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Gauging Engagement | by Christopher Wolf

Bridging the Gap
Reaching the 46 million Hispanics living in America, who represent nearly $1 trillion in spending power, is as simple as being authentic.

The media keeps reminding everyone how important it is to reach out to the Hispanic market, but practical advice on how restaurants can appeal to this demographic is often lacking. The reality is that, because of all the differences in income, levels of acculturation, and countries of origin, Hispanic marketing can be daunting for even the most sophisticated and budget-rich marketers, given the higher risks of getting it wrong versus the price of doing nothing at all.

With all the potential complexity involved with reaching this target, it might come as a shock that some of the most important business-building strategies for appealing to America’s Hispanic Latino population aren’t expensive ones and don’t require menu or language accommodations. In fact, much of the advice is built on good old-fashioned principles that have been guiding restaurant owners for decades.

Know Your Trade Area It turns out the adage about the importance of location still applies. Given that the Hispanic population is not only growing, but also is spreading well beyond traditional border states, Susan Mitchell, a senior analyst at Mintel Research, advises that “the very first thing is to know your local demographics,” which can be accessed through the American Community Survey link at This is a distinction, Mitchell says, where the “smaller operator has a competitive advantage, since large restaurant chains generally don’t have the luxury of catering to demographic differences from unit to unit. Go and find out the local Hispanic population—where they live. How many Hispanics live in your area versus five years ago? Are they exploding, trickling in, or declining?” Mitchell says.

Tommy Thompson, president of Inspire!, a Dallas-based agency that specializes in Hispanic marketing for McDonald’s, takes this advice one step further, cautioning operators to “know the Hispanic consumer you’re going after. Be aware not to make generalizations,” since demographics can vary from zip code to zip code within one metro area, he says. Hispanic demographics in Garland, Texas, are different from those in Richardson, Texas, for example.

Join the Party While demographic sensitivity is important, Thompson cautions against getting too caught up in all the hype surrounding Hispanic insights and statistics. According to Thompson, some companies “are so focused on the financial gain of the segment and purchasing power, they forget at the end of the day it comes down to one person and their family. Instead of seeing it as an average check of $7 a visit, it’s Pablo the mechanic or the flower shop owner.” In other words, he says, “When you’re starting out and establishing a connection with this population, you are going for that handshake before you go for that sell.”

When you’re starting out and establishing a connection with this population, you are going for that handshake before you go for that sell.”

In practical terms, this boils down to an outreach and presence in the nearby Hispanic communities—a piece of advice that is often given but seldom followed up with specifics. Mitchell suggests actions as simple as setting up a food booth at the next Hispanic festival in your area, a place where Mitchell says “you can find the whole Hispanic community all at once.” In addition to showing interest in the local Hispanic population, it’s an opportunity to sample your menu items.

Another way to introduce your menu items, Mitchell says, is going to apartment complexes nearby and putting up a notice to invite people to come and sample items at your restaurant, or give them a special coupon.

Be Accommodating When it comes to appealing to the demographic in the restaurant itself, there may be some surprises. Some operators may assume that they have to add Mexican dishes to their menus to attract Hispanics.

It may sound counterintuitive, but all of the experts I spoke with reassured me that menu changes aren’t the key to success. Jim Stevens-Arce, vice president of Hispanic Marketing for Howard, Merrell & Partners, says many Mexicans perceived Mexican food as something they can cook at home—and do a better job at. Likewise, Thompson says that “a Hispanic consumer doesn’t want to eat a taco at McDonald’s—they want to eat a Big Mac. Just because a product is not Mexican doesn’t mean it’s not going to be relevant for the Mexican or Cuban population. The mistake is to try to be something you’re not.”

On the other hand, failing to properly accommodate large parties of Hispanic consumers could be the kiss of death. “They want to be treated with respect in the environment they’re in,” Thompson says. “Because they have large families, there’s a different dynamic that happens at the store level. They may hang out or need more tables and chairs. If you try to cut the visit short, they may see it as a sign of disrespect.”

Thompson says McDonald’s really understands what the customer is looking for. “The store environment allows these dynamics to take place,” he says. “There’s a bilingual crew with Hispanic managers in high positions not just working the grill. And the store layouts allow for a moment to yourself, taking a break with your family where an overprotective mom can let her guard down for a little while in a safe environment.”

Old School Social Media Everyone talks about Twitter or Facebook, but Hispanics are the original users of social media, according to Thompson: “Word of mouth in this community is huge. This has been going on in the Hispanic community for years.”

If a Hispanic employee is unhappy, chances are they’re not going to be inviting family and friends. On the other hand, employees can be an excellent way to reach out to the Hispanic community. “Chances are you have Hispanics working in the restaurant,” Thompson says. “Have them extend a special offer for their family, for the community—really grassroots.” He suggests offering them business cards with special promotions on them.

Stevens says that among Hispanic marketers, the common metaphor of America as a melting pot has been replaced with a salad bowl metaphor. All the ingredients maintain their own individual tastes, but, “When you put it all together you get something better.”

As director of strategic innovation for The Turover Straus Group, Christopher Wolf serves a wide range of manufacturing and retail-based clients seeking strategic and culinary innovations for consumers and the food industry.