In less than 7 years,has built a wildly successful multi-concept, multi-unit operation. FreeRange operates 10 units spanning four concepts and 9 more units are either under construction currently or about to break ground.
Co-founders Kyle Noonan and Josh Sepkowitz achieved the feat of opening multiple concepts within the first 11 months of becoming operators. This was due in part to Noonan’s tenacity and drive to generate “chatter out in the marketplace,” as he puts it.
Noonan is a marketing and promotions expert. The success of FreeRange’s restaurant and bar social experiences is evidence of his proficiency. To Noonan, innovative marketing can make any weekday as profitable as a Friday or Saturday night. Tuesday, in other words, can be a bar’s new Friday if they approach marketing properly.
At this year’s Nightclub & Bar Show in Las Vegas, Noonan shared his marketing tactics. He sums his strategy up succinctly: “Be brave, be bold, be different, market remarkably. That’s it.”
The Winter Formal
Noonan got his start in this business in 1998 while attending Southern Methodist University. He had found out that attending winter formal at SMU was pricier than he had anticipated after asking a girl to go with him. She said yes, and Noonan needed money.
He went to the fanciest restaurant near SMU and applied to be a server. Noonan got the job, found that he enjoyed it, and was soon asked to go into management. He was then asked to be general manager, followed by the role of district manager, followed by an executive position in a restaurant company worth around $500 million dollars. Noonan stayed with that company for 13 years, then started his own.
Noonan and Sepkowitz, his college roommate, best friend and eventual business partner, had long talked about creating an “Internet-proof” restaurant concept. The two spent 18 months working on their first concept—a restaurant and bar with bowling lanes called Bowl & Barrel—drafting a 178-page business plan (“very long and probably overkill”), meeting with a consultant, and raising capital.
“We approached everything we did as a restaurant and bar first and foremost, with some other component,” says Noonan. “I think, philosophically, that really changed our approach on the care and the quality that we put into the food and beverage program.”
Three Concepts in 11 Months
Noonan and his business partner didn’t have much money to play with at first, so they had to act as their own PR representatives. The former restaurant group executive came up with a “ghost” public relations firm called Kyle PR, then turned to Google to learn how to write press releases. To the operators’ surprise and delight, Noonan’s first press release worked: 1,500 guests showed up for Bowl & Barrel’s grand opening.
“It was like drinking water out of a firehose from day one,” says Noonan of the successful launch.
Shortly after the Bowl & Barrel grand opening, Noonan and Sepkowitz opened a second concept called MUTTS Canine Cantina. This restaurant and bar concept overlooked a private membership dog park that cost members $17.95 per month. Think of it as a golf club or gym, but for dogs, food and drinks.
Four months after MUTTS launched, Noonan and his partner opened The Rustic. This full-service restaurant and bar boasts an outdoor concert facility with a 3,000-person capacity. FreeRange had become multi-concept operators but they still didn’t have the money to hire a PR firm yet. So, once again, Noonan wrote a press release. A few thousand people showed up for the grand opening of The Rustic.
The duo’s fourth concept—that’s right, they weren’t finished—was The General Public. As Noonan tells it, this bar was born out of the necessity. A “shitty” bar had opened next to Bowl & Barrel, and Noonan had noticed that it was very busy. It also just so happened to be Bowl & Barrel’s next-door neighbor. A competitor was literally attached to their restaurant and bar.
One day, Noonan walked into the competing bar and asked the owner how he was getting so much business. The owner told him that he estimated 80 percent of his business came from Bowl & Barrel. It turns out that Noonan’s first concept was a victim of its own success, so to speak: Bowl & Barrel had become so successful that two- to three-hour waits weren’t uncommon. Guests would come in, put their names on the list, and then head to the bar next door for a change of venue while they waited for their lanes. Noonan’s success was fueling the competitor next door.
“We realized instead of feeding our neighbor we wanted to be our own neighbor,” says Noonan. So, they eliminated a competitor by buying the bar and opening The General Public. You’ll now find the concept next door to all their Bowl & Barrel units.
Noonan says that he and his business partner learned a valuable lesson: When you base your venues off what’s fundamentally the same platform, you can apply it to multiple different concepts. But Noonan also learned the value of implementing a unique and effective marketing approach.
“The one thing I think you really need to take away that I learned from, whether we’re talking about a private membership-based dog park, or whether we’re talking about a bowling alley or a bar, or a concert venue or a tavern or a nightclub, we’re really not in any of those businesses,” says Noonan. “In my mind, we’re in the word-of-mouth business. That’s it.”
Marketing to boost business on off nights is part of Noonan’s “marketplace chatter” technique. He and his partner market big and market differently. However, most important is marketing remarkably. Noonan explains the difference between marketing like everyone else and marketing remarkably via his “Jag in the Driveway” example:
Let’s say you get a knock on your front door. It’s your neighbor, and he invites you to come check out what’s in his driveway. You follow him and there’s a Jaguar in the driveway. It’s nice. You may kick the tires, try out the stereo, and honk the horn. But you’ve seen people driving a Jaguar—it’s not remarkable. You probably wouldn’t even bother telling anyone about your neighbor’s Jaguar.
Now, let’s rewind. You open your front door and it’s your neighbor. He invites you to come check out what’s in his driveway. You follow him and there’s a jaguar in the driveway. A jaguar, lower-case “j,” as in the wild, powerful, apex predator cat. You’d tell everyone about your neighbor’s jaguar.
Everyone Loves Dogs
MUTTS is the concept where Noonan put his marketing prowess on display. At that concept, word of Noonan’s “jaguar” earned global reach. It’s where Noonan showed the world how his marketing tactics took FreeRange “from zero to $60 million in 6 months.”
Noonan created an internship at MUTTS that paid $100 an hour for a “Puptern” to pet puppies. There were no hooks and no strings attached—that was it. MUTTS really selected Puptern and they really paid them a hundred bucks to pet dogs.
The attention this idea garnered led to interviews with outlets across the United States…and in London, South Africa, and Bangladesh. The MUTTS Puptern internship was featured in print, seen on television, heard on the radio, spread online, etc. The Puptern internship was designed to get people talking, and that’s exactly what it did, to stunning effect.
The result of that viral word-of-mouth marketing resulted in both MUTTS locations increasing sales 23 percent year over year, and it cost very little. Over the course of the last three months, the Puptern has worked for MUTTS for maybe 10 hours, meaning they’ve spent $1,000 for press coverage that spanned the globe.
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This taught Noonan and FreeRange Concepts that it’s best to market with consumers and not to consumers. To Noonan, this a different approach to marketing on a philosophical level. Instead of marketing to a target, an operator should ask how they can get that target to talk on behalf of their brand.
The Koi Pond
There’s another marketing tactic that currently has Noonan fascinated. He’s so intrigued by it that he gets frustrated when a consulting client won’t implement the tactic when he tells them about it: marketing without a hook or catch.
Noonan hates marketing pitches that come with a catch, such as “with purchase” or “one per guest” caveats. He explains his approach as a koi pond. The reason that someone who walks up to a koi pond, Noonan says, and notices that the fish don’t appear to be afraid of humans, is that they’re not. The fish in a koi pond have never had a human cast a hook into their pond, so they don’t scatter at the sight of one.
Applying that to the human world, the pond is the marketplace. The fish are the potential guests. However, humans have had all manner of “great” offers and promotions dangled in front of them on hooks. We’ve gotten smart and many of us will no longer bite when we see offers “hiding” hooks.
Noonan illustrates his approach to hook-free offers by sharing how he fixed a FreeRange Concepts unit that was struggling to drive business to the bar. The restaurant was performing but Noonan says nobody was sitting at the bar. To create energy and fix the problem, Noonan implemented a happy hour.
However, a business can’t run a special in only one section in Texas legally, so this unit couldn’t offer a discount only for bar guests or only in the restaurant. So, a “happy hourly” was implemented: drinks cost $4 at 4:00, $5 at 5:00, and $6 at 6:00. There was no hook, no limited list of drinks guests had to order from: this offer applied to all drinks.
Most guests didn’t take advantage of the concept’s generous offer in negative ways. Whiskey & Coke drinkers still just ordered their Whiskey & Cokes, for the most part. The few guests who did take advantage—like the guest who only came in during happy hourly to order expensive Scotch for $4, or the one who only visited to order 1942 for $4—presented opportunities for staff. They built a relationship with the Scotch drinker, inviting him to come back for brunch, lunch or dinner. They invited the 1942 drinker to buy the bottle at a discount. The staff keeps the bottle behind the bar and he comes in more frequently, and not just for happy hourly.
Noonan recommends that operators stop doing what the bars and restaurants competing against them are doing. That’s step one, really. They should also ditch the hooks and come up with offers that are as appealing to guests as they are straightforward—no more fine print. If they do so they just might find that Tuesday is indeed their new Friday. As Noonan would say, “That’s it.”
- Don’t market at the consumers, market with your consumers. Create engagement, personalize the interactions, and get your audience to spread the word for you.
- Never forget: We’re not in the bar business, we’re in the word-of-mouth business.
- The word “remarkable” is defined as, “worth making a remark about.” With that in mind, we must market boldly, we must market differently, and most importantly, we must market remarkably.
- Stop doing the same stuff everyone else is doing: “$1 off beer” and “Wine-Down Wednesdays” have been done before. If you want to be an anomaly, you must act like one.
- Stop putting “hooks in the bait.” Any marketing initiative will be infinitely less successful if you add the common catches like “one per person,” “with purchase,” or any other kind of parameter. Be brave enough to provide actual value without stipulations.
- Use marketing intelligently to bring guests through your doors. Once they’re in, you know operations. You know how to create regulars, how to make food, serve drinks, etc.