business since we bought it 4.5 years ago, we decreased the number of seats from 50 to 36-40 depending on table configuration, and have almost a completely different clientele than when we first took over. Word of mouth is our biggest source of advertising. Get them involved in social media – who knows, while the ‘locals’ may not be internet savvy, those the next town or two or three over may be looking for a place just like this one.

    Best of luck!

  10. says

    Hi Benjamin,

    I have a lot of thoughts to share. You asked for “low-cost” “high profit” foods to consider adding to the menu. Spaghetti, Lasagne & Ziti a a few. Pizza – depending on various factors.

    I grew up in a town of 1,700 (farming community)and my Father had a couple of restaurant businesses. I understand the issues you have posted.

    I also own Socio’s Pizza & Pasta (12 years) in Pace, FL (Milton/Pensacola). So, I am very experienced and knowledgeable about Franchise competition.

    My passion is to help our Small Businesses.

    Is it possible for me to review the current Menu?

    Based on what you have posted along with our friend’s posts, I would concur with:

    2. Join your Chamber (although in a larger town, I don’t suggest this).
    3. Don’t try to mimic what Sonic is doing.
    4. Develop a “Supper” menu with heartier meals. I’m suggesting this based on my perception of your customer profiles.
    5. Can you tell me what kind of kitchen equipment the restaurant currently has, i.e., vented grill, vented fryer, oven, etc.
    6. Have you talked with your Food Vendor? They can give you cost per serving figures.
    7. Do you serve breakfast?
    8. Are you able to deliver lunch to businesses close by?
    9. What is the distance(s) of the small communities around your area?
    10. I can help with Marketing!
    11. I can help with cost-saving suggestions.

    Looking forward to more info from you! I’ll get focused on your issues after I learn a bit more from you!

    Best regards,

  11. john says

    john said, make your business sessible to different groups, ether in the day time or at night. Have a poker night in the middle of the restaurant. Have a wine tasting or beer tasting night.You can do everything right,just keep it reel don’t over do it. Make the customer feel right at home. good luck!!!

  12. says

    Hi John,

    Great comment! Do you live in a small town? I doubt that they have ‘wine tasting’ nights! A lot of small town locals don’t like to advertise their “taste for adult beverages……….” It starts rumors! I just had to “rib you!” I’m giggling as I type. At least, you made me laugh! What a guy! Um, please take me with the kindest of gest…well, I’m still laughing. Sorry! Ok. Straight face – I’ll try again. Oh boy, I’m one of those “worldly experienced that just has to find humor someplace!” Day to day, I’m WAY TOO SERIOUS! But, enjoy the fact that you made a workaholic laugh! Doesn’t happen often!

    What on God’s green earth do you do for a living?

  13. says

    Hi Benjamin,

    Debs here. Um, you know what you CAN and CANNOT get “away with.” In a small community. I know. I’ve ‘been there, done that.’ I am here to help the Restaurant. I’ll do everything I possibly can to combat the franchise competition moving in.

    Not to worry. I have fought the big boys and know how to keep the doors open for a small business. I also understand very well your small market and town.

    Rest assured, there are a lot of things you can do to help the new buyers of the restaurant you so love.

    Just let me know when I can help!


  14. says

    Hi Benjamin,

    Well my wife posted now it’s my turn. I work at my cafe 7 days a week. We do breakfast and lunch. We tried dinners but the storage and kitchen were just not set up to do 3 meals. We stuck with what got us there. Breakfast and Lunch. We have the simple to the somewhat exotic, but I’m a small town guy with not so extravagant tastes, but I’ve developed a somewhat eclectic menu to fit the needs of a variety of palettes. You have to know this first. We are a town of 2 towns. Lincoln and Woodstock, NH…sometimes referred to as LinWood. POP. 2400 during the week. Ski area in town and the White Mtns surrounding us. POP on weekends, summer and vacation weeks. 15,000-30,000. We have approx. 37 restaurants including the ski area. That’s competition. 14 are breakfast/lunch and the rest are lunch/dinner or just dinner. We have McDonalds, Subway and Dunkin Donuts. Most of these restaurants seem to be open year round while some only open in the high seasons of winter and summer. Now you know our area.

    I took over a 50 seat restaurant and decided to make it a 36 seat restaurant so we would only need a max of 2 waitstaff…mostly we use one. All our waitstaff is cross-trained to help in the kitchen too and our kitchen staff can take orders if need be. This holds down labor. Food cost and labor..our two biggies. Control them and you can control your business.

    I’d like to see the current menu to get a flavor for the area. My menus are online at: I’ve developed my own soups, bbq, chilis, chowders, stews and specialty sandwiches on our lunch menu but we still sell burgers and dogs. Our breakfast menu has the staples; pancakes, waffles, crepes (gaining popularity)and a couple varieties of french toast. We sell beer and wine. We have espressos, lattes, cappuccinos and smoothies. Don’t change what is successful. Service, menu items, etc. Decor needs to be fresh but not crazy exotic. Something maybe a little more upscale than what is at home. Makes a good change of scenery. Food has to be Good and that Starts with Good Ingredients. Everyone has their own tastes and that includes Chefs. Restaurants survive or fail around their food. If it isn’t appealing the restaurant won’t survive. Be ready to modify a recipe if you get feedback. Don’t change for one person and don’t change for the sake of change and don’t change something without letting some time pass by first. That’s critical. You can introduce items as specials and if and when they gain some following you can update your menu…add some time tested items and delete what isn’t selling. Make recipes that use ingredients you already have. You can use the same ingredients and make HOT new items by being creative. Hope some of this helps.

    We’ve carved out a bit of a niche and we have a good local following. We have to have locals to survive. We listen, we create items to fit their lifestyles. It’s different from location to location. I’ve added and dropped items over time. We go with what works. I get ‘suggestions’ all the time, especially from my sales people. Listen to them, but don’t buy anything spur of the moment. Let it sit in. I’ve waited a year after hearing a vendor give a suggestion on a new product. It might not fit now but down the road it might work quite well. Well that’s it. I’ve blabbed long enough. I”m working on updating my menus now as I write this. There is change in the wind and I have to go with it. Bon Chance!

  15. says

    Hi Steve,

    Do you need some help? Ideas, whatever. Wind changes don’t stabilize a business. Vision and creativity are the driving forces. If a business consistently reacts to ‘whims,’ there is no consistency. You are in a totally different market than The Lion’s Den. Your market is locals and tourists. The Lion’s Den does not have tourists. They are trying to focus on their locals-while competing with franchises moving in. Although, I suspect that Sonic & Tastee Freeze will be the end of more franchises moving in. The population does not support more.

    Best always,

  16. says

    Hi Again Steve,

    I just checked out your site. It is very nice. As I mentioned, you are in a totally different market than The Lion’s Den. The Lion’s Den is a very small local cafe. Their concern right now is that a piece of the “food pie” is being spent at Sonic & Tastee Freeze. That is their concern. We need to help them “maintain their ground.” The locals are spending their money at these places, too. We need to ‘redirect’ the locals to The Lion’s Den.

  17. says

    Debra and Steve – I’m about to email you both with many more details about the situation, including pictures and the general items they sell. I also want to run some ideas by the two of you that haven’t been mentioned yet.

    Thanks BUNCHES for all the tips above. People helping other people is what this world is about. I wish there were more people like you all that responded above. :-)

  18. says

    Mary & Steve – Can you please email me? You don’t seem to have your email address listed on your web site, or at least I can’t seem to find it, lol.

    (Sorry, got to avoid the spammers…)


  19. says

    yeah deb, you’re right…Ben doesn’t have tourists. I was giving a profile of our restaurant… not comparing the two. However, we do have locals and we compete with at least 8 other restaurants DAILY for those locals. They keep us going. I’m not sure who you were talking to about whims. The wind comment was in regard to the changing economic climate. I’m good. I’ve got vision i’ve even got some fight left in me. ;)

    Benjamin…. My email: mcrae dot steve at gmail dot com

  20. says

    Hey Steve,

    Sorry I mis-interpreted the “Wind” comment. Yes, indeed, we are all struggling in today’s economic turmoil. However, the GOOD NEWS is that all of us little small biz companies can support each other. I do have vision and hope, too. And as you said, a lot of ‘fight’ left in me, too! No sense in just ‘laying down,’ eh? That’s NO FUN! There’s ALWAYS a way.

    I am looking forward to bantering with you!

    Hey, I have a ‘techinical question.’ Everytime I want to post, I have to fill out the Comment as: It’s really starting to bug me. Is there an efficient way to post?


    Best always,

  21. says

    Allow me to be more specific.

    I have to keep re-entering my name and the blog thingy URL. I only signed up with this “blog” thingy so I could post here.

    I haven’t started my own blog, yet. Debs is just learning about this blog stuff. Bear with me. I need some instructions from the pro’s here! What’s up with this SELECT PROFILE thing?

    Greatfully appreciated! I hate passwords and urls, etc. Drives me NUTS.


  22. says

    Hi Benjamin & Steve,

    I did receive your e-mail. I have responded in detail via e-mail back to you. I am confident that you will find my comments and suggestions inspiring.

    Let me know your thoughts!


  23. says

    Steve, I understand competition. And your competition.

    I actually closed Socio’s Pizza & Pasta for ONE DAY. Long story.

    But, to recap:
    I fought Pizza Hut, Domino’s, Little Caesar’s , Papa Johns. I know competition. Just imagine my competition for the pizza market in a small town. I could write a book – and should.

    Now, add the other food establishments taking a piece of my pie. Like,Cici’s Pizza, Chili’s, Ruby Tuesday’s, Beef O’Brady’s, Popeye’s, WhatABurger, McDonald’s, Waffle House, Chick-Fil-A, Subway, Ryan’s Buffet, La Hacienda, etc.

    Pace was a very small town. You could shoot a shotgun down the road and not hit anything.

    In the past 5 years, Wal-Mart moved in. Need I say more.

    So, Debs does know how to fight. Socio’s was the only place to eat other than Pizza Hut – 5 years ago.

    Things change. I know how to deal with change.

    I have a great story to write. I know how to keep a business open. Doesn’t matter what kind of business – Business is Business.

    Hope this inspires.


  24. says

    I may be stepping beyond. Which is what I do. So, everyone here, bear with me.

    Here is my suggestion to everyone here. Doesn’t matter what biz you are in. I’ve been in them all.


    Want to keep your biz open? ASK. Want to make the correct decisions? ASK.

    There are a lot of great folks here that will help. I am not a “blogger.” I am a “nuts and bolts” girl. I don’t make things ‘pretty.’ I know business. Trust me on this. I have a very impressive background.

    I hate ‘long….drawn out…..opinions.’ I am a straight-shooter. Will call it and not give a 2 page report. I hate reading all of the “help sites.” Takes too much time. I want straight answers and straight suggestions. That’s just me.

    I don’t have time to be reading someone’s long, drawn-out thesis on business. I want answers NOW.

    Sorry. This is Debs. Take me or leave me.

    Enjoy my posts.


  25. says

    We are launching a new site called TownSync this coming Spring. It will be a social network for small towns that offers both businesses and individuals a page of their own. What we hope to achieve with the site is to create a space for people in small communities to promote events, announce deals, specials and coupons, and interact with each other in a similar way to the real world.
    We recognize that these online technologies are new and sometimes foreign to small towns like Clarendon, but once people began to understand the site as a version of their town online, they might be more likely to join. I believe your restaurant could easily benefit by promoting a page on TownSync and inviting others in town to join.

    Best of luck to you!


    TownSync Business Features:

  26. says

    Hi Micah,

    I think there are a lot of folks here that would love to participate in your TownSync site. Check out Elkader, Iowa. My home-town. My Father was the Mayor. And, naturally, I am following in his footsteps to help our small towns.


  27. says

    Hi Micah,

    Your site is a breath of fresh air. For our small towns. They need our help.

    I would love to work with you on this venture.


  28. Scott says

    hi i own a buisnes in the pittsburgh area and alot of competition has forced me to make crazy changes one thing that worked is offering crazy off the wall stuff like footlong hotdogs coney island south of the border west vergina style and even a pittsburgh hotdog prov/mozz shredded cheese black olives and honey mustard all these different style dogs and can you believe i had all the ingredients in house anyways $3.99 each the above is just a few styles and I also offer all the styles on 1/4 lb hamburgers to this has become a hit for the younger college and school kids just an idea times change throw something out there it just might be the next nathans or something