HuHot Mongolian Grills’ Spiced-Up Grill Pass Promotion Increases Profits and Visits
Much like Genghis Khan unified the tribes of Mongolia and extended his empire across Asia to the Adriatic Sea, HuHot Mongolian Grill has expanded far beyond its Missoula, Mont. headquarters. And it expects its marketing efforts to help HuHot continue to do so.
“HuHot is a bold, exciting oasis in a desert of boring restaurant concepts,” reads the website of the chain with 64 restaurants in 12 states. “The fastest-growing Mongolian grill concept in the United States is moving forward with full-force.”
“Our branding efforts mirror Genghis Khan’s attitude toward the world … ripe for conquest. Like Genghis Khan viewed rival nations, we also look at our competition with confident disdain. These themes are carried throughout all of our marketing and are included in our in-store materials. Adults and kids, alike, find themselves caught up in the excitement with each visit to HuHot.”
So in order to move forward with its plan for conquest, the regional chain’s marketers created a new Grill Pass promotion program to entice diners and to increase sales during what’s normally a lull in business — the summer months when vacations keep a lot of people busy and away from their favorite dining spots.
That program, and the success it had, fits in with the restaurant chain’s plans to use branding and marketing to dominate the stir-fry universe.
Inception of the Grill Pass
Before the Grill Pass promotion program, HuHot offered “Christmas in July” gift cards that gave customers a $20 bonus on a $100 card.
“But after 10 years, the promotion was feeling stale for both employees and customers, alike,” reads the Paytronix case study that won HuHot the vendor’s 2019 Paytronix Loyalty Award for Marketing Innovation. “It was time to shake things up.”
Starting in July 2018, HuHot worked with a digital guest experience platform Paytronix to replace the former “Buy $100, get $20” Christmas in July promotion with the Grill Pass program, available through physical cards. During the month of July only, diners could pre-purchase 5, 11, or 25 entrées on passes at price points of $50, $100, and $200, respectively, and redeem them over the next six months.
Of course, like any well-executed campaign, testing prior to rollout was undertaken in order to be certain that the program would run smoothly. “Throughout the campaign period, Paytronix ran ad hoc queries, compiled results, and provided HuHot with insights and industry expertise to support their in-house team,” reads the Paytronix case study.
All the testing paid off.
Grill Pass purchases reached nearly $500,000, with an approximately 30% increase in visits and approximately 80% boost in spend during that first year, says HuHot Marketing SVP Stephanie Krause.
These results showed the HuHot marketing team that the Grill Pass program had room to grow and evolve, which is exactly what it did in 2019.
Evolution of the Grill Pass Promotion
For 2019, Grill Pass sales started earlier in the summer, shifting from July to June, with meal redemption required by the end of November.
Another change made in 2019 was the requirement that customers who wanted to purchase Grill Passes also would need to be members of the restaurant’s free-to-join loyalty program — HuHot Rewards.
This had not been a requirement during the 2018 Grill Pass program, but after HuHot noticed that 90% of Grill Pass buyers were members of HuHot Rewards, it only made sense to connect the programs.
One issue to address was the cards, because both the HuHot Rewards loyalty program and the Grill Pass program included physical cards in 2018. For 2019, Grill Passes were no longer issued on physical cards, and instead were added into HuHot Rewards accounts. This allowed diners to carry a single loyalty card, if they wanted to have a physical card.
Another advantage to having customers enrolled in HuHot Rewards regarding their Grill Passes is their ability to see their balances in the app or online. Adding another channel in which customers can interact with the Grill Pass program, Krause says the point-of-purchase software allows servers to print out balances for customers on their receipts, so they also can see the balances in-store.
Learning About Grill Pass Customers
Because the Grill Pass uses the same software from Paytronix as HuHot Rewards, employed since 2016, the restaurant gained much more customer data. While information such as email address, date of birth, and favorite store are collected upon sign up, the most valuable data that is currently collected is visit history.
According to Monica Minford, senior director of digital for HuHot, “Paytronix helps us track visit and spend so we can calculate incremental sales from promotions and target promotions based on guests’ behavior.”
“Previously, the gift card promotion had not been tied to loyalty, which prevented HuHot from obtaining that type of information,” explains Paytronix about what the switch from the previous “Christmas in July” card promotion to Grill Passes taught HuHot about its customers.
Krause says HuHot gained customer data because the Paytronix software captures their information at checkout, when customers provide their phone numbers.
“We ended up changing the promotion so guests had to be a HuHot Rewards member,” Krause explains about the 2019 Grill Passes.
“So that way, the grill meals could be loaded directly onto their account. And the way that most of the accounts are accessed in our restaurant is through our guests’ telephone numbers. So, a guest would provide their telephone number, the server could look [it] up in the point of sale [and say], ‘Oh, you have five grill meals left on your Grill Pass. Do you want to redeem one of those today?’ for example.
“[Switching the Grill Pass program to be 100% through the rewards program] allowed us to gain a lot of data about how frequently people are using the Grill Pass and how much more they’re spending.”
Many Customers Are Happy to Provide Data to Improve Their Experiences
Even at the start of the Grill Pass program in 2018, a fair amount of HuHot Rewards members took it upon themselves to ask servers to add the Grill Pass data to their HuHot Rewards accounts. This allowed them to keep track of the points they were earning, as well as their Grill Pass meals.
And speaking of marketing channels, customers had already been enrolling in the loyalty program online or via the app. Often, they did so after hearing about the Grill Pass from their servers, seeing in-store placards about the program, reading a promotion at the bottom of a receipt or viewing social media ads.
“The main route for people to enroll is online,” Krause emphasizes. “But there are still people that like having a physical card. So, we don’t tell them ‘no.’ … if people want a physical loyalty card, we give them one.”
Having the customer data also lets HuHot help customers, because the Grill Passes have an expiration date. And considering the 25 entrée pass costs $200, customers appreciate getting the triggered messages, no matter what level of grill meals they’ve purchased.
“We were able to send them reminder emails,” Krause says of Grill Pass-holders. “So, before the grill meals on the Grill Pass expired after six months, we were able to email them and say, ‘Hey, your Grill Pass is about to expire. Make sure you get in before that happens.’”
In 2018, HuHot couldn’t remind some card holders because they hadn’t provided their data to be opted in for email communications, as they would be in 2019 — when they were required to join HuHot Rewards in order to purchase the Grill Passes.
Promoting the Grill Pass
HuHot will start promoting the 2020 Grill Pass program in May, a week before it starts, then during all of June. Similar to the 2019 program, the passes will only be available for sale that month, and they will expire at the end of November.
If past purchase trends continue, customers will buy similar amounts of 5, 11, or 25 entrée Grill Passes.
“You know, it’s actually quite interesting,” Krause says, in regard to which entrée amounts were purchased. “It was almost an equal split. This applies to 2019 and 2018. Almost exactly a third, a third, a third for each denomination.”
As for last year’s promotions, on June 1, 2019, HuHot posted Grill Pass information and the
huhot.com/grillpass link on its Facebook page, placed a Grill Pass promo as its cover image a couple of days later, and posted a total of 27 times about the passes. (A dozen posts were about other items.)
Scrolling past its updates of “conquer bland” and “taste with no limits,” as well as updates about restaurants added to the HuHot “horde,” Facebook users find this post from June 19, 2019:
“Was your biggest regret of 2018 not getting a HuHot Grill Pass? Don’t make the same mistake twice! Get a Grill Pass added to your HuHot Rewards account during the month of June and be set until the end of November!”
In its optichannel campaign, HuHot linked its Facebook posts to its website and its Instagram account, in order to get the word out as much as possible, and make it easy for people to purchase.
In still more examples of HuHot’s optichannel prowess, the in-store print ads for Grill Passes directed diners to huhot.com/grillpass; receipts promoted the program to HuHot guests; HuHot Rewards members who hadn’t yet purchased passes received emails and in-app reminders for the program; and servers reminded customers personally.
Increase in Sales and Visits Makes the Grill Pass Promotion Program a Success
In 2019, HuHot’s Grill Pass sales increased more than 4% vs. 2018, Krause says. Those results surpassed those of 2018, and are:
- almost $230,000 in incremental sales;
- 49% increase in visits from Grill Pass purchasers during the redemption period; and
- Grill Pass subscribers spent 88% more than usual during the redemption period.
If HuHot Mongolian Grill continues to build on its previous successes with the Grill Pass in 2020, then its plan to dominate DIY grilled meat, noodle, veggie, and sauce consumption among stir fry-loving Americans also should be as successful as some of Genghis Khan’s conquests.