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Marketing on a shoestring: Lunch spot gets prime-time news coverage for $250

Everyone's talking about saving money these days. But how about boosting demand with very little money to spend? Here's a story about a corner lunch spot that has spent about $250 in a month and received a huge amount of free publicity and local buzz.

2006_10_13-muffin1One of my favorite lunch spots in Toronto is Mystic Muffin. It is an unassuming joint, serves a great meal for around $5 (you can spend $10 and feast), the service is personal and cheery, food is great and healthy, and they make the best apple cake around.

Imagine my delight, then, when I saw this place featured on CBC national news today at 6pm. There was the smiling face of Elias Makhoul, serving up jokes and food the way he has for years. But what was he doing on the news?

The headline was used as a teaser before the break for weather, and then a full story was presented after the weather. Headline: Local restaurant offers it's own stimulus package - a free lunch for laid off customers. Then the owner's happy face saying "you can eat here for free until you get another job!"

What is this guy, crazy? This is clearly a Man Bites Dog story; definitely an attention getter, but what about the cost of the promotion? What's going on here?

No sir, Elias is not crazy. Well he might be crazy but he ain't stupid, and he's not losing money. He's created a 5-point economic stimulus plan for his customers. I don't remember all the points, but one is that if you bring a bag lunch and eat it in the store, he'll give you a free cookie. Cost of goods? What, like $0.25? Every single customer that goes through his door reads about this and tells their friends, who also go there for lunch. But how many people bring a brownbag to collect a cookie? I wonder if he's given more than 10 cookies away. Besides, you feel prety sheepish taking a free cookie from this guy, and I bet those who do so end up buying a bunch to take home or back to the office. Knowing Elias, he probably upsells them to a fresh-baked apple cake.

But that's not the best part. Best part is that for his regular customers - and he knows who you are! he remembers names like very few people can - if one of his regular customers loses their job because of the downturn in the economy, he will give them a free lunch until they find a new job.

On the surface it still sounds a bit crazy. But the news story reported that over the last month he's given away (only?) 50 free meals. Let's say average cost o2006_10_13-muffin2f goods is $5 per meal. That's $250. But every single customer who walks through that door is telling the story back at the office, and at home. And again, how many of his regulars are really going to go back for more than one free lunch, even one a week. Social pressure and good manners will limit his financial exposure, but the marketing exposure from word-of-mouth is massive.

And now, he's been featured on national news.

Do any of our readers have Guy Kawasaki's twitter ear? Next thing you know, Elias will become a marketing legend. This story is right up there with some of Guy's classics on how to drive your competition crazy. Only in this case, Elias is not even paying attention to his competition. Even better.

He even has a facebook fan page: http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=2395121035&ref=share

By the way, if any Toronto locals are reading, I'd love to get a photo of the stimulus plan written on the blackboard at Mystic. I don't get there as much as I used to when one of my clients was in that neighborhood. Here's a photo from the web of Elias' standard menu.

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