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October 18, 2023

5 impactful community engagement tips

with Wade Allen
EVP of Strategic Growth at Costa Vida

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In this episode of The Local Marketing Lab, you’ll join host Justin Ulrich as he sits down with Wade Allen, EVP of Strategic Growth at Costa Vida. Wade shares his insights and experiences on the power of local marketing. He provides 5 impactful community engagement tips businesses can use to effectively connect with their target audience. Some of the key themes include:

Local marketing relevance is an instrumental aspect that aids businesses in forging an authentic bond with their customers. National brands often find staying relevant challenging since local brands can tailor their approaches to resonate more with their clientele. Businesses should strive to maximize local relevance to enhance their top-line sales and margins, ultimately establishing a stronger brand presence and fostering customer loyalty.

Customer Relationship Marketing (CRM) programs afford businesses an avenue for personalized marketing. By deploying these programs, restaurants, for example, can harness digital platforms to understand their customers better — unveiling insights about their preferences, purchasing history, and behavior. It’s the kind of knowledge that allows for the creation of targeted marketing campaigns that resonate deeply with customers, thereby boosting loyalty and repeat visits.

Community engagement can go a long way for fortifying connections and enticing more visits. Get creative with grassroots marketing like surprising local schools or groups with food. Partner with local influencers and equities like sports teams to tap into their built-in audiences. Instead of costly TV advertising, focus on local marketing and empower your staff to get involved in the community.

Key Takeaways

Wade Allen shares 5 local community engagement tips to drive connection, growth, and revenue. Learn how to:

  • Stay relevant to your target audience’s interests and needs
  • Personalize your marketing messages and offers through CRM programs
  • Use digital channels to communicate and engage with your customers
  • Segment messaging and tailor offers to reach different segments of your audience
  • Build brand presence through grassroots marketing and community engagement

Instead of spending hundreds of millions of dollars on wasted big brand advertising, go spend the money in the community.

Community engagement tips: Costa Vida serves in their local community


  • Follow Wade Allen on LinkedIn.
  • Check out Costa Vida and find a location near you.
  • Wade is an advisor on the food tech council for Lunchbox — learn how Lunchbox’s platform makes it easy for ordering, loyalty, and order aggregation.

Other shout-outs


Justin Ulrich
So I got a new cool microphone that I think is cool and I thought the kids might think I was cool, but they just think I’m a turd dad so…

What’s up everyone, and welcome to the Local Marketing Lab, where you get real-world insights from industry pros to help you drive local revenue and local for growth. This podcast is brought to you by Evocalize – digital marketing tools powered by local data that automatically work where and when your locations need it most. Learn more at evocalize.com.

Well, what’s up, everyone, and welcome to the Local Marketing Lab. Today with us, we have an awesome guest with a really exciting background. He’s got over 22 years in the restaurant industry, focused mainly on the digital guest experience, mostly under Brinker International. But now he’s in a new role, which is pretty exciting. He’s a board advisor for Ovation, Milagro Corporation, and Lunchbox. He’s a huge dog lover and a family man and the EVP of Strategic Growth at Costa Vida. Wade Allen, thanks for joining us in the lab, my friend.

Wade Allen
Hey, thanks, Justin. It’s good to be here, man. I’m super excited.

Justin Ulrich
You bet. I have to say, from a personal standpoint, I am a massive fan of Costa Vida. Back in 2013, I worked at a company in southern Denver, and Costa Vida opened up, and I literally went there for probably two years straight, three times a week at least, because it was so close, so convenient. Sweet pork burrito. 

I didn’t care if it made me tired toward the end of the day. I would eat the whole thing, and then I love the brand, love the laid back vibe, and with four kiddos myself, it’s just a nice, family friendly place where there’s something on the menu for everybody, which is great.

Wade Allen
Yeah, I love to hear that. My career has been in different restaurant spaces, but when having the chance to come to Costa was such an amazing experience, I love the product. I love the quality of the ingredients. I love the way they do the fast casual model. 

I love to hear that because that’s exactly how I feel. Like, I eat there, literally, I eat there twice a week, and I love the brand. I knew the brand because I had grown up close to the brand and then left for years. And so to come back to it was like coming home.

Justin Ulrich
It was so very cool. Very cool. So some of our listeners just before we dive in too much, but some of our listeners may not know who Brinker is. So I just want to give a quick run that so they have multiple brands underneath their umbrella, and a bunch of them you helped to manage the digital experience for, like, Chili’s Maggianos. It’s Just Wings. Those are some brands that they may have heard of. 

And the reason why I mentioned that is just to kind of tee up that you’ve got lots of experience testing what works and what doesn’t across many brands, which is what got me really excited about having you on as a guest, because I know you’d have some great insights for our listeners. 

But given all the things that you’ve tested, all the things you’ve done from a digital guest experience perspective, or from a local marketing perspective, what do you think is the most important aspect of marketing at a local level?

Wade Allen
Yeah, that’s a great question. That’s hard. 20 some odd years in this industry and touching different restaurant brands over this career, I have come to the conclusion. So one, I would say there’s a couple of key things that have to happen. 

Local marketing is an absolutely critical piece of your marketing portfolio, and it’s really about relevance. When I thought about how we’ve actually made an impact, it’s really about becoming relevant in certain markets because big brands struggle with relevance because they’re big, they’re broad, they’re national chains, and you don’t really have a real tight connection with them. 

The local brands tend to do better at the local marketing because it’s my local bob’s diner, it’s my local Costa, it’s my local, and I know the guys who started it, or I know friends who work there, or I have a connection. 

I think the biggest aspect I’ve seen that has continued to deliver top line sales and if it’s done right, great margins is a CRM or customer relationship marketing program that’s really tailored to the local restaurants. 

Because today we all live on our devices. 25 years, 30 years ago, it was direct marketing pieces scattered in an area that were very targeted to a person about their kind of preferences and who they were. Today we’ve taken that online. And I think one of the most powerful things in my career has been local marketing, but using the channels of digital to be super helpful. 

So I know Justin, I know he’s a family guy, I know he comes to Costa Vida twice a week. I know what items he gets. I know that he started at this date, we hadn’t seen him before, and now we do see him. So how can I convince him to try one more thing on the menu? Or can I get him back if I haven’t seen him, think of his recency starts to fall off. Can I bring it back? 

So from a marketing aspect of local level, I think the relevance play of knowing your guests better than anybody else is how you win, how you get it to scale is really through that digital channel of email, text, or some kind of direct communication, right, to convince you to come back.

Justin Ulrich
Very good points. So the thing that comes to mind as you’re talking about your audience and you have your CRM, you have all this data at a local level that they can then take and segment. And then based on how you’ve segmented your audience is you can push different offers, different messaging, whatever it may be. 

So, like, you’re saying, if you have someone who has children, you could then push the messaging around. Kids eat free, or whatever it might be. Whereas you don’t want to start slamming those without children with the same messaging because then you come off as disconnected and get lost to your customer base.

Wade Allen
That’s right. You don’t know me if you don’t know that I don’t have kids or I do have kids, or you’re telling me that you have alcohol and I don’t drink. And it’s a myth.

Justin Ulrich

Wade Allen
So relevancy in message is critical. And, I mean, we also talk about margin accretive offers. So not everybody needs an offer. Some people are enticed come back because they have an offer. 

Other people just want to know that you have new food or that you have something that they haven’t tried or that there’s a holiday of the National Queso Day. Hey, it is National Queso day. I should go to Costa because I love queso. Right. 

So being in that conversation and doing that kind of work is what’s really powerful because you’ll get the top line sales and you won’t have to offer or erode your margins to every customer that walks in the door.

Justin Ulrich
I love that. Yeah. And promoting the right stuff to also protect your margins. You don’t want to promote your high dollar or high cost items. We had an example one time on one of the shows where I talk about Wing Wednesday, and like, chicken wing costs is like, through the roof right now, and running promo on that is just you’re losing. You’re driving traffic, but you’re losing with every person that comes in. 

So what are some things that you’ve seen done recently? Maybe it’s through maybe it’s from corporate leveraging the data to do things at a local level. Or maybe it’s from your local folks, operators that are running things in their own. What have you seen lately that’s worked well?

Wade Allen
Well, we talked about CRM, and I do believe that’s a powerhouse. If you’ve had a tap that yet and you’re a restaurant operator or even a retailer, that’s something that you’ve got to get your arm around to do that. 

I actually think some of the best local marketing outside of the CRM space right. Has been – I’m a huge fan of restaurants that tap into other people’s equity. 

So I’m a huge BYU guy. I went there. That was my alma mater. I watch what Cosmo does. Right. And if you don’t know who Cosmo Cougar is, you should, because he’s got millions and millions of followers on Instagram. He’s out there dancing with the Cougaretts. He’s one of the top mascots in the country as far as college football. 

But tethering an equity to him from a Costa Vida standpoint has been hugely material for us because if he can do a stunt that’s sponsored by Costa Vida and we can get our brand next to him, there’s a lot of local marketing push that gets pushed around. 

That because the little guys that are here playing football at the local high school and Cosmo shows up and we’re associated with Cosmo, they’re thinking, hey, I’m going to go to Costa Vida. Costa Vida, there’s a tie there. 

So I love this local marketing element of schools with colleges, with sporting events, with other things that have equities in the community and then tethering your brand to those equities we talked about. 

Like, here’s one: Habitat for Humanity, right? Builders that are helping people that don’t have a shelter or home to live in, Costa feeds those people. Our brand will go and just feed those workers because the equity that we get from being associated with doing the right thing right? It’s just so good. We’re doing the right thing. I love that, right? 

And I’ve seen that Chick-Fil-A does that all the time. They have a great equity, but they’ll also find these elements to show kindness and give back. They’ll tether their equity with some of the brand and then it’s even more powerful local level. So I think that’s one that I’ve been super impressed with, whether it’s Chick-Fil-A, whether it’s Texas Roadhouse, whether it’s Costa that we’re doing here, I love that tethering equities to local stuff and local events.

Justin Ulrich
It does a really good job of humanizing the brand and getting your audience to connect with a brand. So it’s no longer a company or a restaurant they’re connecting with. It’s like it’s truly a brand that they can connect with. They get behind the values, they buy into the why, behind the things that you’re doing. And you create strong bonds of loyalty through that type of marketing.

Wade Allen
Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely.

Justin Ulrich
Very good. Very good examples. If you were to give some advice to those or maybe suggestions to those who may be struggling to try to get their local marketing going or they don’t know where to start, what would you suggest is something they could do this week or maybe even today to try to get momentum going the right direction?

Wade Allen
Yeah, I love that question because I think you got to get scrappy, right? I grew up in a time in the late, early 90s or let’s see, late 90s, early 2000s when I was in college and we called it guerrilla marketing. Put boots on the street, the best thing you could do in world today, take an iPhone and just record it, right? 

Because if you’re out there, grab if you own a chicken wing company or you own a burger company, grab a box of burgers, go to the local high school band practice and just hand out the and then have somebody record it. Record the whole experience. It’s a surprise and delight. They’re super excited. The high school kids are giving high fives. They’re eating burgers, and they’re putting their band instruments down. 

You got all that footage now in social that you can go back and push to your platforms to tell them what you did and what’s going on. That kind of momentum is easy as an iPhone, and every restaurantor has food they can give away. Yeah, it’s a little bit of a comp expense, but it’ll be 100 times worth it because you’ll start to establish yourself as the brand that surprises and delights. 

And everybody knows that kids are some of the biggest decision makers when it comes to families and to moms and dads. And so if you want to tap into something, I think that’s something you can do tomorrow, right? Just get in your car, grab the burritos, run down to the local high school event, hand them out, film it and then get it on social media.

Justin Ulrich
100%. So I’ve had multiple guests that have all said something very similar, and it’s true because it’s like you said, everyone has a phone in their pocket. There’s no reason why you shouldn’t be able to record what it is that you’re doing and tell the story. 

And the other cool thing is you have multiple people within your organization who all have different stories to tell, whether they’re showing the process of something behind the scenes or they’re doing some surprise and delight. And all that content that you capture, you could then parse out and create little derivative pieces from it and get even more from it. More juice from the squeeze.

Wade Allen
Yeah. It’s a gift that keeps on giving, because even just an hour event of that, you can get so much footage that you can then go back and use for all sorts of different parts of your social campaigns, your email campaigns, anything you’re going to grow in the future. Create a video that you put out there. Right.

Justin Ulrich
It’s all great content, and it’s authentic, too, which is great. A lot of times I’m guilty of it. I do videos like this, and I edit out the ‘ums’ and ‘uhs’ and the ‘sometimes’ because I just feel like a ding dong because there’s so many of them. But at the end of the day, it’s like we’re putting ourselves out there. And it’s authentic conversation. It’s content that people like and engage with and enjoy. It’s the same thing that goes for your restaurant.

Wade Allen
And if we’ve learned anything over the course of the last couple of years is Gen Z and Gen Y. They don’t trust advertising. They just don’t. That’s why TV advertising is struggling, because it’s so polished and so fake. 

Right now, I’m seeing lawsuits in the restaurant industry, in the big players saying, what you gave me does not match your advertising, and therefore it’s worth. I’m being deceived as an individual, and so the authenticity of doing a good deed by giving out food and getting that content, it resonates with that younger audience. And that’s the audience that’s starting to be the most impactful with the spend capabilities, the total addressable market. That’s where you want to play.

Justin Ulrich
Yeah, for sure. And they have like you said, anyone has like, at that age group, you’re in areas where people can leave high school, they can go out to lunch, whatever. If they’re nearby, anyone could typically spend at least once on a fast casual meal as opposed to a huge, high cost product. So it’s like your audience, you can come way down market in terms of the folks that you’re marketing to. You have, like you said, a much larger TM. 

Very cool. It’s funny the irony of this generation wanting more authentic stuff at the same time when we have all these apps that have all the filters and everything, that.

Wade Allen
I watch people do crazy stuff on a filter and they post a picture, and I’m like, that’s not what they look like. They get mad when everything else in their life doesn’t look the way it’s supposed to look. It’s just completely ironic. But you’re like, okay, well, I guess that’s the world we live in, right?

Justin Ulrich
Yeah. If only Alanis Morissette were writing music today, you might catch that one.

Wade Allen
Yeah, maybe that’s what she was writing about. Who knows?

Justin Ulrich
That’s, right? Awesome. Well, so who would you give a shout out to if you admire someone who’s doing some really cool stuff from a local marketing standpoint? I know you mentioned like, Chick-Fil-A, but what’s another brand that you might want to call out to say, hey, these guys are doing some really.

Wade Allen
Cool stuff, so Roadhouse is great. I mean, those guys don’t spend a penny in big brand advertising. Everything is about the local spend, the local enticing kind of getting into the community. They’re not quite as visible as you’d see on some brands, but they’re there, right? And that’s where they spend. That’s where their GMs are empowered to do that kind of stuff. 

I actually think some of the better examples, and I don’t have exact names, but it’s generally the local guys that show up. They hit the rodeos, they hit the sporting event, they’re at the high school doing stuff. That’s where they know their bread and butter is. 

And so it’s hard to say that a particular restaurant, a small restaurant, because I give you an example, but I’m in Salt Lake City, and people watching this are going to be like, who the heck is R&R Barbecue? Or I don’t know anything about Mo’Bettahs. Right? But some of these, they do some phenomenal work because they don’t have the big budget, so they do the grassroots gorilla approach. 

And so I think the big brands could learn a ton. Instead of just spending hundreds of millions of dollars, dollars on wasted big brand advertising, go spend the money in the community. Right, just get down into the local Strawberry Days Rodeo in tiny town American Fork because that’s the customer that really matters. Those are people going to come back into that restaurant. The bigger brand stuff will work itself out as you win in the communities.

Justin Ulrich
So I literally just recorded an episode with Betsy Hamm, who’s the CEO of Duck Donuts, and she specifically called out Chick-Fil-A and local marketing at the local high school events being that they offer sandwiches and stuff whenever she goes to her daughter’s volleyball game, stuff like that. 

It really is it’s a no-brainer when you think about getting your product in front of people. When you have them all coming together in one area, you can partner with the schools and maybe with the booster groups or whatever to give them the product, and then the difference that they make off of the sale goes to the booster club. A lot of really creative stuff you can do when you’re still getting your product in front of people.

Wade Allen
I mean, that’s the big thing. I’ll go back to having worked for a big brand for multiple years, so focused on spending $100 million on television or blowing it on digital media in ads, they’re missing the whole point. If they had those budgets and they divided them and pushed them down to the restaurant and the restaurant GMs, or an individual was empowered to go plug themselves into every chamber of commerce, every rodeo, every high school, every college, their brand would be so much more powerful. 

And that’s Chick-Fil-A has kind of figured this out because, yeah, they have the big brand marketing, but they also know the power comes in the people who are actually eating the food. So, yeah, it can be wasted on TV, and that’s great. 

You have a nice big brand name out there, but it is wasted if it matters to I’m at my 8th grade son’s football game. I’m starving. My two other kids are hounding me to leave because they want to go eat. And there happens to be a lady standing there with a table full of Chick-Fil-A sandwiches that are selling them at $6 or $8. I’m in and I’m they hit me up when I needed. So, you know, there’s opportunity to the.

Justin Ulrich
Bigger brands on, you know, Wade, we’ll shift gears a little bit. I know a little bit earlier we talked about how you’re a family man, you’re a dog lover. But another thing that I found out about you is that not only do you like exercise, but a little birdie told me specifically you’d like to do CrossFit. Is that correct?

Wade Allen
Yeah, I’ve been a little bit nutty with that stuff for the past 15 years. It’s a passion. My younger sister well, I’ll just tell you, my two sisters, my older younger sister are college athletes and phenomenal, just phenomenal individuals in general, but great athletes. And my younger sister got me into it, and I love it, and I’ve just been doing it. 

And again, I’m not lifting 450 pounds or putting massive weight when I’m doing the snatches, but it keeps me feeling young. I love it. Keeps me engaged with my work. And I do it every morning religiously. I’m off every morning. Alarm goes off at 5:15, and I hit it by about 5:30. 

I’m in the gym, and I got an hour before then I have to get the little people up and get them off to school and play dad for a little while, and then I’ll run off to work. And that has kept me going every day, but I live for it because it’s my opportunity to really kind of get that stress and aggression out in the morning and then prepare for a great day.

Justin Ulrich
No, that’s awesome. I used to be in a good schedule like that, but then I fell off, and I need to get back into it. But, hey, I’ll get there for sure. But one thing I was able to dig up was this image of you. It looks like you can actually lift 450 pounds of these guns.

Wade Allen
I wish that’s how I look. That’s great. That’s pretty good. Who’s your photoshop guy? That’s fantastic.

Justin Ulrich

That is AI. But it’s just one of the fun things we like to do for our guests. So I’ll get this over to you, and you could use it however you want. A new profile pic, whatever.

Wade Allen
I love it. I’ll put that on my profile picture for sure. Wish I had guns and cannons like that. He’s built.

Justin Ulrich
I know it this dude’s winning medals. I figured I’d want to show you winning the cross, the games, but odly enough it’s really hard. Like, when you’re crafting an image like this, you have to give the system prompts, and even though you’re giving them very specific prompts, it’s really hard to depict something like the CrossFit Games. It took me forever. I was, like, an hour into it. I’m like, what is going on? But we got something.

Wade Allen
Tell me what tool you use. That’s fantastic.

Justin Ulrich
So cool. I can give you some good insights offline, for sure. It’s a bit of a process, but it’s definitely worth it.

Wade Allen
All right, cool.

Justin Ulrich
Well, awesome. Wade hey, it was a ton of fun having you in the lab. Before I let you go, would you mind just telling know how they can follow you? How can they follow, you know?

Wade Allen
So, for me personally, I’m a huge LinkedIn guy. That’s kind of the social media that I play, just because that’s become my career. And I love restaurants, but you can find me on LinkedIn, for sure. 

Costa. We’re on Instagram. We’re on Facebook. That’s kind of our big channels. We play a little bit in TikTok, but we’re starting to move into that space. But, yeah, hit us up on definitely Instagram. That’s kind of our big one. A little bit on Twitter, but mostly Instagram and Facebook yeah. And then costavida.com if that’s, you know, we got contacts there and you can see what the brand is all about.

Justin Ulrich
For sure. I would highly recommend you check them out. Your content’s actually really good. It’s very – branding wise, it’s on point. I was looking through your feed, and there’s a video. I can’t remember the athlete’s name, but it was on your Twitter.

Wade Allen
Damian Lillard, probably.

Justin Ulrich

Wade Allen
From Milwaukee, I think from Portland.

Justin Ulrich
What are you going to what are you doing to come to Utah? He’s like, the first thing I do is either traine or I go to Costa Vida. Sweet pork, baby.

Wade Allen
He’s a Weber State grad, I think, and he just found up the brand and yeah, he’s awesome. I love that guy. We love having him. He’s a huge brand advocate, and we don’t pay him anything. He’s just on brand. So that’s what – he’s the best.

Justin Ulrich
Very cool. Well, if you stop into Costa Vida, if you’re one of our listeners, you’ll see why he’s such a solid advocate. The food is fantastic. Sweet pork burrito. I’ll say it again, smothered with cheese. And I promise you, you will not be disappointed.

Wade Allen
It’ll change your life. It’ll change your life.

Justin Ulrich
It will change your life. You’ll develop an addiction very quickly. Hey, Wade, it was a ton of fun having you on today. Thanks for joining us in the lab.

Wade Allen
Awesome. Thanks, Justin. It’s great. Cool.

Justin Ulrich
As always, thanks for joining us in the local marketing lab. This podcast was sponsored by Evocalize. To learn more about how Evocalize can help you grow your business, visit evocalize.com

If you learned something from today’s episode, don’t forget to subscribe on your favorite podcast platform and follow us on LinkedIn and Facebook at evocalize. That’s Evocalize and on X at Evocalize. 

And remember, keep innovating and testing new things. You’ll never know what connects with your customers best unless you try. Until next time. Thanks for listening.

Wade Allen

EVP of Strategic Growth at Costa Vida

Meet Wade Allen

Wade Allen is a highly experienced professional in the restaurant industry, boasting an impressive career spanning over 22 years. His expertise lies in digital guest experiences, with a strong focus on the local marketing landscape.

Wade’s extensive background includes working with renowned brands such as Brinker International, where he managed the digital marketing efforts for popular establishments like Chili’s and Maggiano’s. Currently serving as the EVP of Strategic Growth at Costa Vida, Wade is deeply passionate about grassroots marketing and community engagement.

Host of the Local Marketing Lab podcast, Justin Ulrich - Headshot

Justin Ulrich

VP of Marketing at Evocalize

Meet the host

Justin is a seasoned marketing leader known for his creative expertise and innovative go-to-market strategies. With vast experience spanning both B2B and B2C landscapes, Justin has made his mark across a spectrum of industries including software, POS, restaurant, real estate, franchise, home services, telecom, and more.

Justin’s career is steeped in transformative strategies and impactful initiatives. With specialties ranging from channel marketing and brand management to demand generation, his strategic vision and execution have consistently translated into tangible results.

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