Leura Garage’s Art @ the Garage series.
Leura Garage’s Art @ the Garage series.

Getting involved in your community through sponsorships, donations and activities builds the brand, creates networks and opens doors you might have never considered. Nicole Szollos talks to three restaurateurs who are making their mark

Community. It’s a word that evokes a sense of belonging, common values and loyalty. And in the restaurant and catering world, strategically integrating your business in the community can significantly impact on business success.

For restaurateurs and caterers, community involvement makes good business sense. It promotes the business name within the local market and gives the personalities behind the restaurant the opportunity to build networks and strengthen their personal profile, further embedding the business in the community’s heart.

Helping hand

Restaurant veteran Marie Piccin, co-owner of Angelo’s on the Bay in the inner-west Sydney suburb of Cabarita, has been an active community participant through her restaurant since it opened nearly 30 years ago. Piccin, who is also a resident in the area, provides support through a range of activities such as donating dining vouchers as raffle prizes to local schools, clubs and sports teams, and hosting community functions and charity fundraisers, including an annual major fundraising event for Concord Hospital.

Having started her career as a teacher at a local school before establishing the restaurant, Piccin understands how necessary fundraising is and the reliance on the community. With requests for donations coming from near and far, she focuses on supporting groups and charities in her local government area but will go outside the boundaries for a particular cause she wants to support.

“We help our community and by staying local, it’s helped build our profile and it’s important to build the relationships in our local area,” she says.

Supporting her local community wasn’t a conscious business or marketing strategy in the beginning for Piccin; it was just her way of helping out. But over the years the benefits became clear.

“Every time you give away a voucher, you get those people coming to your restaurant. When we hold a charity event at the restaurant, we may have 140 people through the door and they get the Angelo’s experience. Then when they are thinking of somewhere for a birthday party or family dinner, we are the first people they ring,” she says.

Piccin also donates her time at community street fairs and events, building not only the Angelo’s on the Bay brand but also her personal profile. Each year Piccin, along with some of her team, hold a cooking demonstration at the Concord Carnival and she has been the MC of FerraCucina, the kitchen stage at Five Dock’s annual Italian festival, for the past eight years.

Sporting ties

Opening a restaurant in the highly residential and tourist-dense suburb of Manly on Sydney’s northern beaches required a more deliberate community engagement approach by industry stalwart, Mark Dickey. Establishing Garfish Manly in 2006, he found that appealing to local clientele was a key focus of the initial marketing philosophy and plan.

“Knowing Manly had a high tourist rate, we didn’t want to be another restaurant catering to tourists. There wasn’t a great level of service in the area because most restaurants weren’t concerned about return catchment so we wanted to come up with a long-term marketing strategy because the locals tend to be a bit suspicious. So we wrote ‘Garfish—your new local’ on our blackboard from the very first day and we looked to engage with the community from the get-go,” he says.

Part of this strategy was to sponsor two local sporting groups, the Manly-Marlins Rugby club and the Manly Warringah Netball Association, to engage with the community. While a connection with the two clubs existed, they were identified as markets aligned with the product and selected to build the Garfish Manly name among supporters.

“We knew it was a strong rugby union area and demographically, they were the type of customers we wanted in the restaurant and to connect with,” Dickey explains. “Supporting the netball association gave us broad exposure as they have a huge participation rate on the northern beaches and we know that the female generally makes the dinner booking, so we saw some benefit from that,” he adds.

Dickey describes the sponsorship relationship as “symbiotic”. The restaurant receives exposure through banners on the field, ads in the game booklet plus mentions on game day. Padding on the netball post is branded with the Garfish Manly logo and they have naming rights on one Marlins jersey. The clubs reciprocate support by holding various dinners at the restaurant and at an individual level, the relationship has led to regular local customers.

“It’s very important to support the local community, particularly for business longevity. You become part of the club by being a sponsor and there is a shared philosophy. On any given night there are two to three tables of people in the restaurant that I know are involved in the sports clubs,” he says.

In addition, Garfish Manly supports local schools, charities and clubs and in the past year has donated gift vouchers of various denominations to 21 schools, 13 clubs and eight charities. The restaurant also hosts several charity functions throughout the year.

While the monetary return on investment from community support is difficult to measure, Piccin and Dickey agree that over time, results are there and they are more than financial.

“It is rewarding to support the community. It makes you feel a connection with the people who use your business and you feel positive about being part of the community,” says Dickey. “There is also the karma element. We’re putting it out there and it comes back. That’s not always direct; it could be through someone booking and bringing other people to the restaurant or it could be the general feel-good factor that’s built around our brand that we do good things in the community.”

Piccin, who earlier this year was named City of Canada Bay’s 2014 Citizen of the Year in recognition of her community support, has had a similar experience in her journey.

“We have held many functions at the restaurant that have been an offshoot from our community involvement and it shows that whatever you become involved in, you can really push the business. The more your name is out there, the better it is for your business,” she says. “There is also the feel-good factor for customers that they are dining in a restaurant that supports the local community.”

Regional focus

For James Howarth, owner of Leura Garage in the Blue Mountains, NSW, community also means regional. Since opening Leura Garage in 2011, Howarth has supported local schools, clubs and charities through fundraising and donations but has also backed regional initiatives such as the Safer Australian Roads and Highways (SARAH) movement and the Ability Options initiative.

“The SARAH movement is about creating awareness among the public that safety on the roads is important. We support the organisation financially—the Art @ the Garage series was a fundraising activity for it,” Howarth explains.

“The Ability Options initiative is more of an integrated strategy. We were looking at a way to allow floor staff to focus on customer service rather than cleaning and setting up tables, so we developed roles for Ability Options clients to assist with various duties. We now have four staff in this arrangement and it has been a real success for the business,” he adds.

Howarth also presents at the annual Leura Harvest Festival and attends schools and growers’ markets to showcase the restaurant’s focus on sourcing local and seasonal produce.

“Regional restaurants have a great advantage in that they can develop their own identity and it can be influenced very much by the people, the geography and the climate. The possibilities of working regionally are significant because people want to go to a regional restaurant and experience something local, but unless a grower can supply local produce then the opportunity can’t exist,” he says.

This sentiment outlines Howarth’s approach to marketing, taking it beyond community support and into regional progression. He is currently concentrating on the product and takes the view that there is no point in promoting until the product is right. To this end, he is working with local growers to help improve critical mass and works specifically with one main supplier to design the Leura Garage menu and help plan what he should grow.

“Restaurants are an interesting business because there are many touch points and you have to work at every single one to create the whole. It is a lot of work but at the same time, it builds your brand, creates integrity and moves you forward,” Howarth muses.

While it is still relatively early in Leura Garage’s marketing strategy, Howarth has identified some benefits of supporting the community, in particular receiving positive feedback from customers.

“It’s been very positive and it can lead you to new places. As a business owner, you are always thinking about how to sell more but you also need to think about the intangibles of being involved in the community. What you put into the universe comes back to you,” he says.


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