Under the Influence

How a deck of cards earns one restaurant lineups out the door

Most businesses hope good products and excellent service are enough to encourage positive recommendations. But the smartest companies actually have strategies to ignite word-of-mouth chatter. It’s the oldest form of advertising, but it’s the most effective by far.
Skip's Kitchen knew waiting in line for a meal was ripe for disruption. (Julia Wright/CBC)

Most businesses hope good products and excellent service are enough to encourage positive recommendations. But the smartest companies actually have strategies to ignite word-of-mouth chatter. It's the oldest form of advertising, but it's the most effective by far.


House of Cards

There is a small but very good burger restaurant in Carmichael, California. It's called Skip's Kitchen.

It features excellent hamburgers, fries and appetizers. It was named one of the best burger joints in the country in 2017.

When the restaurant first opened, it realized it had a problem. People would order at the counter then sit at a table. Skip Wahl, the owner, had trouble remembering which table had ordered which meal.

So he considered using plastic numbers that customers could prop up on their tables, similar to what other fast food chains do. But Skip wanted something more visually interesting.

So one day he came up with an idea. He would use a deck of cards.

When people ordered, he would give them a card. Say it was the three of clubs. He would write their order down on the ticket, along with the three of clubs. Then when it came time to deliver the order, Skip would look for the table with the three of clubs.

Skip's Kitchen restaurant in Carmichael, California. (skipskitchen.com)

It was a fun and unusual way to keep track of orders. Business was good. When it was busy, the lineup would go out the door.

But that created another problem. Lineups put people in a bad mood.

Skip needed a hook - a reason for people to be patient while waiting in line.

Then he came up with an unusual idea.

One morning, two ladies in their mid-seventies came in to order some salads. Skip said, "Ladies, I'm going to try something here." Then he fanned out the playing cards on the counter - face down - and said "If you pick the joker, your entire meal is free."

So one lady picked a card. And it was the joker. They screamed with delight.

Skip wondered if he had just come up with a terrible idea.

But he persisted with it for the rest of the day - and customers loved the chance to win. So he tried it the next day. And the day after that.

Soon, people started jockeying for positions in line. They came in groups. When the restaurant was busy, customers had a better chance of winning as the deck of cards would get smaller. They would even let people get in line in front of them because it lowered the odds of a free meal by the time they got to the counter.

Suddenly, people didn't mind standing in line anymore.

On average, four customers win every day. Skip gives away approximately 2% of his orders.

But when people win, it turns into precious word-of-mouth marketing. Lucky patrons take selfies, post them to Facebook, they write reviews and tell their friends.

The biggest bill Skip has covered was for $117 when a group of ten scouts ordered lots of burgers - then picked out the joker.

The scouts all ran around the restaurant like they had won the Super Bowl. The entire place was clapping and high-fiving them.

That joker idea not only creates massive word-of-mouth - it creates return business. As author Jay Baer says, it differentiates the restaurant from all others in town.

But here's the truly amazing part:

Since Skip Wahl introduced the deck of cards to his restaurant, he hasn't spent a penny on advertising.


Taxi Driver

When the late, great actor John Neville was the artistic director of the Neptune Theatre in Halifax, he came up with a novel idea to generate word-of-mouth for his theatre company - even though he had almost no advertising budget:

He offered free tickets to taxi drivers and their families.

The Neptune Theatre in Halifax, NS. (Pam Berman/CBC)

He did it for two reasons:

First, John Neville had working-class roots. And he had affection for working-class families who couldn't always afford to go to the theatre.

Second - he knew cabbies would talk up the shows to passengers.

This simple idea had all the earmarks of a smart word-of-mouth campaign.

It was meaningful. It was unusual. It was unique to the theatre. And it was repeatable. Every time a new show opened, Neville would give tickets to the cabbies.

That word-of-mouth idea had a remarkable effect on the Neptune Theatre.

Before long, the deficit was gone and subscriptions had doubled.


In Living Colour

One year at the Cannes Advertising Festival, a very smart advertising creative director from Istanbul talked about her building client.

The builder was developing a huge project that was being marketed as "Artful Living."

There were to be artful apartments, artful offices, artful galleries and an artful shopping mall.

In other words, all of these elements were going to be colourful with highly unique design aspects.

But the development was going to take two years to build, so it was imperative to maintain awareness in order to attract tenants during the construction phase.

Put another way, the site needed ongoing word-of-mouth.

So they did something very unusual. They created an "Artful Construction Site."

To do that, they painted the construction equipment wild colours.

Artful Construction. (Inspiration Room)

The typical grey cement trucks were painted pink, green and bright yellow. The giant excavators were covered in psychedelic blues, reds and oranges. Dreary dump trucks were infused with red and yellow stripes, purple polka dots and pink fuel tanks.

Each had the words "Artful Living" emblazoned on the sides.

Over the course of the construction period, every piece of heavy-duty equipment was transformed into a colourful design object by a group of graphic artists.

A print campaign was developed using photographs of the equipment and a video of the construction site went viral.

It was a brilliant idea because it let the public see the development's philosophy of 'artful living' at work.

The artful construction idea was covered in online blogs, magazines and national newspapers.

And that unique equipment ignited colourful chatter from the public for two years.

As advertising guru Sally Hogshead says, "Different is better than better."


Suggested reading to accompany this episode: Talk Triggers by Jay Baer and Daniel Lemin. An excellent book on word-of-mouth advertising.


For more stories about Word-of-Mouth Advertising, click or tap the "Listen" tab above to hear the full Under the Influence episode. You can also find us on the CBC Radio app or subscribe to our Podcast.


Under the Influence is recorded in the Terstream Mobile Recording studio - a 1969 Airstream trailer that's been restored and transformed into a studio on wheels. So host Terry O'Reilly can record the show wherever he goes.

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(Image Credit: Sidney O'Reilly)