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November 29, 2023

Get involved. Engage locally. Be the Mayor.

with Eric Knott
COO at PDQ Restaurants

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Summary

Do you want to establish a strong presence for your restaurant within the local community, resulting in a surge of loyal customers? If so, we have the solution you’ve been looking for. Get ready to discover the key to building widespread brand recognition and customer loyalty in your area.

In this discussion, our guest, Eric Knott, the Chief Operating Officer of PDQ Restaurants, will reveal the strategies and tactics that will help you achieve this desired outcome. Prepare to unlock the secret to fostering a thriving community and reaping the benefits of increased customer engagement — be the mayor of your local area.

Giving back to the community. Eric stresses the importance of getting involved with local schools, churches, and organizations to build genuine relationships, not sales. Providing value through donations, catering, and volunteering makes your brand part of the community.

Empowering local innovation. Empower individual location operators to get creative and try new local marketing tactics. By allowing autonomy and learning from their efforts, you can unlock what resonates best in each unique community.

Staying persistent and consistent. Consistency and persistence are crucial for local marketing success. You have to continually engage with the same groups and community partners to stay top of mind. It takes time, but pays dividends.

Tune in to pick up more insights on empowering your team, giving back locally, and driving consistent engagement from an industry leader with proven local marketing success.

Key Takeaways

Here are some topics discussed in the episode:

  • Give your team autonomy to try new things and empower them to “be the mayor”
  • Get involved with local schools, churches, and colleges to build relationships
  • It takes consistency to stay top of mind in your community
  • Create a contact heatmap of local organizations you want to build relationships with
  • Hiring people connected to the local community leads to better marketing engagement

The most important thing, I think, truly is trying to be a part of that community that that restaurant is in.

ERIC KNOTT
Be the mayor: PDQ chicken sandwich
PDQ Chicken Sandwich from eatpdq.com

Resources

Other shout-outs

Transcript

Eric Knott
They got the community to come visit our restaurant, go through drive-through, because they knew that we were in chaos and that we needed the business. I mean, how powerful is that for a community to get together and come visit, you know, your restaurant for that?

Justin Ulrich
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.

What’s up and welcome to the Local Marketing Lab. Today’s guest is super exciting for me personally. Great, solid person. Met a few weeks ago at an event. He’s got more than 20 years focused on operations within the restaurant industry. He’s an avid golfer, a huge Niners fan, and loves long walks on the beach. He’s a chief operating officer at PDQ Restaurants, Eric Knott. Thank you for joining us in the lab, my friend.

Eric Knott
Thank you, Justin. It was an incredible time in Louisville, meeting you, hanging out with you guys. Yeah, you know, the long walks on the beach don’t happen as often as I would like them to. And unfortunately, after the last couple weeks, it’s been a hard road as a Niners fan. We started off well the first five weeks, but going into the buy this week, so I’m pretty hopeful we’ll come back and get to it. And the golfing, I love to play. I just really wish that I had more time to do it so I was better.

Justin Ulrich
Yeah, maybe you could spend more time in the sand traps. So it’s kind of golf and beach.

Eric Knott
Knock out both at one.

Justin Ulrich
Awesome. Well, you know, Eric, we’ve talked quite a bit, and being from Buffalo, we’re both actually from Buffalo area. I always try to find the best Buffalo chicken sandwich possible. And it’s tough, as you know. It’s like the sauce, the blue cheese, like, everything has to be on point. And I think I found it with your Buffy Bleu Sandwich. I get it quite often, and you guys absolutely nail it.

Eric Knott
It’s incredible. We launched that sandwich probably maybe three years after we started the concept and back in, I guess, end of 2010, it was a craze. The buffalo scene just. I mean, for me and you, it was always a thing, right? I mean, I grew up eating. You basically are born and buffalo sauce in your bottle when you’re an infant. 

We launched that, and it’s a very simple deal. It’s half buffalo, half blue cheese. We toss our tenders in it on a brioche bun with iceberg lettuce, and it just hits all the marks. But it’s very popular amongst the guests, for sure, and I’m glad that you enjoy it. So quick question, though. Anchor Bar or Duffs for you? Which one?

Justin Ulrich
Say it again.

Eric Knott
Anchor Bar or Duffs? Which one has the best?

Justin Ulrich
Oh, I don’t know. It’s been a while, but probably Anchor Bar.

Eric Knott
Yeah, me too. Me too. Same.

Justin Ulrich
Yeah. Honestly, I don’t get back as much as I’d like to, but the food scene there is incredible. I just remember there being. So, I was there until I was about 20. And those last couple of years, it was like you had the freedom to go and try your own things as you’re driving and everything like that. And there’s a lot of good restaurants back there.

Eric Knott
Yeah, I have this rule. I only go back between May and September.

Justin Ulrich
For good reason. That’s why I moved to North Carolina. Oh, man. So you’ve been there at PDQ for 13 years now and you were at Outback for six. So over the years of your experience, you’ve seen a lot, you’ve done a lot. What do you think is the most important aspect of local marketing?

Eric Knott
All right, well, Outback was actually twelve, I think. Yeah, there you go. Years there. I guess we’ll start from the beginning. Outback in the early days, late ‘90s, 2000’s, and probably before I was there, they really figured out the overall strategy behind having a GM operator managing partner at Outback – it was called managing partner – here at PDQ, as we call operating director. 

But they figured out this unique niche to where they could find somebody, put them in place for five years under contract. And from a grassroots, you know, everybody’s got a different term, local store marketing, grassroots. But the overall objective there was that they became the mayor of that community. 

And over the years, I remember doing everything from golf tournaments to cooking on site at middle schools or elementary schools or raising funds for this cause or that cause. And we were so successful with that over at OSI back then that it was already ingrained in our DNA. I remember being a line cook and going off on these events and having so much fun. Fast forward five, six years. And when I became a managing partner, it was one of the most fun things that we had within our culture is to be actively involved in the community. 

So when we started up PDQ, a lot of us came over from, whether it be OSI, either Outback or Carrabba’s or Bonefish or whatever the case, and it was so ingrained in our DNA that it just was natural. And however, it’s different businesses, right? I mean, you’ve got a casual dining business with Outback and now quick service with PDQ. 

But to be honest, there’s a lot more opportunity in this segment because quite frankly, there’s not a lot of QSRs that are doing these community-driven events, fundraisers, et cetera. And there may be that I’m not aware of, but my point of it is we have much younger consumer, right? And you get a lot of elementary kids and middle school kids, high school kids, et cetera. So it really opens up doors that weren’t there at Outback. 

But a long winded answer to your question. I know, Justin, I can get lengthy, but the most important thing, I think, truly is trying to be a part of that community that that restaurant is in. So we have 62 today, and we treat each one like it’s its own restaurant. 

So that local operator, they want every guest to come in and know them by name. They’re coming to PDQ, but one of the reasons they’re coming is because they know who Eric is or they know who Justin is because they saw me at a Little League game last week, or I ran into them at the dentist office last week, or whatever the case may be. I think being the mayor and being very active in the community is probably the answer that I would. The short answer I would give you.

Justin Ulrich
Yeah, for sure. I love that. Comparing it to the mayor, it makes total sense. You want to get in front of as many people as possible, shake as many hands as possible, all while getting your product out there in a way that ties to things that people love to do. 

Little League games. They’re associating that with your brand, the memories with their kids associated with your brand, and enjoying the really, really good suggestion there. What are some things that you’ve tried maybe a little more specifically, or maybe you’ve seen tried from some of your operators that have worked really successfully?

Eric Knott
Yeah. So that list is very long. I’ll just run through a few of the most successful. So we do differently with different organizations. 

So with schools, a lot of schools, they have a lot of things going on, and as you know, they’re underfunded. Right. So we try our best to be involved with those schools. So we do things from spirit nights or spirit days where that’s all the teachers and parents have to do, is just come have a meal with us and we’ll kick you back upwards of 20% of whatever the sales are for that day in that location. Or we go out and do a PTA meeting and we cater their lunch, and they give us five minutes to talk about the brand. 

And then you go over to the churches, right? Again, churches, they have small, big congregations. They’re people that are in your community. They do all types of things on a weekly basis, whether that’s youth groups things or on Sundays. They have typically places where kids can go away and have a little group session, right? While the parents are doing so. With churches, there’s a lot that you can get involved with. 

And then you get upwards in the higher level education, schools and things. When you get into colleges. I mean, we’ve got an operator over in Gainesville, Florida, that I joke around you know. He basically, I think, is employed by the University of Florida. As much as he’s on that campus doing something, whether it’s the fraternities, sororities, baseball, basketball, gymnastics, the band, like everything, everybody knows who he is. 

But the unique thing here is that we’ve allowed over a decade now of highly intelligent operators to try things and then give us feedback and tell us what actually works and what they’ve had success and what they haven’t. And we’ve got a team here at the office, our marketing team, and we’ve got a young lady that does a really good job of taking all of that information from 60 people over ten years and putting it into this playbook that we call basically our grassroots marketing playbook. 

And then what we do is if we have to hire someone that’s outside of the PDQ brand to run one of these restaurants, they go through training and education on this side of the business.

Justin Ulrich
No, that’s very cool. So I like that you give free rein to your operators. It’s like you said, you hire smart people, let them go and try things. And I think the important part there is to try. I think for those who are listening, don’t let yourself get in the way of your own success. You’re not going to find out what works with your audience unless you’re out there trying new things and innovating. You’re going to have a playbook of things that work really well. And then you’re also going to hear suggestions from other folks, your counterparts at different locations, things that work well, try what they’re doing, but also don’t be afraid to try what maybe nobody’s done yet. You never know what you’re going to stumble into.

Eric Knott
Well, don’t fear failure, right? I mean, failure is just an opportunity to do it again and do it better right at the end of the day, and you never know who you’re going to meet and what that may end up turning into. You may go to a Little League game where there’s not a whole lot of people interested in what you’re doing or what’s going on, but you happen to just meet one person that runs an organization that you’re going to work with and is going to be wildly successful. 

So it’s not necessarily all about every single action that you do, getting some type of either relationship or return on. Yeah, I think one of the biggest probably missteps with getting involved with local grassroots is that thinking that because I do this, I should get this and that should never be the leading indicator of how successful you are. Your goal should really just be a part of the community, be there for when they need you and I guarantee you they will support your business.

Justin Ulrich
100%. Yes, exactly right. It’s never one and done. It’s the same thing from a Marketing standpoint. Like if I’m running a campaign or trying to nurture folks, it’s never just one touch and I sell the deal. You have to be in constant communication. You have to stay top of mind through constant engagement. 

So when they’re ready to make the choice to go get something to eat, for example, they think of PDQ because they’ve seen you 20 times at the different events and they’ve had your free samples or their kids like the food or whatever. The other thing that I do like about PDQ is we’ve got four kiddos and it’s a place where we can go and everybody’s happy, everybody has an option. And it’s not like pulling teeth trying to get the kids to eat something they don’t want to eat.

Eric Knott
As long as everybody likes chicken, we’ve got you covered.

Justin Ulrich
That’s right.

Eric Knott
I do think – you get a lot of no’s. Right? I mean, it’s not giving up, right? I mean, some people have budgets, some people have calendars. It’s not always going to happen when you want it to happen. And I think that that’s very important to realize. 

There’s two examples of how local store marketing can actually help your business during COVID Right. Obviously all of us were just what are we going to do? How are we going to stay in bit? We have 3000 team members to worry about that. You need to stay employed. As everybody knows, it was mass chaos. But that same restaurant I was referring to in Gainesville, the community actually got together and threw a spirit night for us. They got the community to come visit our restaurant, go through drive through, because they knew that we were in chaos. We needed the business. 

I mean, how powerful is that for a community to get together and come know your restaurant for? Shocked. I was shocked. 

And then the other example is you think about some tragedy that may happen, right? As everybody knows in Florida we’re threatened by hurricanes on a yearly basis, right? And a year and a half ago we had a pretty bad one and we reached out to all the utility guys and the rescue teams and you just want to be involved. They’re away from their family. They’re gone for weeks and fed them and made sure they had water and food. We have power, so if you want a place, come hang out, get away for a little bit. 

But anyway, that was just out of goodwill. And now every year after that, so it’s been two years. All those electrical utility companies, they call us every time there’s a scare, like, hey, we want to bring 200 people in. Is that okay? You know, so again – relationships.

Justin Ulrich
Yeah, very good, man. Those are good examples. What are some things for someone who may be struggling to hit the goals of their business, whether they’re trying to drive traffic or drive revenue, drive online orders, whatever, what are some things that you might suggest that they could try doing today or this week to start turning that trend around?

Eric Knott
Well, so you have to start somewhere. And it can be overwhelming, I think, for most people, because it’s like, oh, well, he talked about schools and churches and colleges and this, and like, “Oh, my God, where do I start?” 

Yeah, you got to start by organizing yourself. I think that nowadays there’s incredible information out there online. If you’re like, “Oh, how do I contact this high school? I can’t just show up because they’re not going to let me.”

Justin Ulrich
Who’s this weirdo?

Eric Knott
Yeah, exactly. So I think probably getting a contact list, like a heat map together. Okay. So within my business, within 5 miles, I have three high schools, I have four middle schools, I have two elementary schools. I have these churches. And then you look them up online, all online. All the contact info is there. So you start organizing, okay, these are the churches, schools, and large businesses I want to go to. Here’s their contact information. 

And then I start reaching out, and it’s not like, hey, would you like the place at catering order? You can’t start there, right? Like, hey, I’ve noticed you’re only a mile and a half from me. We do a ton of partnerships, and we just really want to be involved. And if you have anything coming up, right, just think of me, and I’d love to meet you either there or at my restaurant, et cetera. 

But I think it starts just by getting out of your comfort zone, organizing what you want to go after or who you want to have a partnership with. And then don’t be salesy. You can’t be salesy. Again, that’s not the goal here. The goal is to build a relationship. If you send a note or call 100 people, you should be happy if one person gets back to you. One person. And that’s progress. Right? 

So then tomorrow I may reach out to 100 more next day, 100 more. And over time, I’m going to have that one, that one, and keep building. And guess what? Once I get somebody who interacts with me and comes and we share a meal together and we talk about what PDQ is all about or what the organization is all about, next thing you know, they’re going to send people to me, they’re going to be an ambassador. 

They’re going to say, Justin, you really got to talk to Eric at PDQ. So when you get peer to peer, start getting on board with what you’re doing, then that hundred contacts a day can start to slow down a bit because you’re filling your time with people that want to be involved with you.

Justin Ulrich
Yeah, very good. And it doesn’t have to be contacts just over the phone or over email. When you’re out and about, make a concerted effort to stop into certain places. If you’re organized and you have your list, making those stops is going to be a lot more easy and organic and fall into your day-to-day than it would otherwise.

Eric Knott
Yeah, and we’ll do treats, too. Who wouldn’t want some fresh baked cookies or something to have a five minute conversation about PDQ, right? You got to have a little bit.

Justin Ulrich
Cookies and a conversation about chicken.

Eric Knott
Who’s going to say no?

Justin Ulrich
I’m sure you notice what other people are doing. If you’re a great operator, you’re going to keep your eyes out. What are some folks out there, you think, that are crushing it from a local marketing perspective? And why do you think that?

Eric Knott
Yeah, there’s a few brands and I think more regional. Right. There’s a burger chain called Arnold’s out of lower South Carolina that they only have seven or eight, but they are so ingrained with that community there that people will not go to any other burger place other than that, but that place also they’ve been doing it for 30 years. For 30 years they’ve been doing this. If you are a burger chain and you’re trying to go into that market, good luck, because those people are not going away from there. 

I think our biggest competitor does a really good job. I give credit where credits do. I mean, a lot of people probably wouldn’t do that, but Chick-Fil-A does a fantastic job of not only the local stuff, but really getting involved, um, their team members involved with doing that. 

We’ve got a sister concept, Glory Days, that does a great job there in Virginia. And, you know, I think that when you get know, it’s very difficult to keep that same culture. And I give a shout out back to Outback and what they created there because getting over 1500 units and still being able to keep that culture, I think goes back to what they did with that store-level operator.

Justin Ulrich
Yeah, it is tough to keep anything around from a culture standpoint as you grow, but if you can do it, good on you, it’s incredible. You just win over not only your community, but there’s just the loyalty of everyone that you have within your organization. And it’s just like they’re avid, I guess, advocates of you and want to stick around and want to see you succeed and work hard for you.

Eric Knott
Well, to your point, it’s a big culture piece too. It probably has gotten even more important over the last five years where the next generation really wants to be involved with things that matter. So when you go and you’re helping schools and churches and things like that help from like a retention standpoint, right? 

People don’t necessarily go after, I’m going to make a dollar more an hour if I go over here. But you know what? These guys really care about the culture. They care about the community that they’re in. So it helps with that too.

Justin Ulrich
100%. Hey, so earlier we’ve talked a little bit about how you were a Bills fan growing up and then no longer. To Bills fans, it’s a little sacrilegious.

Eric Knott
I know. All right, so first of all, let me start out with the Bills are still number two on my list. I’d be disowned from my family if I didn’t say that very clearly, but I was really getting into sports around late ’80s, early ‘90s, and it was disheartening watching four Super Bowl appearances and losing four times in a row that as a younger sports advocate, I said, I can’t do it anymore.

Justin Ulrich
Same.

Eric Knott
But no, the funny part is I was young, so it’s like, oh, let’s pick the best team at the time. And that was the Niners – hey, Joe Montana and Rice and then converted Steve Roung, just, you know, it’s an epic time for them. So it’s, it’s funny to me. You know, my family barely talks to me because I don’t root for the Bills every time that they play, but I still go back once a year and go to one Bills game. 

That’s like the consolation to stay in the family is you still have to show up. And by the way, they dress me in Bill’s gear and it’s a whole fun deal. The only time I won’t do is if they play the Niners. That’s it.

Justin Ulrich
Yeah, that makes sense.

Eric Knott
Maybe we see a Bills Niners Super bowl one day. That’d be great.

Justin Ulrich
That would be pretty cool. That’d be pretty cool. Yeah. I had the same experience growing up with Jim Kelly. It was, ah, kind of ruined it for me. And I honestly don’t even follow football that much anymore now. All because of Jim Kelly. 

Eric Knott
He scared you away! 

Justin Ulrich
Yeah. Well, you know what? I’m surprised that you haven’t been scared away from golf, because, as you say, you’re an avid golfer, but it seems to me like you can never hit the ball. You’re just striking divots.

Eric Knott
That’s awesome right there. That is great. I need this photo. You have to send me this photo. 

Justin Ulrich
For sure. 

Eric Knott
I’m gonna blow it up. Put it next to Petey behind me. 

Justin Ulrich
That’s right. The only way that you can replace these divots is if you actually know how to lay sod.

Eric Knott
That is awesome. That is great.

Justin Ulrich
Well, cool, man. Hey, it was a lot of fun having you in the lab. Where can our listeners follow you?

Eric Knott
No. I appreciate it. Thanks so much, Justin.

Justin Ulrich
Yeah, you bet. Where can they follow you on social media? Where’s your best presence?

Eric Knott
Yeah, I would say, you know, obviously, we’re active on Facebook, TikTok, Instagram, LinkedIn, it’s all @PDQ. So right now, probably focused a lot on TikTok and Instagram. That’s pretty popular.

Justin Ulrich
Very cool. Yeah, those are good channels in the restaurant industry.

Eric Knott
Growing up in ‘80s and ‘90s, though I don’t necessarily – I’m not as active on those things. 

Justin Ulrich
Same with me, man. I don’t have a TikTok account. 

Eric Knott
Good for you. 

Justin Ulrich
I’m in marketing and I don’t have a TikTok. I actually stay away from a lot of social media other than LinkedIn. There’s a lot to do and it sucks you in, man. It takes a lot of time. So with the four kiddos, I try to stay focused with them. 

Eric Knott
Monitor their screen time. 

Justin Ulrich
That’s right, because I know they’re on it. Well, very cool, man. Hey, if you get a chance, check out PDQ, pick up their Buffy Bleu Sandwich. You will not be disappointed. It might make you want to move to Buffalo, because it is official. Eric, it was a ton of fun having you on the lab today. Thanks for joining us.

Eric Knott
Thanks, Justin. Appreciate it.

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.

Eric Knott

COO at PDQ Restaurants

Meet Eric Knott

Eric Knott, the Chief Operating Officer at PDQ Restaurants, has over 20 years of experience in the restaurant industry. He is a seasoned professional who has successfully navigated the operations of PDQ for 13 years and spent 10+ years at Outback prior to that. Not only is he a seasoned professional, but he’s also an avid golfer and a die-hard Niners fan.

Eric’s focus on local marketing and community involvement has been a key factor in PDQ’s success. Through grassroots initiatives and strategic partnerships, he has built strong brand recognition and customer loyalty within the local communities PDQ serves.

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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