Burger blitz

After retiring from his job as chef in the Royal Canadian Navy, Bill Pratt decided to open a burger joint in his native Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. He opened Cheese Curds Gourmet Burgers and Poutinerie in February 2012. “I put out a sign up on the street a couple of months before and people started hearing about it,” he says.

A feeding frenzy descended upon him when he opened his door for business. The 24-seat restaurant was serving 800 people a day, many of whom happily waited 45 minutes for one of his high-end, low-price treats. CBC News did two items on his restaurant and the local newspapers all ran large stories about the lure of his gourmet burger. Lineups stretched out the door and down the street. Four days after he opened, he had three offers to franchise his small business, including one person who came with cash. Four months and 27 days after opening Cheese Curds, he opened an adjacent second restaurant – Habaneros.

Reached on the phone in the middle of an interview with Eastlink TV to celebrate his food being named best burger in Nova Scotia, Pratt explains his small-business marketing success as a combination of good product, good online presence, great location and the old-fashioned magic of “buzz”.

“If you serve really good food, use really good ingredients at really good prices (the most expensive item on the menu is $12.85), that’s a good model,” he says “And it’s business, right? It’s location, location, location.”

Pratt was the executive chef at the Vancouver 2010 Olympics and had served sailors for 35 years, so he knew how to handle the food side of the business. He didn’t know how to brand it or create a website, so he hired Trampoline Branding. They produced logos until they got one Pratt liked – a towering, stylized burger with lots of ingredients and a flag stuck on top. The brand and accompanying font and colours created the friendly, yet gourmet, look he wanted. They also created a slick website, Cheesecurdsburgers.com.

“It was a contract to do the branding and the website. They did a fantastic job,” he says. “It makes a huge difference if it looks professional. The goal is to franchise this model.”

Pratt wouldn’t reveal the cost of the branding exercise, and a representative of Trampoline would only say that it was “basically free after you experience your first week of sales jump.” According to the U.S. Small Business Administration, a company’s marketing budget should be between two and 10 per cent of sales – though most small businesses spend less than that.

Pratt built on the professional brand campaign by enlisting his kids to set up his Twitter and Facebook accounts. People love posting pictures of their lunch and virtual burgers blew up on local social media feeds.

Pratt succeeded because he chose a market (gourmet burgers) that wasn’t being served in the Halifax area, and found a location on Pleasant Street that was close to an industrial park full of workers, near a major Nova Scotia Community College campus and on a road passed by 30,000 cars a day, but that had few eating options. People spotted his eye-catching logo and got curious. That created the conditions for word-of-mouth marketing to flourish. “People try it and love it, and they tell 10 people who tell 10 people and it just booms like crazy,” Pratt says.

Dr. Lei Huang, assistant professor of marketing at Dalhousie University, applauds Pratt’s low-budget, high result approach to marketing. Huang says small businesses with limited marketing budgets should start with social media. Begin by opening Twitter, Facebook and Google+ accounts branded clearly as an official presence. Spend some time watching the sites if you’re not familiar, as each has its own language and social rules, and blundering in can make you appear tin-eared.

You can do it yourself (or get your kids to do it) and it can rapidly spread your message. But be careful: anti-social bragging about your goods is likely to leave you unliked and unfollowed.

“The company can start a website or blog,” Huang says. “This can contribute to the conversation. It’s a very effective way of buzz marketing.”

Register your business with Google Local and Google Merchant so people searching for you will find you. Connect to interested third parties. For example, if you sell clothes, find the influential fashion bloggers and invite them to try your wares. “We call it ‘birds of a feather flock together.’ They are actively looking for such information, so it can be more effective.”

Stepping into the real world, get welldesigned business cards. Huang observes that while most of the world uses both sides, North Americans ignore the “back.” Don’t.

Noel O’Dea, president of Target Marketing, says small businesses can get the biggest bang for their buck by hiring professionals to develop their core branding images. Your brand must represent your business, because it will speak to people before you even open your mouth. Online is the first place most people go when they hear about a business and if your site looks like a vintage 1999 GeoCities page, they may not explore any further. This is especially true if, like Pratt, you’re aiming to franchise it one day.

“If you’re true to who you are and you believe in your product, it doesn’t really matter how small you are,” O’Dea says.

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About Jon Tattrie

Jon Tattrie is a freelance journalist and writer based in Halifax. He's a board member of the Writers' Federation of Nova Scotia and regularly speaks to universities, colleges and schools on journalism and writing. His debut novel, Black Snow, was published by Pottersfield Press in April 2009. His first non-fiction book, The Hermit of Africville, was released in the summer of 2010.

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